No matter what kind of novel you’re writing (unless perhaps it’s high fantasy or extremely autobiographical) you are going to have to research some aspect of your story at some point. And obviously, when it comes to historical fiction, research is an even bigger part of the process. But research isn’t all pouring over history books or old letters or diaries – though reading all the information you can find about your time period/historical figures is, of course, something you will need to spend a lot of time doing. But reading isn’t the only research you can or should be doing. There are lots of other methods you can use to learn the historical information and details you need to make your work come alive, and some of them can be unorthodox and actually a lot of fun. Below are some things you can do – many of which I have done – to approach your research in a different way and get away from the books and the computer screen:
–Look at paintings/artwork/photographs from the period you’re writing about: I’ve done this for both The Violinist of Venice and The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence. Looking at artwork and especially paintings created during the period you’re writing about can tell you SO MUCH: what the clothing looked like that people actually wore; what homes/buildings/churches looked like; what personal effects people may have carried or had in their space; what hairstyles were in fashion; jewelry fashions; what religious themes were chosen/depicted and what that might say about the artist or their patron, etc. Of course, for The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence artwork was especially key as many famous works of art appear in the story, so I looked at many of those online, in books, and in person. But those paintings were also helpful for the clothing, hairstyles, etc. And if photographs were around in the period you are writing about, certainly take advantage of those wherever you can find them.
-Listen to music from the period: Obviously, this was crucial for writing and researching The Violinist of Venice, a novel about music and Antonio Vivaldi’s music in particular. But even if your novel doesn’t explicitly include music, listening to music that was written or popular during that period can help you get a better feel for the atmosphere of the times.
-Look at/consult other primary sources or artifacts: For me with Violinist, this involved looking at the actual scores of some of Vivaldi’s music, specifically pieces I was describing in the novel. I also went to several museums over the course of my research and saw musical instruments from the period, some of which – like the viola d’amore – are no longer in use in modern orchestras. Look into the collections of museums in your area or places where you may be traveling and see what they have. There may be furniture, articles of clothing, pottery, household wares, etc. from your period that you can go and see (and possibly take pictures of, depending on the museum’s photography policy).
-Travel to the location where your book is set: If your novel is set in a specific city or area, try to go there for at least a few days and get a sense of it. I’ve done this with both of my two novels, and have been able to see exact locations where scenes and events in the books take place. I found those experiences to be completely invaluable and, in addition to helping with historical accuracy, greatly improved my sense of place and sensory details in my writing. Learning your way around the city or area can help with logistics in the novel as well, such as how a character would physically get from point A to point B, if it would be feasible to walk, etc. Obviously not everyone has the time or means to make such a trip, especially if your novel is set farther afield, but if you can it is absolutely worth the investment.
-Look at maps and photographs of your setting: Whether you can travel there or not, studying maps of a city or area is extremely helpful, especially maps that were drawn during the period your novel takes place so that you can see what it looked like then. Again, photographs from the period are helpful as well if they are available, but if not modern photographs can still give you a sense of a place you may not be able to travel to. And if you do travel there, take lots of photos of places important to your story. I always do this in my research travels and refer to the photographs later as I’m writing to help sharpen my descriptions or just generally give me some inspiration.
-Attend historical reenactments: I have not done this myself (yet), but I know other authors who have. Depending on what period you’re writing about, there may be a battle reenactment or something along those lines not too far from you that you can go and see. This can give you a great sense of everything from military tactics to clothing to weaponry to surgical instruments and medical care. Along the same lines, look for living history museums (something like Colonial Williamsburg) that may be relevant to your setting/time period. Such places can be an absolute wealth of information on all kinds of details.
Research can and should be about more than just reading, and these things and more can help you expand and enrich your historical fiction by presenting information in new and perhaps unexpected ways and contexts. The more period details you can include in your work, the more it will come alive for your readers and make them feel as though they are actually there, and the more they will be able to understand and relate to your characters. Always be ready to discover new information, by whatever means are available, even those that seen unorthodox. Even things you never thought you’d need can come in very handy when writing, so the more ways you can go about acquiring information, the better. Your work – and your readers – will thank you for it.