Editor’s note: I’m thrilled to be able to share a guest post today from author Jeanne Gassman. If you’re a historical fiction fan, or just love a well-written novel, you can purchase Jeanne’s book BLOOD OF A STONE online via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Thanks so much Jeanne!
Heidi Oran was kind enough to ask me to share a few tips on researching a historical novel. I published my debut historical novel, BLOOD OF A STONE (Tuscany Press) in March 2015, which is set in first century Palestine. I am currently working a new historical novel, THE DOUBLE SUN, which takes place in the mid-20th century. Because these books take place in such different time periods, they’ve required different approaches for research.
1. Books and Magazines
I began my research for BLOOD OF A STONE by building a library of scholarly books and magazines. My books included everything from atlases to “life-and-times” collections to Who’s Who in the Bible. I often found new resources by reading the bibliographies of my current resources. A favorite magazine for researching ancient biblical history was Biblical Archaeology Review, which is available in print and online. The value of using topic-specific magazines is that they are often more current than the books and contain great photos.
Another fantastic resource proved to be museums. I visited the wonderful Getty Villa in California where I saw numerous artifacts I had referenced in my novel and discovered they were exactly as I had described them. The Getty also had a great bookstore with both books and DVDs on the era I was writing about. For museums I couldn’t afford to travel to, I checked to see if they had virtual tours or videos. Many of them do.
3. Historical Experts
Your local university is an excellent place to find historical experts. Again, if you can’t find someone locally, you may be able to establish an online connection. When my publisher requested I have BLOOD OF A STONE reviewed by a historical expert, I hit the Internet, Googling the term: “first century Palestine experts.” Wonder of wonders, that search turned up three people who had been interviewed for a story on NPR. And this is where it gets interesting.
I tracked down each of those three people with some detective work, searching for them online. Did they have a website? Where did they work? Were they listed on places like LinkedIn? I found all three experts online, as well as contact phone numbers. The first one I called had had a stroke and was in a rehab facility. When I called the rehab facility (I’m persistent), they told me he was suffering from dementia. Cross expert #1 off the list. The second one I called was on sabbatical out of the country. Cross expert #2 off the list. The third expert I called at home after finding her phone number listed on a faculty directory at a university. After deciding I was NOT a stalker, she happily directed me to a PhD candidate who fit my needs perfectly. My historical expert was a treasure. He reviewed my book not once, but twice, and was available for brainstorming when I had questions about tiny details.
4. The Internet
Using the Internet may seem like a lazy and obvious choice (Wikipedia, anyone?), but there is so much more out than you might expect. For example, one of my characters is from Nabataea. Did you know there is an entire website devoted to the Nabataean culture? Everything I needed to know about her I found on that website. I discovered hobby groups online devoted to cooking ancient Roman recipes, a wonderful resource for the menus and foods in my book. When I needed to know more about camels, I found a website with articles about the camel markets and guidelines on how to buy a camel. When I needed to know more about magicians and soothsayers during the first century, I turned up a website on how to perform a haruspication (the reading of animal entrails). It’s all out there if you dig a little. But be sure to confirm your information by searching for secondary and independent sources. Not everything you read on the Internet is true.
For my new novel, THE DOUBLE SUN, in addition to building a new library of books and magazines, I’ve gone to other resources that are equally valuable. Here are a few:
Surprise! Museums are rapidly becoming my first choice for research because they lead to so many other sources. For THE DOUBLE SUN, I needed information about the atomic bomb tests in Nevada, nuclear research, uranium mining, and radioactive fallout. I’ve visited The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, NV, the Museum of Nuclear History in Albuquerque, NM, and the Uranium Mining Museum in Grants, NM. I’ve also toured the Nevada Test Site. The docents and caretakers at these museums are also wonderful resources and are eager to answer your questions.
Your reference librarian is your friend, but your small-town librarian is your best friend. Unlike large college libraries, small-town libraries tend to have more personal documents, including private letters, local newspapers, donated collections of historical photographs, and self-published memoirs from prominent local citizens. At the Grants, NM library, which is a converted house, the local librarian gave me access to thirty years worth of a retired reporter’s notes on uranium mining and radioactive contamination. I found hand-written interviews, photographs, published articles, and the names of hundreds of people who had been involved in the crisis. For research on my characters who lived in northern Arizona, a local librarian brought out volumes of old newspapers. I was able to read articles and peruse the ads and letters to the editor–all valuable for establishing a feel for time and place.
7. Government Documents
The Freedom of Information Act has opened up thousands of government documents that you can access online. You can research immigration records, lawsuits, criminal cases, court judgments, and Congressional records. Some resources charge a fee, but a lot of material is available for free. Since I am writing about the Cold War and atomic bomb testing in my new novel, I needed to know more about what the government knew and didn’t know and what information they shared with citizens. I have found everything I needed in official documents, once classified, that have been released by the Department of Energy and the Atomic Energy Commission.
8. Oral Histories
My novel-in-progress is very specific to a group of people who developed cancer from the atomic bomb testing. When I visited the website for the Nevada Test Site, I came across The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, a series of interviews with people who worked at the site. That led me to other, less formal oral histories and personal diaries of people who developed cancer. For example, someone in an interview mentioned a short documentary called “Pink Clouds,” which then led me to a Facebook group of cancer survivors in southern Utah–all of them affected by the same radioactive fallout.
For my novel-in-progress, YouTube has become an invaluable resource. I’ve found videos of atomic bomb explosions, government films on Civil Defense, personal documentaries about working at the Nevada Test Site, and government propaganda films about the Cold War and Communism. And where do I save all of these Internet resources? Pinterest, of course!
I hope you found a few of these tips useful. A good historical novelist is also a detective, willing to follow rabbit trails to find the specific details and information that will bring the story to life. And it’s so much more fun to learn about a historical period via a great story!
Jeanne Lyet Gassman holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and resides in Arizona. Her debut novel, Blood of a Stone (Tuscany Press), received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award (bronze) in the national category of religious fiction and was a finalist for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards and the 2015 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Award. Her short work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions 2015 and the Pushcart Prize. Jeanne’s short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Red Savina Review, and The Museum of Americana, among many others. Visit Jeanne at her website: www.jeannelyetgassman.com