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October 2011

Reporter: Carla Stewart

Carla StewartCarla Stewart’s writing reflects her passion for times gone by. She is an alumna of the Guidepost’s Writers Workshop in Rye, New York, and has twice won the ACFW Genesis award. Her debut novel, Chasing Lilacs, released from FaithWords in 2010. Broken Wings released in June. Carla enjoys a good cup of coffee and weekend getaways with her husband.

Editor: Dawn Kinzer

Dawn KinzerDawn Kinzer is a freelance editor and a member of The Christian PEN and Christian Editor networks. Her own writing has been published in the Christian Fiction Online Magazine, Backyard Friends, and The One Year Life Verse Devotional, and featured on the radio ministry, The Heartbeat of the Home. She co-hosts and writes for the blog, Seriously Write. Learn more at her editing site.


Workshop 1: Historical Research

Sarah SundinWith her first highly acclaimed debut series (Wings of Glory) under her belt, Sarah Sundin (right) shared how she does research for her novels.

“The historical fiction market is strong right now,” Sundin said. “It’s a great opportunity for Christian writers to educate and entertain readers who long for simpler times. Experiencing how characters in past eras lived hard lives and overcame obstacles gives readers strength in handling today’s problems. But it is also a solemn responsibility.”

  • Since fiction may be the only history your reader gets, it falls on the writer to get it right.
  • Historical inaccuracy breaks the fictional dream and pulls readers from the story.
  • Keep your perspective. Someone will always know more than you, so don’t obsess over every tiny detail. Readers want a great story, not a history lesson.

General principles of research

  1. Rule of Threes: Try to obtain three sources, but this is not always practical. Instead, consider the weight of the source. Example: Government documents or professional journal articles carry more weight.
  2. Don’t impose modern views on historical characters.
  3. Organize materials. Sarah keeps a binder with tabs for various topics: clothing, music, hairstyles, WWII facts, photographs, and an extensive bibliography of research books and online links. This keeps everything centralized and may be useful in more than one book if you’re writing a series.
  4. Document carefully so you can answer editor queries when they arise.
  5. Watch the chronology.
  6. Rabbit trails can sometimes be a path to enlightenment or a black hole that adds nothing to the story.
  7. A combination of the bird’s eye view (dry facts and events) and the worm’s eye view (the “color” for human perspective) will inform and engage your readers.

Great resources

  • Books — the bibliography in the back is your friend!
  • Beware of the Internet. It’s both a treasure trove and a minefield of misinformation.
  • Google Maps, Maplandia
  • Government documents, in particular www.census.gov. Use the Publications tab for a wealth of information on names, occupations and consumer prices of the times.
  • Take journal entries, memoirs and personal interviews in context.
  • Newspapers, movies and periodicals are excellent for showing how people interpreted events of their day.
  • Ask your friendly neighborhood librarian a question and make their day!
  • Dictionaries with the year a word came into use and phrase/idiom dictionaries are essential.

In response to a question about using the vernacular of the day, Sarah emphasized that it’s good to find a balance between accuracy in dialogue and readability.

Researching for the historical novel is not for the faint of heart, but Sarah’s enthusiasm and specific helps inspired her audience to go forth and write fabulous historical novels.

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