So you want to write about the past…

Stories set in the past have always been popular. Historical romances have been a staple on supermarket shelves for years, and westerns are right there as well. They even hit the bestseller lists like The Paris Wife and Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The biggest challenge of writing about historic events, places, and people is accuracy. Research is immensely important to get the details right. Because nothing throws a reader out of a story like reading about the American Revolution and a period character uses 21st century slang.

Here are a few areas to research when you’re preparing to write about the past.

Clothes
Women probably didn’t wear hoop skirts during the roaring ’20’s, and men didn’t wear baggy jeans during the American Civil War. What did people wear during the time period? Encyclopedias can be great resources, but don’t underestimate the usefulness of photographs and paintings. Get an idea of what was worn and how people wore it.

Transportation
Cars didn’t come around until the beginning of the 20th century and weren’t common for a few decades. So people before then either got around some other way. Make sure to read up on how people of all classes and backgrounds got around. What were the different modes of transportation for the poor and the aristocrats? Pictures again can also be helpful when writing descriptions.

Religion
If you’re writing about Salem during the witch hunt, your main character isn’t going to be an atheist. Puritans were devoutly religious and practicing religion was a major staple in their daily lives. Look into what religion was practiced at the time, where people prayed, and how it impacted their daily lives. Church documents can be helpful here, along with the writings of religious figures and regular people.

Historic Events
What was happening in the time period with the government, society, and economically? Those things may have an impact on your characters and their world. A novel set in America during the 1930’s or 1940’s can’t get away without discussing the Great Depression or World War II. Pick up a book covering the general history of the era and go from there. You don’t need to be an expert on the subject, but know the subject.

Vocabulary
The best way to get a sense of how people talked is to read what they wrote. Look at period journals, literature, and correspondence. Read a variety of pieces in order to get a broad base of information. This will give you a sense of the language, how it was used and the different slang.

The best resource for any research are primary sources, documents written by people who were there. Look for texts written by reputable academicians and published by universities. Don’t hesitate to vet your sources and check out their education. Your local library can be a great starting point along with online libraries containing scanned documents.

One last note, don’t rely on Wikipedia or other internet sources as your only means of research. While they can be great jumping off points, they shouldn’t be relied on exclusively. Posting false information on the internet is a lot easier than publishing it in a book. That’s not to say that the information is always untrue. Just look at a variety of sources.

How have you researched for your historical stories? Anything that worked really well or any good sources?

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