Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Janet Oakley on History

So today's guest is one of my ABNA buddies—a fabulous woman from my Pacific Northwest. I have huge admiration for people who write historical fiction. I am a person who gets bleary eyed reading books of dates and battles, but put a great story in it, and it comes alive for me—and suddenly I love history. Now see... that 'can't read the straight stuff' means writers like Janet are critical to people like ME being able to learn and enjoy history...

So without further ado, Welcome Janet!

Well, first of all let me say that I'm excited to be a guest on your blog. I promise to be on my best tart behavior, though writing-wise, I haven't tried it from the bath tub. I'm more a sit-by-the-river or hole- up-at-my-favorite-coffee-shop writer. I must need noise in the background.

I've been writing historical novels for a number of years, querying, sometimes getting requests for full- manuscripts, other times getting award recognition. I finally decided to figure out what the fuss was all about in self-publishing, especially now that you don't have to publish a book and have a thousand copies in boxes in your garage. So last November, I put my historical novel Tree Soldier on Kindle and in March 2011 released it in book form. As I go around doing book talks, people come and tell me their stories of their father or grandfather's time in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.--the background to my novel. It has made me pat myself on the back for having a research plan in the beginning with notes I can turn to for creating PowerPoint presentations and answer questions intelligently.

The Research Plan: Putting History into Your Historical Fiction

So what is a research plan? I'd call it a way of organizing your study of the time your characters are living in. It's important you have a good story to tell, but but ask yourself some basic questions?
What period are you writing in? What is the technology of that time? Media? Transportation? Foodways? Costume and etiquette?
One thing about those who write historical fiction (straight or historical romance), understanding your era and all its customs is paramount.

I love Bernard Cornwall's Sharpe series. Cornwall is an expert on Peninsula military campaigns and can bring to life the politics, social attitudes, and English and Spanish culture in the early 1800s. His characters are vibrant. His research is amazing. But Diana Gabaldon is a wonderful writer too and no slouch on understanding her characters' time frame and how they might act in 18th century Scotland, France and North Carolina. I actually heard them on a historical fiction panel and both said that you have to write in you era and accept certain attitudes of the times that your character might face. The trick is meet the needs of the modern reader. Gabaldon noted that she got a lot of flack when Jaimie in Outlander spanks Claire for disobeying him, but Gabaldon didn't apologize. That's how it was. Just that 1940's Claire didn't quite like that at all!

Getting Started

See the chart for what a plan might look like and do a few things:

  • Start with old school research-- books at your library.
  • Read some general books about the period. Historical textbooks, local histories, biographies. Take notes. Secondary resources= context
  • If your library doesn’t have the book you want use intra-library
  • Look at bibliographies in the back of these books for additional works, primary and secondary. You can look for them on-line later in Google Books or academic websites.
  • Do on-line search using key words. Make sure your sources are reliable. Anything with “edu” or “gov” (national parks have great history) is sourced. Stay away from wikpedias that can have old or disproved information, easily changed by a whim.
  1. Join an e-mail focus group. This can include a genealogical society.
  2. Read the literature of the time (books and poems), ads, brochures, flyers (local museum or state archives have these) & newspapers
  3. Locate pictures, graphics & maps
  • Use the rule of three—have at least three resources that might be covering a particular historical incident or event.

As you gather, organize. Assign numbers to your resources. Put on index cards or some note taking program. I use file folders for material I've copied, have categories for various subjects I'm researching.
Most of all, have fun. How will your character's react? What problems will they face when it takes seven weeks for the mail to go through?

Thanks again for the opportunity to drop by. Happy writing and hunting for the perfect quote or historical find (My recent favorite comment about my town in 1858: “Whatcom is a miserable hole of the place.” Lovely find which I'll use in my next non-fiction piece)

Bernard Cornwall

To learn more about Janet:
History Weaver Blog
Thanks so much, Janet!  Great advice!


Old Kitty said...

Wow. I am in total AWE at the chart and the very disciplined research methods!! How NAKED is all this! WOW!

Thank you Janet and lovely Tart!!!

Good luck with Tree Soldier! I have to admit the book cover has me salivating and it's not even 10 am here yet. Ahem.

Take care

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm always overwhelmed at the amount of research that historical authors do (and other genres,too.) Thanks for this look at how it's done! Best of luck with your release!

Creepy Query Girl said...

wow- thank you so much Janet for sharing your research methods with us! Can I just say I LOVE your cover art! Congratulations and thanks Hart for introducing us to Janet and her work!:)

Hart Johnson said...

Jenny-very nice art, eh? And very detailed methods there!

Elizabeth-I feel the same--so detailed and careful!

Katie-happy to share Janet!

Matthew MacNish said...

What a great breakdown for how to get started with this kind of story!

Personally I don't think I could do it, but I suppose you never know. I certainly research the hell out of other topics for my contemporary stories.

Thanks for featuring Janet, Hart!

Jan Morrison said...

This was great. I just finished a novel set partly in the time of Casanova by Susan Swann, called What Casanova Told Me. It includes modern times as well and you are dipping into these old journals etc... I loved it and was awestruck at the amount of research Swann had obviously done - it didn't stick out - you just knew she'd researched every possible thing - from bugs in wigs to Turkish calligraphy. It must be frightening to take on something so large. Congratulations at making it happen! Thanks tartlette for hosting this post!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Tree Soldier has ummm...a nice cover.

Hannah said...

Oh, wow!! I'm definitely going to use this!! I need this for a bit of my novel revisions. Love it. Thanks, Janet and Hart!

Hart Johnson said...

Matt-that's my self-assessment, too!

Jan-totally agree--hugely intimidating! Good luck with yours!

Michael-I know, right?

Hannah-excellent! Glad it can be useful!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Writing historical fiction sounds like a lot of work! I admire anyone who does it.

Johanna Garth said...

Janet, your organization and dedication to your craft is absolutely inspirational! Thanks so much for this great post.

historywriter said...

Thanks for all the great comments. I have to admit that I enjoy doing the research (Who else would read a San Francisco newspaper from 1849 to 1858 just to find a a bark that was a coastal trader back then--for my non-fiction piece I'm also working on) I think, though, that this type of organization could also work for writing a piece or memoir about family.

One great workshop I took, we had to get the NY Times
on microfilm) for the day we were born. It was a wonderful exercise. I had heard the stories my mom told me countless times, but to read that Stuart Little came out the month I was born, war brides were coming home for the first time to America and what the weather was like really made the essay jump out. (Freezing) Just think of categories to put your finding in. Historical fiction now includes the edges of the 1960s (The Help)

As for the guy, the picture was taken in 1940 at a CCC camp.

Helena said...

From one historical writer to another, Janet I salute your hard work and obvious gifts. I should start reading the Sharpe series you recommend, but the series I personally love is the very irreverent Flashman books.

Arlee Bird said...

I like reading historical fiction and am so impressed by the research those writers put into their work. You have really detailed the process in this overview post. The most historical I've gotten so far in my writing is the 60s and 80s. And even though I lived through those times I still did research to make sure my memory was working right.
Janet, good post.
Hart, good choice for a guest post.

Tossing It Out

historywriter said...

Helena, I'll have to check those out. Arlee, my mom got me reading historical fiction when I was a girl. I love the Prince of Foxes by Shellbarger (made into a movie with Tyrone Power in the 1940s)

Marion Spicher said...

Janet, your historical expertise and ability to organize research, including your forms that you so generously offer, are very valuable to those of us putting together a historical novel. I'm grateful your efforts reach beyond your history, to share your time and efforts with children, historical activities, and friends. I enjoyed reading "Tree Soldier" and wish you great success in your writing career.