Imogen checking in here to say I’m so excited to introduce you all to Eva Seyler and how she researches her historical fiction books. I’m currently working on a historical fiction project so this post has been truly invaluble to me, and hopefully will be for you too! Anyway, enough of me…
I’ve been asked to write a guest post about my research process! I’ve written three books since late 2017 (two not being out yet), and all three of them have had their own individual research approach, so this will be fun.
I begin all my historical projects the same way: by reading all the relevant nonfiction I can get my hands on. I see what my library has, and once I’ve exhausted their supply, I’ll start trolling AbeBooks for used copies of books that look useful. One book invariably leads to another.
I’ve had to rein myself in a lot. I went absolutely nuts buying WWI books during the writing of The War in Our Hearts, and I justify it to myself by saying that I’ll be writing more about it in the future (I do have at least two other WWI-era stories in mind). So I’ve stopped buying books unless I literally cannot get them any other way, but even so, I do not necessarily read them all cover to cover. That would just be impossible! I’m a bit of an obsessive hurricane when I write, so unless the entire research book is relevant (and it’s often not), I come to a point during my projects where I’ll just go to the index and browse all the pages mentioning a certain topic and take notes that way.
Here are some example photos from the notebook in which I compiled all my trench warfare notes. For what it’s worth, doodling on my notes for TWIOH got me into the zone a bit, because Aveline (one of my main characters, a 13 year old orphan girl) draws on everything. It seemed to be what she’d have done. Also, have an exclusive peek at a SuperTechnicallyAccurate(™) map that I drew of the setting of my book!
For my post-WWII-escaped-Nazis-in-Argentina WIP, I’ve had a number of topics I needed to research fairly intensively, and I decided to try the Colour-Coded Index Card Approach. Here’s my master list of topics and what colour I designated for each one:
And some examples of how I took notes on the cards:
At the bottom of each card I put the title of the source material and the author’s name (or initials), because otherwise there is no way I’ll remember where I got specific facts by the time the book comes out! And I like to have lists of related/recommended reading I can put on my website for people who want to learn more.
Finally, for my middle-grade novel set in 1925 Turner, Oregon, I was able to do most of my research on-site. In fact, I had really no other option! Turner is a tiny town, and there’s very little written material available to turn to for such niche research. So I went to the library in Salem (our state capital, about eight miles from Turner and about an hour north of where I live) and I spent several Thursdays combing through microfilm of 1925 newspapers. I went to the Willamette Heritage Centre, and they helped me dig up a telephone directory for Turner.
I contacted the principal of the elementary school (which was opened in 1922), who gave me a tour, allowed me to dig through nearly-century-old records, and hooked me up with the Turner mayor. The mayor, in turn, connected me with a gentleman in his 90s who has spent his entire life in Turner. Thanks to the school records and the telephone directory, I had a fairly comprehensive list of every resident of Turner in 1925, and this man was able to go down that list and tell me about a lot of them in an epic 3-hour visit. There was no way I could take notes and listen too, so I used my recorder:
Listening to and transcribing three hours of chat afterwards was a bit exhausting. But it was worth it.
Of all these methods, I think the most practically useful has been the colour-coded index cards. It’s been a quick way to access a specific bit of research when I’m editing or writing a specific part of my WIP.
The on-site research is the most fun, but not so practical, because it’s one thing to drive one hour north for an afternoon, and completely another thing to hop on a plane and fly to Argentina for six months. Fortunately, there are sites like TripAdvisor.com that have SO many photos you can flip through of almost any place on earth and, if you’re lucky, information about the weather at a given time of year or such like, to help add authenticity to your setting, if it’s not somewhere you can easily go.
I should also mention that I have one of those accordion-style expanding folders that I store all my notes and general materials in (early drafts, either handwritten or printed out and marked up; timelines; any of the abovementioned notecards or other notes).
So, that’s how I conduct and organise my research when I’m writing.
Thanks for having me, Imogen! <3 <3