Multipublished award winning Christian historical author Sarah Sundin has agreed to do a series of posts on historical research. She will be here once a month for three months. Her first post is here. I hope this one also blesses you, and that you’ll look for the third one in October.
Historical Research – Lesser Known Sources
By Sarah Sundin
Dead end. When researching historical fiction, nothing is more frustrating. You’ve read every book you can find, scoured bibliographies, and Googled till you’re googly-eyed. You simply can’t find the information you need. Now what?
I faced this situation with my new World War II novel, With Every Letter. My first series, Wings of Glory, focused on the US Eighth Air Force and the Home Front. Both are documented in great detail. But for With Every Letter, I made my hero an aviation engineer and my heroine a flight nurse. Far less information is available about these specialties. I found bits and pieces, but not enough.
This is when you get creative and explore lesser-known resources. Here are some ideas to get your brain ticking.
Museums are chockfull of experts, and the variety of museums is boggling. A quick glance at the index of my AAA tour book showed air, automobile, maritime, and train museums. Mining, doll, wildlife, film, and surfing museums (yes, I live in California). Most museums have a section devoted to the history of their subject.
For a question about train lines for my first novel, A Distant Melody, I contacted a local train museum. I made a train aficionado’s day! And he made mine. Not only did he find the timetable for that exact day, but he even told me the color of the upholstery.
Some historical societies have fantastic websites and some have museums, but they all have a wealth of information. These groups can help you with historical maps, photos, journals, newspapers, and information on agriculture, industry, and culture. Often they sell books about the area.
National and State Parks
Parks are a great resource. For the Revolutionary War, think Minuteman National Park. For the Civil War, Gettysburg. For westward emigration, St. Louis’s Museum of Westward Expansion. Parks have experts and amazing bookstores—not only about the event commemorated at the park, but about the era. Even if you can’t visit, explore their websites and contact them.
Reenactment Groups and Sites
These guys know their stuff. Civil War reenactors can tell you exactly which button was worn by which regiment in which year. The staff at Plimouth Plantation knows how the Pilgrims grew crops. The staff at Old Sturbridge Village knows about spinning wool in New England in the 1830s.
When I couldn’t find out how the cargo door of a C-47 plane worked, I talked to my nephew, who belongs to a WWII reenactment group for the 82nd Airborne. He told me all I needed to know.
Period Newspapers and Magazines
If you have access to a period newspaper from the town you’re writing about, use it. Even a paper from somewhere in the region will help. You learn what people knew about events, when they knew it, and how they perceived these events. For my World War II novels, I found out what movies were playing, what was on the radio, how many ration points they needed to buy a pound of pork chops, and how to prepare newspapers for collection by the Boy Scouts. And the ads! Priceless gems!
Magazines from the era yield much of this information, but on a less local scale. Period media also gives you a feel for the language—the flow, phrasing, and vocabulary.
Perhaps I should put the librarian first. Librarians go to college to learn how to research. They have access to databases inaccessible to mere mortals. When you ask a question, they’re delighted to have a change in pace from handing out the bathroom key and shushing rowdy teenagers.
When all else fails, consider hiring an expert. After I left a comment on a research website, I was contacted by a professional researcher who specializes in World War II and medicine. He has access to the National Archives. I don’t. He lives in Washington DC. I don’t. For a remarkably reasonable fee, he found the entire unit history of the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, the setting for my next novel, On Distant Shores. I cried.
When you hit your dead end, look up and around. Get creative. Contact people and ask questions. Yes, even if you’re an introvert like me. Experts love to share what they know. Give them a chance to do so, and everyone benefits.
Sarah Sundin is the author of With Every Letter, the first book in the Wings of the Nightingale series, and also the Wings of Glory series (A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us, and Blue Skies Tomorrow). In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Sarah lives in northern California with her husband and three children. Please visit her at http://www.sarahsundin.com.