I’m currently doing research for three historical fiction projects. And all three will utilize different types of sources. I apologize that this post will mostly be lists and is a little dry. And it won’t even been an exhaustive list. But it will show how a zealous researcher needs to be creative, and the blog will, I hope, showcase some great ideas you may not know about.
My Three Historical Fiction Research Projects
- A book set in Australia. It needs to be suitable for the Imagination Station reader (second and third grade). I need a topic that will have an exciting cover and isn’t too scary. It also needs a least one historical character who is a Christian. and, of course, a happy-ish ending.
- The Neo-Babylonian Era. I’m hoping that the publisher who has my proposal for a Fiery Furnace story will buy it, and I’ll need to know (among many things) how the very-very-tall statue of Nebuchadnezzar was built. Did they have to build a large furnace for such a large statue, or was the gold smelted and patched on in batches? How large were the bellows that fueled the fires with air and how many men did it take to operate them?
- Pre-Historical Times (Old Testament). I’m currently writing a book about Noah’s ark for the Imagination Station series. It’s got a great cover concept and a person of faith (obviously).
The Australia Project
This period of history is roughly from 1778 (when the first convicts were dropped off in Botany Bay) to 1944 (the end of World War II). This era is well documented through books, government documents, newspapers, and journals. Many of the papers have been digitized over the last decade. (Yay for us historical fiction writers!) The challenge will be narrowing down a topic and time period and keeping myself from over-researching. My daughter lives in Australia, and I flew to visit her. During my stay Down Under, I went to museums, libraries, and thrift stores. I could not bring back every book I wanted, so I took photos of bibliographies and the title pages of appropriate books. Here’s what I’ll do when I get home:
- I’ll do a quick read through the two books that I purchased (these were large, thick books and together weighed eight pounds). These two include biographies about a few Christians. As I skimmed them, I saw words such as “Sunday school,” “chaplain,” “Anglican,” and “church.”
- I’ll email the list of curators I compiled when I visited museums. Besides grandmothers, curators and historians are the most helpful people in the world. I’ll ask them for ideas about events in Australia or people in Australia that would make a good topic for a children’s book.
- Before I left, I searched my local library, and they didn’t have many helpful books on Australia. I’ll pursue checking out the other books I took pictures of on my phone from with World Cat, an interlibrary loan system. (Describing that will be a blog all on its own.) I’ll also try to find books listed in the bibliographies I took photos of.
- After I select a topic and a region—let’s say I choose Ruth Heathcock, who was a nurse to Native Australians (Aboriginals) in the 1930s and cared for those with leprosy. She was born in Adelaide, a city in South Australia. I’ll seek out librarians and historians in that area to help me with my book. Often local institutions have folders or binders of material that hasn’t been put online. I may have to pay to have them digitized and emailed to me, but usually they just ask for a donation of around $20. (I’ve done this when I’ve needed blueprints of famous buildings.) They may also have self-published pamphlets you can purchase that won’t show up on library searches.
- I’ll also be able to research newspapers that may mention Ruth. The US libraries don’t offer access to Australian newspaper archives, but the National Library of Australia does. I can do this from the US. On Wikipedia there were some newspapers cited on her entry (see link above), and I’ll be able to find the entire article.
- For describing objects in the story, I’ll look through antique catalogs and websites, perhaps even eBay if I need to know what her medical bag would have looked like.
- Journals of other people at the time. I’ll read journals to capture a flavor of the vocabulary of the time. If Ruth doesn’t have one, I’ll find writings by other Australian nurses who wrote during the same time period.
- Of course I’ll use Google and Bing and Safari. ALWAYS use multiple search engines as they search differently. And try to use them AFTER you’ve done the other research, and here’s why: You may get lazy and think you’ve found enough material. You also have to verify what you find online. Not doing the extra work to reach out to museums and libraries where archives are stored will perhaps leave you with plain vanilla-style research when you can have crème brûlée. Just saying.
The Neo-Babylonian Project
This project is the most difficult one I’ve ever done. A friend introduced me to an archaeologist at Wheaton. He told me some sad news. No one has uncovered a large furnace in the Babylon area, and not for want of looking. The Sunday-school illustrations of the fiery furnace show vastly different speculative approaches. All of them are missing a fuel source and the men using bellows to keep the fire “seven times” hotter than normal, per Daniel 3:19. This is not Moses and the burning bush. Huge contained fires don’t just spontaneously occur.
- After exhausting Bible encyclopedias, I went to Bible commentaries on- and off-line. I checked out every book on Babylon I could find in my library and in World Cat, both adult and children’s. I also consulted online blogs. Very little documentation was offered for the “facts.” Sigh.
- JSTOR. I had to revert to academic research for Babylon. JSTOR is the sorting house for academic papers. You have to register, but that part is free. Sometimes a journal article is not available, then you can get it through your library, a nearby university, a friend who is a student of a university, or by contacting one of the researchers themselves. As a last resort, you may have to pay for it. I’ve found out a lot about Babylonian architecture and their foods. I have reached out to a researcher who “cooked” authentic food to ask him how they recreated a Babylonian kitchen.
- Quora. This is an “ask anything” website in which you get replies quickly, like sometimes five minutes. The quality varies. I’ve reached out to people on this site and have gotten helpful answers about gold smelting. I plan to refine my questions and ask more as I go through the project. Be careful. Quora will send you emails that have click-bait in them. You have to be careful not to lose time reading the bizarre things they cover, like “What’s the meanest thing you’ve ever seen a nurse do?”
- The Internet Archive. This amazing site has digitized books and recordings. You can “borrow” a book for an hour. It’s free, but I do donate. I have found a charming song about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by Louis Armstrong. There are also sermons and other interesting audio files in addition to books. I could listen to sermons about Daniel 3. So far, this hasn’t helped me with this project, but I’ve had some amazing finds in the past, especially for ideas for marketing.
Noah’s Ark Story
Basically, I’ll be doing a lot of speculation on this. I’ve also watched the movie, which I don’t normally do in case the producers made stuff up. There aren’t a lot of sources other than Bible Encyclopedias. Because I’m including the “giants” otherwise known as the Nephilim, I’m using Jewish sources and Biblical Archaeology Review.
Biblical Archaeology Review has in depth articles about Bible lands. My library has only a few hard copies. The Universities have it, but I have to go to the stacks. One year, I had to buy an online subscription. But I mention this because I’ve found it to be the best source for biblical information that’s not in commentaries. Sometimes other archaeology magazines are helpful, and often, Smithsonian has helpful articles.
Let’s stay connected.
Want to chat with me for 30 minutes to discuss your project for free? (Or we can talk about Australian Rules Football (Footy). My daughter plays it professionally.) Email me at HeLovesMeBooks@gmail.com to set up a time.
About Marianne Hering
Marianne Hering was a founding editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Since then she’s been writing for children and editing Christian books for adults. Find out more about the Imagination Station book series that has sold more than 1 million copies at MarianneHering.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.