On Historical Societies
Writing any kind of historical fiction, no matter how “alternate,” requires research. Once you choose to set your story in some combination of place and year, you need to make that setting come alive. Through the frame of your character’s POV, your readers will be experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of your world. Whether it’s the feel of a slippery damask dress or the sound of the knocker-upper tapping on a window, the coffeehouse debate about the latest opera or the visual feast of a market display, your world is conveyed as much in the details as in the broad strokes of cultures, politics, and economies.
For most of us, that means taking to our armchairs and researching my book and screen. But this method can have profound limitations, especially for those of us without access to major research libraries. Do you spend money on expensive out-of-print editions, just to fill in that one plot point? What if there’s more recent research that’s still only in a journal article? Research can be a rabbit hole, financially as well as temporally, yet skimping on it can lead to criticism and blowback. What’s a writer to do?
One answer: the oft-overlooked historical society.
Ranging from museum-quality institutions to one-woman operations, historical societies share a primary mandate: to educate the public about local history. For writers, this means a treasure trove of focused research materials, with enthusiastic historians on hand to help you drill down to the information your book needs. Historical societies often have access to scholarly databases and specialist tomes, as well as archives of original material that will help you create a living, breathing world for your characters to inhabit.
My recent novella, Leviathan, would never have happened without the help of the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society. They provided me with suggested reading, scholarly articles, and maps that helped me create my fictional town of Medby. When it turned out that I had a chance to get to Scarborough, one of their historians kindly gave me a tour, pointing out buildings and details from my mid-18th-century timeframe. The Society’s thoughtful assistance helped me to inhabit Medby in ways that no general reading could have accomplished, and Leviathan was the richer for it. Now I have a fabulous resource to add to my writer’s toolkit.
L.S. Johnson lives in Northern California, where she feeds her cats by writing book indexes. She is the author of the gothic novellas Harkworth Hall and upcoming sequel Leviathan. Her first collection, Vacui Magia, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her novel remains vexedly in progress. Find her online at www.traversingz.com.
Written by L. S. Johnson