Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Historical Research - Part One

Image property of Pinterest.

I've had a request from a lovely Word Painter's reader to do a post or two on how I do historical research for my novels. So here is part one of a series I will be doing on how I personally recommend doing research.

The first topic I will cover is the mindset one must have when approaching historical-research. You ready?

Get all sides.

Look at every side you possibly can. There are a lot of historical prejudices out there. Take the American Revolution, for example. The British will insist on their side of the story. Americans will insist on theirs. Few people look at the side of the Native Americans or African slaves. To have a well-balanced view, you must look at every side.

Remember, don't take one person's viewpoint. Take as many as you can, then determine which seems the most logical and the most widely accepted as truth (although there are some exceptions; discernment is also necessary.). 

For example, I was recently studying the Battle of Watling Street. Unfortunately, there was no on-site historian to record events. And the only historian who did end up recording the cold hard facts was Tacitus - a Roman. But, not only was he a son of the victorious nation, he recorded the events many long years after the battle. The Britons were sold into slavery. And who is going to take the word of a slave for what really happened?

I did a ton of research on my own and got as many of the accepted facts together as I could. But I still didn't have the answer to my problem - no one could tell me the age of the youngest warriors on the British side. 

So I contacted historians on the History Channel. They are the world's leading experts on the topic. And three historians disagreed. One told me the youngest Britons were 19, another 13, another said we can never know. So what to do? These historians are professionals, after all! And, fact is, they don't really know any more than I do. 

So I chose what seemed the most logical choice - 16+. I determined this by the assurance the Britons had they were going to win (they didn't think they needed young boys fighting), by the age of the Roman legionaries (no warrior is stupid enough to pit a 13 year old boy against a tough 18+ legionary), and by what was the generally accepted age of manhood. But, to make this choice, I had to look at the problem from every possible side. 

So make sure you get the hard facts and get it from every possible side. That is one of the ways you can create a real feeling story, one that captures many more angles than just the boring one-sided facts. 

On a final note, what if historians disagree and both sides seem accurate? It is possible that both sides are. I experienced this a great deal in my medieval series. More than one possibility is definitely an option. In fact, claiming that only one side of the story is the perfect truth is probably foolish. (For example, abortion is prevalent here in America. Does that mean everyone has one? Does that mean everyone agrees with it? Does that mean there is one view about it. No. So how would we feel about a historian who only gave one side to this issue?) 

So go ahead and include both sides in the story. Maybe add a footnote or put something in the glossary to explain that there is more than one view. I think true historians will appreciate having both sides. I know I would!

Part Two coming on my next day to post, two weeks from today.

Alicia A. Willis is a home-school graduate, published author, and avid historian. She is a firm believer in the principle that one can accomplish anything by substantial amounts of prayer and coffee. Visit her at her blog to view her historical-fiction novels and all the goings-on between writing!


  1. Wow, this was already helpful! I liked how you used logic to determine the age of the Briton soldiers. It's also nice to realize that if one does have to make an educated guess and write something that isn't spelled out in historical records, one isn't necessarily wrong or unscholarly. Thanks for posting! I will be saving this for certain. : )

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful to you! Unfortunately, historians - even professionals - often have to make educated guesses. The key is in doing it with discernment and getting the best information you possible can. I hope your writing projects continue to go well!

  2. Great post! I think the lesser-known perspectives in historical events are some of the most interesting, and I liked what you mentioned about having a balanced look at all the factors at play. (P.S. Thrilled to recognize that monument! I've walked past it before :D)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! How I wish being envious was not a sin....I would love to see that monument! :)

  3. Great post! I delved into the early part of the American Revolution and worked really hard to get the British side of the argument. It was so eye opening. Getting both sides is so key to understanding history.


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