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Monday, March 19, 2012

Guest Post. Meredith Stoddard on Researching for Content and Context

Today we have a guest post from Meredith Stoddard. Meredith is a writer and fiber artist living in Central VA. She studied literature and folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before working as a corporate trainer and instructional designer for 10 years. She now devotes her energy to fiction and creative non-fiction.

Last summer my husband and I went to see Cowboys vs. Aliens and surprisingly came out of the movie with very different opinions. I had been ambivalent about the movie based on the sheer ridiculousness of the title, but was willing to overlook that given the cast and his excitement about it. So, I reluctantly agreed to see it.

What I saw was a fun, campy, far-fetched adventure with plenty of eye candy. What he saw was not only far-fetched but impossible, inconsistent, and stupid. It took some discussion in the car on the way home to figure out what the problem was. My husband is a sci-fi nerd. As a sci-fi nerd he was bothered by the inconsistencies in the apparent "science" behind how the alien ships and weapons worked.

Once I thought about it for a bit, I realized that a history nerd like me might have a similar problem. I flashed back almost ten years to when I saw Gods and Generals. In case you haven't seen it, it follows Stonewall Jackson through the battles in Fredericksburg, VA, and the surrounding areas. Since I'm a history nerd who grew up living about halfway between the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields, I know a thing or two about these battles. Gods and Generals is an outstanding movie, but much like my husband, I was bothered by some inconsistencies that I saw.

For example, I thought the film makers didn't quite capture the dramatic slope of Marye's Heights and its view of the Rappahannock, nor did they sufficiently portray the complete idiocy of Union generals choosing to cross the Rappahannock at Chatham. So like a true nerd, I let some minor inconsistencies (And I'm being easy on them. Check out the Goofs list on IMDB to see some real nitpicking.) color my opinion of an otherwise good movie.

Much like sci-fi writers, those of us who choose to write historical fiction have to be aware of the tendencies of our informed readers to pick apart even the minutest details of our writing. Therefore research becomes one of our most important tasks. Luckily for most of us we write historical fiction because we love history. Research in that case isn't such a trial.

I tend to divide researching for historical fiction in two categories.

General Period Research
This is research about what it was like to live in whatever time period you're writing about. This is essential to drawing your reader into the correct time and keeping them there. There is nothing more jarring than having a character use a common 20th century expression like "OK" in a story that is set in the 19th century or earlier. Everyday details may not have a lot of bearing on your plot, but they help the reader see the world that you're creating and believe it.
What did people eat? How did they play? How did they talk? What were the social customs of the day like? How did they dress? There are resources out there where you can read this information, however I've always found it more compelling to see these kind of things first-hand.

Living in Virginia, I am lucky. We have terrific living history parks such as; the Henricus Historical Park, Colonial Williamsburg and the Frontier Culture Museum where you can learn what life was like in the very first colonies, at the dawn of the revolution and as pioneers moved west. Many areas across the country will have similar museums that make a wonderful daytrip when you're looking for information or just to get the feel of a time period.

Specific Research
This is research into the specific events or people that you are writing about. My latest foray into historical fiction is actually based on a true story. Although it is not a widely known story, in the town where it takes place it is a much loved local legend. Naturally, I wanted to get the facts about the actual events straight in my fictionalized version. No matter how gripping my story might be, there will always be the local history buff who will find even the smallest mistake that could spoil it for them. With that in mind I spent many hours researching the people involved in my story. Here are some of the resources that I found helpful.

Local resources: Luckily for me, there is a local historian in the town where my story is set who does a great job of cataloguing the history of Beaufort, NC. Almost every city or county in the country has a local historical society, and they will probably be happy to help a writer looking to write about their area. Look for local historical societies and/or bloggers who know the area well, and can likely help with some of the lesser known aspects of the area's history.

Google Books: This is a terrific resource for out-of-print books and books that may be harder to get. I like to write about what some people call micro-history. These are historical events that are often not recorded in text books. They're not any less compelling for not being famous, but it can be a bit harder to find detailed historical accounts. I have often found books or collections of letters on Google Books that I doubt I would have been able to find even at my local university library.

Census Records: Because my story involves the inner workings of a particular family, I used census records and other historical documents to identify family members and their correct ages and relationships. You can even use these documents to find information about their neighbors.


  1. I'm a science fiction geek and I had no problems with Cowboys and Aliens. Guess I just knew I was going to see campy fun and was prepared.

  2. I felt the same way. In fact, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I think maybe I'll try to get him to watch it again with different expectations. Maybe he'll see it for the romp that it is.


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