Tips for Historical Writers

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From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Historical true crime requires the writer to don a detective’s hat to unearth real details about the case(s), and the research can seem daunting at times. Historical fiction also demands that the writer get his/her facts straight. Today, I offer tips to help you find reliable source material, from which to build a factual narrative.

To write a realistic narrative for historical true crime, research includes:

  • Facts of the Case
  • Life of Historical Figures (killer, victim(s), family life, etc.)
  • Forensics (Fun Fact: Some of the toxicology tests are still used today!)
  • Occupations
  • Food and Dress
  • Wealthy v. Poor (differences in daily life)
  • Modes of Transportation
  • Investigators (Think: How did the police catch criminals back then?)
  • Court System (jurors, sentencing, lawyers, judges, witness testimony, expert witnesses, prosecution’s theory, defense, etc.)
  • Prison Life and/or Mental Hospitals
  • Burials

Where to Start the Search?

If the crime occurred in the 17th or 18th century, the task becomes more difficult. Not impossible. We just need to think like an investigator.

Let’s say we only have a name, place, and approximate year for our victim or killer. The first logical step is to conduct a Google search to see what’s available online. Someone must have written about the case, right? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes we’ll get lucky and find an article or two, other times *crickets* Which I prefer. Fewer articles mean the industry isn’t saturated with books on the same topic. It’s also harder to find what we need.

Pro Tip: If we do find an online article about the crime, don’t solely rely on that information. Instead, within said article search for the author’s sources. Most true crime and historical writers link to outside sources or cite where they’d gathered facts, and those are the gold nuggets we want.

. . . .

Three-Source Rule

If we can’t verify a fact with two other sources, historical fiction writers could still use it in a story. Historical true crime writers should not. This is my personal rule, not an industry requirement. Some publishers ask the writer to verify each major fact with at least one other source. Even if they never request the citation, their legal department might. House lawyers rest easier knowing we verified with more than one source.

Pro Tip: Keep a log of where you find both primary and secondary source materials. It’ll save you from having to flip through mountains of research papers later.

Exception to Three-Source Rule

Suppose we find a newspaper article that we’re able to authenticate with a trial transcript, deposition, or other court document. Since we have the primary source (court document) which states the same fact, the newspaper gains credibility. Say, we can’t find primary sources to substantiate the reporter’s claim. If the primary source doesn’t contradict those facts, then verify with two secondary sources.

See what I’m sayin’?

True crime readers expect the truth, not our fictional interpretation. Part of our job is to question a reporter’s research. To sell newspapers “facts” are often embellished or sensationalized. By doing so they created eye-popping headlines.

Pro Tip: Embellishments can destroy a factual narrative. Dig deeper to find the truth.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

14 thoughts on “Tips for Historical Writers”

  1. This is great advice. It works for fantasy and horror, too. While in fantasy one does not have to be as strict in the verification of the details of a case, there’s something to be said for going to the source materials as the basis of your world, lore, magic, etc. And the worldbuilding details like food dress, class differences and so on.

    Even if you weren’t going to write a straight up historical fantasy, the secondary world you set the fantasy in can be modeled after a historical time period. It’s a lot easier to answer Patricia C. Wrede’s questions when you can find out how things were in Renaissance France or Warring States Era, Japan, and adapt accordingly.

    The OP mentions that its hard to find data in the 17th or 18th centuries — was it easier in previous centuries? Is Cadfael easier to research? Seriously asking — but if you get enough details right you can jump off to the fantasy part. No one is entirely sure of when the Sawney Bean legend originated, but it’s thought the evil family lived in 16th century Scotland.

    So, get everything right you can about Scotland in that time period, particularly in the area of Bennane Cave, so that readers will go with you when you decide the Beans were actually the thralls of a Lovecraftian monster they were feeding. A monster that is now loose once King James VI has the family executed …

    Pro Tip: Keep a log of where you find both primary and secondary source materials. It’ll save you from having to flip through mountains of research papers later.


    • Useful stuff.
      Researching Historical societies and cultures isn’t just for historical or fantasy; lots of SF series draw their world building templates from past times. Prominent are the HONORVERSE and REPUBLIC OF CINNABAR series, along with pretty much every interstellar/galactic Empire.

      As for 16th/17th century crime I would at least look at Dumas, Pere and his Celebrated Crimes. He already did a lot of research (and sensationalization) that can serve as a starting point on a lot of the cultural stuff.

      Off topic:
      You enjoying today’s blockbuster news?
      (MS buying ZENIMAX/Bethesda, et al.)
      That gives them BETHESDA, OBSIDIAN, and inXile. They’re only missing BIOWARE. Maybe tbey’ll go after SPIDERS next. 😮

      And they drop the news tbe day before preorders go live. 🙂

      • I just started on the Republic of Cinnabar series, but I agree that SF does use history as a template. The good ones, anyway. I often have to point out historical examples to explain why a SF scenario needs fixing or beefing up when I’m doing a beta read:

        “I don’t know of any families (ark ships) that went on the exploration journeys in real life. They come after the scouting and discovery of new lands, during the settlement phase. This will be doubly true if no one is sure of where a wormhole will lead, or if it will remain stable.” And so on.

        I never knew about “Celebrated Crimes,” so thanks for that tip.

        But Microsoft! They’re going to get BioWare, at least according to an article a couple of weeks ago. Well, specifically getting EA, which will give them BioWare games (the article named Mass Effect).

        GamePass does look more and more attractive…

        • MS already has EA games on GamePass without buying EA.
          Not new releases (those only get 10 hour trials) but the older games. At least 50/60.
          They announced it last week. They go live during the holidays.

