Primary Sources are not like Primary Colors

Let's talk research.  Those of you who write historical novels know exactly what I'm talking about. Research is the very core of our stories.  Not only that, but in many cases, it's as important as one of the main characters.  The historical events that surround your story help drive it and sometimes even divert it, causing conflict in ways even the characters cannot do. The key to writing a believable historical romance is to be accurate in our research.  Unfortunately, many of us are not so good at research.  Oh, we try to be accurate, but we use resources we were trained to use as children - history books, encyclopedias, etc.  Not that we shouldn't use these resources, but there are other resources which can provide valuable information.

A wig curler - bet you didn't know this?


Let's put this into perspective - using history books and encyclopedias is like using the primary and secondary colors in a crayon box.  They are good.  They are bright and bring color to your manuscript, but using just red, blue, green, yellow, orange, black, and white are fine, but we all know there are gray areas in everything we do.  It's these gray areas that can make a plot more interesting. So just imagine using magenta or turquoise or even chartreuse.  This is what primary sources can do for your manuscripts.

Pieces of eight - how colonists paid with silver coins


First of all - what are primary sources?  They are documents, photographs, speeches, or other evidence created during the time you  might be studying.  Primary sources include: autobiographies, photographs, diaries, emails (can you believe these are primary sources now?), letters, news film footage, official records (like birth certificates, divorce records, court documents); art, drama, film, plays, and novels during the time period; buildings, clothing, furniture, jewelry, pottery; and of course newspaper articles.

playbill of Edwin Booth - John Wilkes Booth's brother


So now I'm going to give you a glimpse into a few primary sources you might be able to access quite easily when writing your historical fiction novel.

blueprint of the Octagon House


Museums and historical societies: These are some of the most accessible sources. Not just the large city museum you used to go to when you were a student, but the local historical society museums every town has nowadays.  They are a wonderful source of artifacts that can give you a glimpse into the past.  When you visit your museum, take note of the furniture, the clothing, the jewelry, and even the portraits painted during the time period you are writing.  Take pictures, jot down notes, and catalog this information to use later on.  When you read a hero regarded the ormulu clock on the mantle, you'll know what it is because you have a picture.

Here are some pictures I have taken at museums that help me when I am writing to bring authenticity to my settings.

furniture from the DeWitt museum

Authentic clothing


portrait that gives us an idea of how women dressed


Washington and Lafayette  in a painting


Used bookstores: Several years ago when we traveled to New Orleans for our RWA conference, I happened across an old bookstore filled with used books.  As I traveled up and down the dusty stacks I happened upon a few fabulous finds - some diaries written in the 1700s.  At first they might not seem like much.  They are dusty and the pages are yellowed, but inside was a treasure worth more than the book cost.  Inside I found entries that detailed life during the 1700s of a young lady who gave me an insight into her privileged life.  Reading her words gave me a chance to use more authentic terminology in my novel.



Re-enactments: You've heard about them.  You might have even made fun of them, but just imagine how much research the people have to do who perform in these Civil War re-enactments.  Everything they do must be authentic - from the clothes they wear to the words they speak to their actions. They are like players on a stage, but they have spent painstaking hours recreating these people.  They do it because they love that time period.  Look around your locale and you will be surprised to find several re-enactment societies.  If you can't find one locally, travel to a place like Williamsburg, VA to get a total immersion experience.  I was lucky enough to do this and it is something I will never forget.

Interpreter as British officer

dancers at the Governor's Palace


Historical sights: of course after speaking about re-enactments, it only seems fitting to mention historical sights - from antebellum homes to battlefields to settlements.  In many of these places the buildings have been preserved in their original states, but in other instances, they have been restored.  During my recent trip to Philadelphia to see the history there, I was amazed to see a sampling of both.  Another fascinating study of preservation vs restoration is in Charleston, SC - visit Middleton Place and Dreyton Hall.  One is restored and one is preserved.  Either way, you get a glimpse into the past that will move you and give your writing a more authentic feel.

Capitol building in Williamsbrug, VA

a replica of the ship in Jamestown
What's left of Benjamin's Franklin's house in Philadelphia



Documents: birth certificates, death certificates, official documents like court records or bill of sales, and many more. These types of documents can be found through the National Archives, libraries, and the internet. Many of these documents have been scanned and are easily accessible to view from the comfort of your home.

Civil War photo

Newspaper article in Virginia Gazette
record of what John Smith brought to Jamestown


Movies:  If you are like me, you like movies based on novels written long ago.  Some movies are better than others when it comes to accuracy.  I'll tell you one instance that made me smile.  Watch the different versions of Pride and Prejudice.  Then humor me and watch the Greer Garson version from 1940.  Look at the clothes she's wearing, compare them to the ones in the Kiera Knightly version and Colin Firth versions.  Then, knowing what you know about that time period - tell me which one is the most accurate.  Movies made about different time periods can be horribly flawed, so be careful when you use these.  I hate to say this, but I will - I have noticed the British are much better at producing historical movies because they tend to lean towards accuracy - even it looks a little dirtier than what we envision.  Keep in mind also that events tend to be changed in the movies to better fit what they want to show us, so as far as those details, be wary.



Now that you know where to look, start creating your own file of these primary sources on your computer so you can easily open them whenever you need. them.  One of the things I like to do is create a photograph file of certain documents so I just have to open up furniture and see examples of what I want in my settings.



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