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. This is her third post. If you’ve missed any, please check out her first post here and her second one here. I hope this one also blesses you.
Historical Research: Seventeen Questions
By Sarah Sundin
Over a decade ago, when I started my first World War II novel, I thought I just needed to read a history book, find some cute outfits for my heroine, and have her hum a popular tune.
You may now stop laughing.
Those basic research questions ended up raising more questions. I fell in love with the era and longed to bring it alive with thorough research.
Here are seventeen questions to ask. You will not need deep research in every area, but do be aware of them. Please don’t get overwhelmed, but let the story guide the research.
- Historical events?
You need to know the events occurring in your era. Even if your character isn’t directly involved, she will be affected. Be familiar with the preceding era too.
- Setting in historical context?
You may know your setting now—but what was it like then? Towns grow and shrink, businesses and streets change, ethnic groups come and go.
What was the literacy level? Who went to school and for how long? What did they study? If your character breaks the mold (the peasant who reads), how did this happen?
Although I’m a pharmacist, writing about a pharmacist for my next novel required research. How much education and training was required? What were the daily routines, tools and terminology used, outfits worn? How was the occupation perceived by others?
- Community Life?
What clubs and volunteer organizations were popular? What were race relations like? Class relations? It can be tricky to be historically accurate while not offending the modern reader.
- Religious Life?
How much did religion affect personal lives and the community? What denominations were in the region? What was the culture in the church—dress, order of service, behavior? Watch out for modern views here. Also be mindful of the Bible version used.
Nothing throws a reader out of a story faster than a modern name. Research common names, and if you must use something uncommon, justify it—and have other characters react appropriately. Also research customs of address (“Mrs. Smith” or “Mary”). In many cultures, only intimate friends used your first name. And a child would never call an adult by their first name.
What were homes like? Floor plans, heating/lighting, plumbing/water? What were the standards of cleanliness? What about wall coverings and furniture? What colors, prints, and styles were popular?
- Home Life?
What were the roles of men, women, and children? What were the rites of courtship and marriage? Views on childrearing? How about routines for cleaning and laundry?
What recipes and ingredients were used? How was food prepared? Where and when were meals eaten and how (manners, dishes)? Did people eat out?
How did people travel? Look into the specifics on wagons, carriages, trains, automobiles, planes. What was the route, how long did it take, and what was the travel experience?
Most historical writers adore this area. What were the distinctions between day and evening clothing, formal and informal? How about shoes, hats, gloves, jewelry, hairstyles, makeup? And don’t forget to clothe the men and children too.
How did people communicate over long distances? How long did letters take and how were they delivered? Did they have telegrams or telephones—how were they used?
How was news received? By couriers, newspapers, radio, movie newsreels, TV? How long did it take for people to learn about an event?
How did they spend free time? Music, books, magazines, plays, movies, museums, sports, dancing, games? Did people enjoy certain forms of entertainment—or shun them?
- Health Care
Your characters get sick and injured, don’t they? Good. How will you treat them? Who will treat them and where? What were common diseases? Did they understand the relationship between germs and disease?
Laws change, so be familiar with laws concerning crimes committed by or against your characters. Also understand the law enforcement, court, and prison systems if necessary.
This can seem overwhelming, but please be aware, because modern views can infect our fiction. And remember, you won’t need the answers to all these questions. Once again, story rules. Let the story guide you, and let research enrich your story and bring history to life. Your readers will love it.
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.