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Historical Research; The Key to Making Readers Believers

Remember the days of sitting in a library going through old books, looking up facts…

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Remember the days of sitting in a library going through old books, looking up facts in almanacs and hoping you had the right place and the right time? It seems now those days have gone the “way of the DoDo” to quote an Indiana Jones villain. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I was in a library and for an author of books in the double digits that is pretty hard to admit to my fellow writers.

The Internet has replaced the vast majority of the research for writers (and don’t tell me it hasn’t just to impress your friends and ward off the dirty looks from other writers). It has made it so much easier that you can actually spend more time writing, and creating than researching. Don’t get me wrong, I love research. It’s one of my passions. However, when I need to stop writing to find out a small but essential piece of information, it slows down the process. It also stifles creativity.

For instance, I write many different genre but my series of western novels, “Lancer; Hero of the West,” lies in a genre where readers are adamant about certain details. If you get a detail wrong about a city or a town or a legendary character, they’ll let you know about it, and possibly even post nasty stuff. They not only stop buying and reading but they discourage others from checking out your work.

In my latest novel “Lancer; Hero of the West – the Broken Bow Affair,” my lead character was to take a train ride from Tombstone, AZ to Broken Bow, NE. I needed to know how long that trip was going to take and if the rails even went that far. Using Google I was able to find copies in just a few minutes of actual train schedules of the day (the early 1880’s) and calculate the travel time. With this in hand I was able to plan the details of the trip in a matter of a few minutes more. I also found railway maps of the different time periods and when new rails were put in place. This was invaluable because how embarrassing would it have been if I wrote my character “rode the Northern Pacific Railroad from Tombstone to Lincoln” in 1882, if the railroad wasn’t even built until 1885?!

In a previous book my character was going to spend some time on a riverboat out of New Orleans. It occurred in 1882. I couldn’t name the Riverboat without the research because I might pull a name of a boat built in 1884 by mistake. My readers would throw a fit if I did that. I quickly searched “Riverboats built in 1880,” and came up with several. Included in the results were the dates those riverboats stopped running. I think one had been sunk, another burned and both were before my time frame in 1882.

Both of these searches took less than five minutes. In the “old days” going to a library, researching county and state records and even shipping records for a company, might have taken weeks or longer. While there are certain things I hate about the Internet, this is not one of them. 

Another thing I’ve learned in researching historical literature is “not to sweat the small stuff.” As writers we are creators and this means we create (or as some would say fabricate) history. We do, we must because we cannot know every detail of every persons’ life. In my previous book “the New Orleans Affair,” my character ran into Geronimo along the way. I had to create the conversations based on “common” knowledge. I also know people are people and what may seem common to us now, may not have been in 1882. We make it up. And it is legitimate. We try for some historical context but the truth be known; much of what we know about legendary characters was told by those legendary characters. People like us who in no way were going to tell us everything and very, very rarely were they going to tell us something about themselves which was unflattering.

So do your historical research on the factual stuff, and don’t be ashamed to say you “googled it,” and when it comes to the other things such as actual people stuff like conversations; don’t be afraid to make it up. The people you are writing about already did.

 

Bob began his radio career in 1972 and worked all over the wester US, several times in the LA market. He’s currently a news anchor at CBS Radio LA; KNX 1070 News Radio. Bob founded and ran, then sold the newsletter “Brilliant Idea’s, The Brill Report.”