British indie author Lucienne Boyce, who writes and self-publishes historical fiction and non-fiction, explains why looking something up on Wikipedia doesn’t count as quality research, and recommends more effective research methods that will add conviction and accuracy when you are writing about the past. (This is an abridged text of the excellent talk that Lucienne gave at Troubador's recent Self-publishing Conference, on which she was part of a panel of indie historical novelists, alongside Helen Hollick and Griselda Heppel.)
Finding Historical Voices Through Research
One of the reasons I’m so pleased that my latest historical novel, Bloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery, has been longlisted for the M M Bennetts Historical Novel Award 2016 is that M M Bennetts herself took the research for her books very seriously. It’s an aspect of writing historical fiction that I’m also passionate about.
I’m often asked where I do my research, and my first answer is usually “not on Wikipedia”, because it’s not sufficiently reliable or relevant.
Why Wikipedia is Unreliable
Wikipedia’s potential reliability problems are made very clear in its notes to site users. Anyone can add or edit entries. Since many of the entries are anonymous, there’s often no way of knowing whether the contributors know what they’re talking about.
Personally, I’d rather spend my time searching out dependable sources. If I use Wikipedia, it’s usually because I’m looking for pointers to those sources. I spend more time looking at the references than the article.
Why Wikipedia is Irrelevant
But unreliability isn’t the only reason I tend to ignore Wikipedia: it just isn’t relevant to me as a historical researcher.
For me, one of the main reasons for doing research is to unlock the voices of the past. We want to know how people lived, ate, slept, worked, fought, made love. We want to reimagine them, we want to bring them alive, we want to hear their voices. You won’t hear their voices on Wikipedia.
Lack of Diversity
In fact, you won’t hear many voices on Wikipedia. 90% of its contributors are male, with an average age of 26. They come mainly from Europe and North America, which means that large areas are under-represented. Maybe in a few hundred years’ time Wikipedia will be a brilliant resource for research into the attitudes of 26 year old males from Europe and North America, but that isn’t really much help to me.
How to Tap into Sources from the Past
If I want to hear voices from the past, then I must, as far as is possible, go to sources from the past. I can’t do it all at my computer.
So where do I go? I go as much as possible to the people of the past. I read their diaries, autobiographies and travel narratives. I read their novels, drama, poetry and newspapers. I look at their street directories and railway timetables. I visit the places they inhabited: castles, houses, towns, villages, factories. For me, this is one of the most meaningful ways of doing research.
I go to museums to look at the furniture and objects they used. I go to art galleries to look at contemporary paintings, sketches, photographs, and maps. I listen to archive sound recordings and watch newsreels. I listen to their music – not just classical music, but the music of the people: sea shanties, ballads, protest songs. And I visit archives to read their letters and other documents.
I know that doing research can be expensive. Bus and train fares, buying books, and so on, can be a problem, especially for self-published authors who are often working on a tight budget. But even for mainstream authors the days of big publishers’ advances to help with the costs of research have gone. Well-known biographers have to self-fund their research like the rest of us. So while it’s tempting to rely on the internet, if you want to produce a well-researched book, you’re going to have to step away from your computer.
For Further Research Tips
If you want more information and tips about using these sources, you might be interested in the text of a talk I did at Bristol Literature Festival last year – “Putting the Past in its Place” – which is available as a free download on my website here: Bringing the Past to Life.
OVER TO YOU Does Lucienne's approach to research chime with yours? Do you have further tips to share about best research practice? We'd love to hear them!
- Writing Research: How to Do It and How to Use It – by Sarah Danby
- Why You Should Write What You Know – by Elizabeth Ducie
- Writing about Where You Know – Tips for Historical Novelists – with tips from various authors