Picture this. You have this great book idea. A romance set in 17th century France, and the dastardly villain of a count who’s threatening to replace the male lead as the new lead. You’ve got a great female protagonist. You’ve got a setting. And then you realize it…you know nothing about 17th century France.
Where do you start?
Anyone who has ever written or tried to research a historical novel will know how much work it is. And if you love history as much as me, you’ll often find yourself overwhelmed by just how many research results show up on Google or Bing when you type in “17th century France.”
Today, I’m going to share some resources I find are invaluable for any writer when researching a historical novel.
Wikipedia seems like an obvious answer when it comes to researching history. Pretty much any topic you can think of (like the “The Eight Gates of Seoul”—yes, that is a real Wikipedia page I used for research) can be found there.
A lot of people complain that Wikipedia should not be the go-to website for researchers simply because almost anyone can change an article. While this is partially true (anyone can post, but usually there are moderators), Wikipedia is a great jumping off point when you know very little about an era or place.
Also, at the bottom of any Wikipedia page are footnotes (a.k.a., where they found the information), which can give you ideas of books and articles which could help your research.
Of course, Wikipedia should not be your only resource, but it’s a great starting point.
Archieve.org is perhaps my favorite website of all times (besides Youtube). If you don’t know what it is, it is an internet archive of millions of resources in the public domain (books, audio recordings, even films). Most of these resources are historical, and include old books which have been scanned into the computer.
This is an exceptional resource because many times these books are written by people that lived in the era you are trying to research. To keep with this mythical 17th century romance in France I’m writing (I’m not, but it’s a great example), I put “France 17th century” in search results and there are hundreds of old books. Sometimes search keywords can be tricky, so usually I pick a country and switch the search results to “oldest date published” and just scroll through hundreds of pages.
I like this website because many modern books about history don’t take the time to get the feel of the era, instead of opting to explain everything that happened through a modern (and often biased) lens. Of course historical novels will be biased as well, but at least they’re biased in a way the average person during that time would be biased.
Again, this is obvious. Personally, I’m not the type of person who wants to spend tons of money buying books for research that I’m not sure will be helpful. Instead, my local library is a great option. Not only are there tons of ebooks available for immediate borrowing, but the library is a great way to do an extensive amount of research without paying a dime (well, there are taxes, but you would pay that anyway).
I find it interesting when I recommend a book to anyone that their first reaction is to buy it. For me, I want to like what I buy. So, if you do find one book at the library to be super useful, you can always buy it then (I usually buy most of my books on Amazon, because you can get them used and super cheap).
I’m not certain how the library system is different in other countries, but in America we have an exceptional system. I’m curious what anyone who reads this from another country thinks about their library system.
Ah, yes, my number one addiction. I watch Youtube way too much (mostly travel vlogs and book reviews).
Again, Youtube isn’t a typical place you’d think to look for historical research and yet it’s sometimes the first place I’ll go. Not only are there tons of documentaries from different eras, but many times you can find travel vlogs that will go to places which might be featured in your book, as well as talk about food.
Just search Versailles and I’m pretty sure there will be tons of travel vlogger’s videos that feature pictures of the infamous French palace. When it comes to food, there are hundreds of Youtube channels that talk about traditional food. For example, the English Heritage Youtube channel has a series called The Victorian Way, which features a woman (in Victorian garb) cooking all sorts of Victorian foods in a Victorian kitchen (I’ll just add the word Victorian one more time for good measure).
Not only can Youtube help to visualize what the world would have looked like back then to help you describe it, it can also give you ideas to feature in your book.
When you think of Google Maps, you probably don’t think of historical research. After all, Google Maps is modern and we’re talking about history. But, just as Youtube can help visualize places featured in your book, Google Maps can be almost as good as traveling to old places.
As we’re still trying to write that pesky 17th century French romance, imagine being able to have a tour through Versailles in 360° without leaving the security of your comfy couch. Well, Google Maps gives you access to that. You can travel along the Great Wall of China. You can see the Taj Mahal. You can traverse the ancient trails of the Mayans to Machu Picchu. You get my point.
Google Maps is all about the visuals. It helps with descriptions and the pictures are absolutely beautiful!
I think the whole point I’m trying to make in this blog is to not to take seemingly unrelated or insignificant resources for granted. Some of the best ways to research history is to look at that which is most accessible. All of us can’t fly to Paris to meet with French historians and visit ancient palaces. So we are resigned to trying our best with the resources around us.
What are some of your favorite resources for research—historical or otherwise? Let me know down in the comments, and, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,