Inspiration for a historical story can be triggered by a multitude of sources. Be it a sentence in a book, a personal experience, a dream, a podcast–the list is endless for source material. Today’s writer of historical can tap into a wide variety of autobiographies and biographies, historical nonfiction, and print or online magazines. Period films, movies, and documentaries are another favorite source. You never know what nugget of information will become the trigger for a story.
If you enjoy history, inspiration never runs dry.
The idea for my first published book, Stealing Destiny (aka Tennessee Waltz) came from an item I ran across while reading about the Civil War. A Yankee officer had commandeered a horse from a woman in Virginia. After the war he wrote to her that the horse survived the war and was doing well. I thought the woman in Virginia, one of the most fought over states in the war, needed that horse more than he did. I decided to send my heroine after her horse.
With a time period, three characters (and yes, the horse was a central character), and motivation, I began my research. I prefer to go from the general to the specific. I like to get a general feel for the time period before zooming in on specific details. To obtain an overview, I like to read a general history that spans at least twenty years of my target time period. Ten or so years before the story begins as well as ten or more years after it ends. College textbooks are an excellent source because I can’t think of any historical period that some college professor hasn’t written about.
For example, my first two novels are set in post war 1866. I found Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863 to 1877 an excellent source for this time period. Written by the prize winning author Eric Foner, Ph.D., who specializes in writing books about the Civil War and Reconstruction.
General history books about different time periods are available in the history collections of most public libraries. Other sources for getting a general feel for a time period are the popular “everyday in the life of” type books. I used the Writer’s Digest Books, Everyday Life During the Civil War by Michael J. Varhola as well as Everyday Life in the 1800s by Mark McCutcheon to help flesh out the story. Keep in mind the bibliography at the back of every nonfiction history book is a valuable resource as you narrow your focus.
Don’t forget to check out the children’s section of the library. Books written for younger readers offer a good spring board into unfamiliar topics. I also love the Eyewitness Visual Dictionary series published by Kindersley Publishing. From Dinosaurs to Climate Change, these books offer easy to read but detailed coverage of over 100 topics. Ships and Sailing provided me with valuable information about steamboats for Stealing Destiny.
The Internet is a wonderful source for today’s historical researcher, but use it with caution. Its greatest drawback is the frequent lack of a bibliography which makes validating the information difficult. History buff turned web site manager doesn’t always equal historical accuracy. Plus, there’s always the problem of a site disappearing into cyberspace. Treat the Internet as yet another resource, not the only one.
This initial research helps anchor me in the time period and gives me fodder for bringing the story to life. It also triggers ideas for scenes in the story. To avoid being overwhelmed with scene possibilities and to keep my research organized, I like to use an outline or narrative synopsis.
Before you faint at the idea of writing an outline or narrative synopsis at this point (sloppy is fine because it’s for your eyes only), think of it as a tool to help focus your research. Rather than going off on unnecessary historical tangents, an outline helps you concentrate your research on the historical facts you need to write this particular story.
In the next blog, we’ll look at how to focus your research while balancing your story writing with research.
P.S. By the way, you might enjoy my August 2020 blog, Title Control: Coming up with a Title for Your Story in which I share how traditional publishers sometimes ignore story content and assign a title willy nilly. As happened to me when the publisher came up with the title for my first book Tennessee Waltz.