          As for the CINNABAR series, you’re in for some fun. The society is pure Roman Republic and the core conflict in each volume is based on a specific scenario of classic Rome. Plus the characters. There’s the librarian from hell, the sociopathic assassin trying to learn to pass for human, the tomcatting commander who only dates bimbos to avoid serious relationships (minor spoiler, despite all his efforts he ends up engaged to a woman of substance. He’s still wondering how it happened).

          Where HONORVERSE was originally inspired by Hornblower, CINNABAR was inspired by Aubrey/Maturin. (You’ve seen MASTER AND COMMANDER, right? Too bad no sequel.) Each one is mostly standalone though they string on a timeline.

          Oh, and the CELEBRATED CRIMES are omnibused in at least one free Kindle ebook. Or in individual volumes. My mother loved them.

          • Based on Rome? That explains why Adele’s family situation reminded me of the Proscriptions. I should have figured.

            And yes, I did see “Master and Commander.” It was good, and I’m surprised they weren’t able to make a franchise out of it. Maybe someone can revisit in the form of a TV series, like Sharpe (one of the copy editors at work loved the Sharpe series). Since no one in Hollywood can do anything original anymore, they can at least adapt the good stuff.

            I’ve now grabbed the Celebrated Crimes. I spot one name in the table of contents, “The Man in the Iron Mask.” So there was a real basis for the story.

  2. I’ve just published (thursday of this week!) a spy novel set around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1959-1962. I lived through those years, old enough to drive. My God, how much the world has changed since then. Xerox? Yes. Melamine? Yes. Computers on your desk? Nope. Ferries from Tallinn Estonia to Helsinki Finland? Nope, the USSR shut them down. Hair dryers for melting snowy bodies free from the Soviet winter before cellular changes made diagnosing certain causes of death impossible? Nope. MI5 files on microfilm? Yep. Email? Come on. Most fun I’ve ever had? Yep.

    • Melamine, huh? I try to get furniture made of wood, because they’re easier to paint 🙂

      My art history teacher once showed us students pictures of him visiting the architectural treasures of Greece, from his college days in the 60s. He kept mentioning getting sunburns, and I remember asking him why he didn’t just use sunscreen.

      “I would have, if it existed!”

      Congrats on the book.

      • Must’ve been real early.
        My kneejerk reaction was: “huh? Can’t be. ”

        So I looked:,had%20a%20sun%20protection%20factor%20%28SPF%29%20of%20two.

        Protecting skin from the sun’s harmful rays has always been a concern. Early civilizations fought this danger by utilizing a variety of plant extracts. For example, ancient Greeks used olive oil, and ancient Egyptians used extracts of rice, jasmine, and lupine plants. Zinc oxide paste has also been popular for skin protection for thousands of years.

        Interestingly, these ingredients are still used in skincare today. When it comes to the sunscreen we are familiar with, however, all active ingredients are chemically derived, a feat that could not have been possible thousands of years ago. Perhaps that’s why most modern sunscreens were invented by chemists.

        So, who is responsible for the invention of sunscreen, and when was sunscreen invented? There are several different inventors who have been credited over time as being the first to develop the protective product.
        In the early 1930s, South Australian chemist H.A. Milton Blake experimented to produce a sunburn cream. Meanwhile, the founder of L’Oreal, chemist Eugene Schueller, developed a sunscreen formula in 1936.

        In 1938, an Austrian chemist named Franz Greiter invented one of the first big sunscreen products. Greiter’s sunscreen was called “Gletscher Crème” or “Glacier Cream” and had a sun protection factor (SPF) of two. The formula for Glacier Cream was picked up by a company called Piz Buin, which was named after the place Greiter was sunburned and thus inspired to invent sunscreen.

        In the United States, one of the first sunscreen products to become popular was invented for the military by Florida airman and pharmacist Benjamin Green in 1944. This came about because of the hazards of sun overexposure to soldiers in the Pacific tropics at the height of World War II.

        Green’s patented sunscreen was called “Red Vet Pet,” for “red veterinary petrolatum.” It was a disagreeable red, sticky substance similar to petroleum jelly. His patent was bought by Coppertone, which later improved and commercialized the substance. They sold it as the “Coppertone Girl” and “Bain de Soleil” brands in the early 1950s.

        I’m pretty sure the Bond girls used it in the old movies.

        Still, it inspired me to verify.
        So the egyptians and ancient greeks had it.
        That is useful to know.

        • Interesting history! I started surfing (in Texas, of all places) in 1964, and every surfer I knew used zinc oxide on their noses. But nowhere else! I don’t recall anyone putting anything on their bodies to protect from sunburn. Some surely did, but for the surfers, it was a badge of honor to have sun-bleached hair and sun-browned bodies. In my case, I never burned. In fact—and don’t know why—I’ve NEVER burned, even though I was sometimes out in the sun 10-12 hours a day. And I still swim outdoors regularly. You should see my Speedo white butt! (Note: I’m a white Caucasian, born in northern Germany; go figure.)

            • Oh, they’re long dead. From skin cancer. But when I go to the dermatologist (regularly), he never finds anything and always shakes his head. “Where did you get that marvelous skin?”

              One of life’s mysteries, I guess.

        • Cool facts! I do remember those surfer dudes with white noses in old movies, and I was always mystified by why painted their noses instead of just wearing sunscreen. So it blew my mind when the teacher said it didn’t exist in his youth.

          But I can definitely use the info about the Egyptians and the Greeks. Until now, I thought they just settled for wearing hats and only going out at certain times of the day (if wealthy). It never occurred to me they might have found invented a proto-sunscreen. That is cool.

            • True! And now I’m reminded of the taunts of certain kings to enemy kings in ancient times. I thought the desert despots were just were referring to the logistics of enemies supplying would-be invader troops with water in the desert. But sunburns would be a factor, too. Definitely filing this away.

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