“An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.”
― Tony Hillerman
“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot."
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
If you’re interested in writing historical fiction one of the best ways to research the setting is to investigate the memoirs and accounts of people from the era in question. Encyclopedias, picture books and the internet can all give you information, but to transport yourself back in time nothing compares to eyewitness accounts. What did it feel like to be there? Personal accounts can also give you wonderful historical details or even character and plot ideas. Certainly they can help you create a believable scene. In other words, historical accounts are pure writing gold just waiting to be tapped for your own story.
Famous events were often recorded by a number of people. By finding different accounts of the same event you can experience the scene from multiple viewpoints. Take for example these accounts about the arrival of Union soldiers at Gettysburg the day before the great battle on Tuesday, June 30, 1863. Tillie Pierce and Daniel Skelly were both teenagers who lived in the town. James Kidd was an officer with the Union cavalry arriving at Gettysburg. Note the details and the emotions of these accounts:
A great number of Union cavalry began to arrive in the town… It was to me a novel and grand sight. I had never seen so many soldiers at one time. They were Union soldiers and that was enough for me, for I then knew we had protection, and I felt they were our dearest friends… A crowd of “us girls” were standing on the corner of Washington and High Streets as these soldiers passed by. Desiring to encourage them, who, as we were told, would before long be in battle, my sister started to sing the old war song “Our Union Forever.” As some of us did not know the whole of the piece we kept repeating the chorus. --Tillie Pierce
Surely now we were safe and the Confederate army would never reach Gettysburg . . . General Buford sat on his horse in the street in front of me, entirely alone, facing to the west in profound thought . . . It was the only time I ever saw the general and his calm demeanor and soldierly appearance . . . made a deep impression on me. --Daniel Skelly
It was a gala day. The people were out in force, and in their Sunday attire to welcome the troopers in blue. The church bells rang out a joyous peal, and dense masses of beaming faces filled the streets, as the narrow column of fours threaded its way through their midst. Lines of men stood on either side, with pails of water or apple-butter, and passed a “sandwich” to each soldier as he passed. At intervals of a few feet, were bevies of women and girls, who handed up bouquets and wreaths of flowers. By the time the center of the town was reached, every man had a bunch of flowers in his hand, or a wreath around his neck . . . The people were overjoyed, and received us with an enthusiasm and a hospitality born of full hearts.
--Colonel James. H. Kidd, 6th Michigan Cavalry
How does one find such accounts? A good way of researching nonfiction is using Google Books. Each of the accounts noted here were published before 1923 and therefore within the public domain and available in their entirety on Google Books. Harvard University and other institutions have made copies of their rare book collections available for download. By typing in a key word on Google Books you will spread a wide net and catch many interesting things to explore. When researching for my book on Gettysburg, I was able to discover a number of obscure, long out of print and forgotten sources this way. A number of those finds turned out to be pure research gems for my writing.
Another good way to find accounts is to check the sources used in larger historical works in the end notes or bibliography. Tap into someone’s expertise. If you are writing a ghost story set in Victorian England, find someone who knows about that era. Ask them if there are any accounts from that era you can read. It will save you buckets of time. Remember that historical accounts do not have to be someone’s published memoirs, they could be diary entries, letters, unpublished manuscripts, accounts from newspapers, even captions or notations made on photographs.
The key thing to remember is even a modest amount of effort to read historical accounts will reward you with a great deal of useful details, ideas and above all, a better understanding of the events and times you wish to write about.
About Iain Martin
Iain Martin was born and raised in Owego, New York. Currently he is the National Accounts Manager for Tantor Media, a division of Recorded Books in Old Saybrook, CT. Iain received a MA in American History from Southern Connecticut State University in 2000. He is the author of several books on military and American history. In 2013 he published a YA nonfiction title, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War with Sky Pony Press. The book was selected for VOYA’s 2013 Nonfiction Honor List.
Iain’s blog, “Touched With Fire” http://iaincmartin.blogspot.com/
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
Subscribe to my blog to receive email updates of my latest posts.