Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hands On – Using Research to Enrich Your Historical

This past weekend my family and I took a trip down to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit Michigan, where they currently have an exhibit about the Titanic. I am a HUGE Titanic fan and jumped at the chance to go see it. They had a replica of the Grand Staircase, passenger staterooms and hallways, plus a ton of artifacts. As many of my novels are set in the late 1800’s, the whole experience was like a trip back in time. While there, I kept thinking that such and such a character might have used something similar to what they had at the exhibit and was very inspired by the whole experience. Along with that, we toured the rest of the museum which included displays on the early days of motorcars, antique furniture (including desks owned by Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe), the chair Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in, and George Washington’s camp bed. It was a historical writer’s heaven and I took a couple pages of notes on things I could use in current and future WIP’s.
All this led got me thinking. Thus, the topic of this post. Nothing beats hands-on research! Sure you can read a ton of books on the subject, but the more authenticity in your research, the better.

One of my dreams is to take a trip to England, which is where most of my books are set. Yet for now that’s not in the immediate future, so how can I add that authentic flavor? Here are a few tips on conducting hands-on research, without traveling across the ocean.

1 – Visit a Museum – Although a trip abroad or a trek across the United States might not be a possibility, usually a helpful museum can be found without driving more than a few hours. It might not be exactly similar to your novel’s setting, but any museum dealing with the 1800’s can provide authenticity for your historical. Also, for those of you who write Western or prairie set fiction, going to a miniature pioneer village can be great. Perhaps you can see a bonnet that your heroine would have worn or watch a sawmill in operation, similar to the one your hero works at.  
2 – Reenactments – This past fall, I attended a Civil War/Gilded Age ball and learned about ten or fifteen dances from those eras. I also wore a dress, hoopskirt, and corset. Through doing the dances and wearing these clothes, it gave me a whole different perspective on life in a bygone age. Just wearing the clothes made me hugely sympathetic and very envious of my heroines, who get to dress that way every day. J There are various reenactments, balls, etc. all over the United States and going to one of them might be just the prep for writing the gala event in your current WIP. Here is a link to some historic dances that take place in Michigan. http://www.vintagedance.com/ You can google to look for similar opportunities in your area.

3 – Movies – Perhaps not as hands-on as the previous events but films can provide insight into the world of your characters, complete with costumes, food, dialog, etc. Sometimes while writing, I stop and turn on a particular movie or miniseries to answer questions about minor details such as the kind of floor commonly found in a servants’ hall. Although it’s wise to double-check on the authenticity of any fact, I’ve rarely found huge discrepancies. 
So there you have it. Ways to add authenticity along with the standard book and documentary approach, both of which I use quite frequently. When you want to shake things up or add a new dimension to a particular scene, one of the above avenues can prove immensely helpful.

Happy Writing,


Your Turn. Have you ever traveled to the location of your novel(s)? Any tips for hands-on research?


Sapphire said...

I love visiting museums for research, too. When I can't visit in person, though, I found that a lot of the larger museums offer virtual tours on their websites.

Another hands-on research tactic I use is to actually take some lessons in whatever activity my characters do so I can write it realistically. For example, I took a fencing class as the local community college a couple of years ago so I'd know how to sword fight, and I'm actually taking a sailing lesson next week. It's research, *and* it's fun. ^_^

Amanda said...

Thanks so much for commenting, Sapphire! Fencing lessons! Wow, how fun! Do you write Regencies? I’ve always wanted to do more things like that, and found the Gilded Age ball I went to, very helpful. Those dances are much harder than they look on Pride and Prejudice. : )

Sapphire said...

Golden Age of Piracy and 16/1700s French Intrigue (think Three Musketeers time frame) novels, actually. :-)

And that's a super idea about learning old ballroom dances!