Not all of my research was conducted in a library. I learned an immeasurable amount from an amazing community of historical reenactors at two living history sites. How do you start a fire using a flint? What did a long hunter take with them into the wilderness? What sort of cookware did a backcountry housewife possess? Even if you, as a writer, don’t go deeply into such matters in your novel, you still need to be able to envision a scene so completely that you’ll know the answers to those sorts of questions. Creating a believable scene in a piece of historical fiction takes a great deal of research, and only a small part of it actually winds up on the page.
Maggie O’Farrell, author of the acclaimed novel, Hamnet, puts it this way: “I really love research, but you have to think carefully about how much you put in. You have to leave out about 95% of it. The advice about historical novels should be the opposite to what your math teacher always said about ‘show your work.' We don’t need to know that you’ve done all your homework… we just need to feel confident that you have.” [Interview with Maggie O’Farrell — Walter Scott Prize Shortlist Spotlight available on YouTube.]
I was fortunate that for Traces, I had two wonderful historic sites dedicated to recreating 18th century life on the frontier that were within easy driving distance of my home. Fort Loudoun State Historic Park, near Vonore, Tennessee, is a living history site dedicated to recreating the British presence on the frontier during the middle of the eighteenth century. Martin’s Station, in southwest Virginia just miles from Cumberland Gap, is a recreation of the original frontier outpost along a stretch of the Wilderness Road.
I arrived at both locations with a list of questions — all the things I couldn’t find by delving into books about the period — and at both sites, the reenactors were gracious enough to enlighten me on everything from how my characters would have done laundry, to how many miles a rider could expect to travel in a day given the terrain to be traversed.
Whatever time period you want to research, there’s likely a reenactment group devoted to that time period, filled with folks who have enthusiastically immersed themselves in the minutest details and are happy to share their enthusiasm with you. For many topics, particularly those related to clothing and the stuff of daily life, devotees of living history have already done a good bit of your research for you.
To discover what groups might be useful for the time period you’re interested in, do an internet search using terms like, “living history” or “reenactment societies.” There’s also a wealth of information available on YouTube — videos that provide a researcher with visuals of daily life from many different historical periods. While writing Traces I frequently consulted the YouTube channel called “Townsends,” which is dedicated to exploring life in eighteenth century colonial America.
Research is critical for any sort of historical fiction, and when conscientious research is coupled with an author’s imagination, history comes to life.