#Openbook – Research resources

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What are the most important resources for writers? (Magazines, books, websites, etc.)

This week’s topic piqued my interest as I do a lot of research for my historical books and short stories. I am a pedantic person with a sharp eye for detail and I pay a lot of attention to detail. As a result, when I undertake research it is thorough and I check the fact patterns to up to ten different sources to ensure my work is as factually accurate as possible.

Modern people are generally well educated and readers of historical books about specific wars or periods are often knowledgeable about the factual details of those times. I believe that any factual errors in a historical novel undermine the entire novel and even the author’s writing as a whole.

When writing While the Bombs Fell, a fictionalised biography of my mother’s life as a young girl growing up in a small English town during World War II, I had to do significant amounts of research. Not only about the timing and nature of major military events like the Battle of Britain, but also about the everyday events that occurred in my mother’s life. I had heard her stories many times during my life and was familiar with their content, but when I sat down to write about something like the family wash day, I realised that while I knew her mother used a copper and a galvanised wash tub and then made use of a mangle and I even knew what they looked like, I did not know details such as where the coal went, how many times the washing was rinsed and whether the settings on the mangle could be changed to accommodate different thicknesses of clothing and linen.Β  As a result, I found myself doing far more extensive research on everyday items than I had expected.

I am currently experiencing the same thing with my book, A ghost and his gold, about the Second Anglo Boer War in South Africa. A huge amount of research is necessary to ensure the locations of towns and battles are correct in terms of the maps at that time.

I use the internet extensively for my research and favour certain website. I do like Wikipedia because it gives all the sources of its information at the bottom of every article so it is easy to discover more detail and check the facts provided. The UK government websites have proved themselves to be reliable as to fact although they do present the British perspective. That is reasonable, but I am trying to present both sides of the story in A ghost and his gold and unpack the reasons why both sides felt the way they did towards the other which had far reaching relationship and social consequences going forward, so I have had to dig a little deeper. I have found that personal diaries from that time, of which there are many from both the English and the Boer perspective, as well as more than one master’s degree theses about that period have been very helpful.

For purposes of my stories and books I have also used a number of newspaper articles from the time, maps of battles and railways as well as more obscure sources such as cook books and even Emily Hobhouse’s report to the British Government on conditions in the South African camps. I have visited sites about the memorials, graveyards and museums about some of the concentration camps as well as made personal visits to Mahiking (previously Mafeking) and Irene farm, Jan Smut’s house and Irene Village in Gauteng, South Africa.

This describes how I go about my research for a book or story. What do you do?

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46 thoughts on “#Openbook – Research resources

  1. Great article, Robbie. I remember reading a book review of a historical fiction, the reviewer commented that the historic facts were accurate. So there are readers paid attention to to those details. When I did the dessertation for my doctoral program, I used the references to trace further details also.

    I’m not completely well yet. May take a longer blogging break.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family 🌲.

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  2. This is a great article, Robbie! I agree that historical accuracy in fiction is everything, because once you cheat the reader about facts, then you pull them out of the story. Cant wait for the book!

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  3. That “two sides of the story” thing is definitely hard. I host “conversations on controversial topics” on my Facebook page and often we run across this. Yes, there are two sides (three, if you count the Canadian perspective) on, say, the American Revolution, just as an example. And, you find some people are so wedded to one perspective on an issue there’s really no budging them with a truckload of facts.

    The slavish nature of historical research is why I’m shy about historical fiction, although I did enjoy my foray into alternative historical fiction. That whole idea that you change something significant in history and then try to figure out where it goes from there… Fascinating!

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    1. Thanks for your feedback. I was telling my friend about my project yesterday and she also said it was hard. I will see how it pans out. There would also be the African side to the South African War but it is very difficult to do research on it because their part in the war wasn’t really recorded much. I haven’t gone into much detail on their role because of this. I don’t want to get it wrong.

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      1. Yeah, that’s gotta be hard. I think a lot of people write stories assuming they know what an indigenous people must have felt because that’s how someone from the first world would feel or, worse, they view people in history through the lens of modern sensibilities. I had someone ask me why I didn’t write from Lila and Vin Barrett’s perspective in Transformation Project and my only answer was “I’m not a black person living in rural Kansas. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

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      2. Yes, you have hit the nail exactly on the head. There is nothing worse than getting the perspective wrong. I prefer not to risk it either. I believe that the traditional publishers don’t like it when people try to write from the perspective of a different religious or ethnic group – I read that somewhere.

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  4. I enjoy reading newspaper articles from the time people of which I’m writing, but I have to be careful not to fall down the research rabbit hole because the articles are so fascinating, and I quickly lose track of time.

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  5. I remember going through physical card files in the library, trying to find books about the topics I was researching. So much easier now!

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  6. Researching facts is much easier on the internet (although it pays to double and triple check), but when I needed to soak up the feel of a time or place, I read books by people who had “been there and done that.” Visiting a place is definitely helpful; faking it with Google Maps and research doesn’t quite do the trick. I may have to go to Egypt one day if I want to write a sequel to the book set there.

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  7. Robbie, your research is always meticulous, adding exceptional authenticity to your novels.
    Research can be exhausting, but it’s also a lot of fun.

    I use online resources as well as print and visiting locations when I can. I think the more research you do, the more accurate you are, the more it’s apparent you know your subject!

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  8. Robbie, I love to research … there is just something sacred, humbling to read sources from the actual time. good luck with your latest book ‘A ghost and his gold’! It is another skill – which I know you’ve mastered well – to weave in the facts and atmosphere from a setting/events without swamping the narrative.

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  9. I think good research shines, and it’s definitely something that draws me into stories. You’re amazing in your thoroughness, Robbie. Even in your fantasy, Through the Nethergate, your research was fascinating. One of the reasons that I decided to focus on fantasy was a lack of patience, lol, the historical research wouldn’t be as critical or dense. And I still end up having to research (weapons, animal care, curatives, sailing ships, all kinds of peripheral details). Great post. πŸ™‚

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  10. Impressive Robbie, I always knew you’d be thorough!

    And you are right it’s people with an interest and knowledge of those events who are more likely to read so any inaccuracies would be evident to them and weaken your credibility. Let’s hope your beta readers and editor will pick up anything you miss .. but somehow I think you will be painstakingly thorough πŸ™‚

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  11. I can only imagine how much research goes into historical pieces. I know it must be a lot. I almost always write in the present day. I do research and most of it online. I like being accurate to the point of plausibility, but I don’t take it any further. I think most fiction readers are fine unless something crazy jumps out at them. Recently, I wrote a story about a man who had a gambling problem. He bet on certain games on Monday night football. Well, I’m not a huge football fan. So I looked up how many games came on on Monday night football nights. To my surprise, I found out that they only play one game on those Monday nights and the local team wasn’t involved in any of them around the time I set it in. So I had to change things around and have him bet on other teams but I made sure they were accurate. As with any research, you learn new things. All I can say is anyone checking for the accuracy of the games won’t be disappointed. I doubt most like care but it makes me feel better about it. And heck, that’s present day stuff. I don’t see how you historial writers do it but I salute you. Great post!

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    1. Nice to meet you, Parker. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is amazing how you can discover something works in a completely different way from what you thought when you are writing and you have to re-write a whole section. I usually do my research section by section although I like to get an overview of a specific event up front.

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