A while back, I had an inquiry from a reader regarding research, specifically asking how I went about researching historical slang and stage magic. I decided I’d answer it here instead of in email, because while the specific subjects are fairly easy to address, there are some general questions that I think would be of interest to people as well.
Historical slang from the last three or four hundred years is not terribly difficult to find out about. There are quite a few dictionaries that deal specifically with slang. Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has been around since the mid-1930′s; there’s also the Historical Dictionary of Slang, and several similar titles, like The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, that focus primarily on British (as opposed to American) slang. The time-consuming part is browsing through them in hopes of finding a word that means what you want – they aren’t reverse dictionaries.
Reading letters, novels, and especially plays that were written at the time you’re writing is a good way to find useful period idioms, euphemisms, slang, and/or specific changes in grammar and vocabulary. Reading modern historical fiction set in the time period you’re writing is a bit dicey – it’s often difficult to be sure that the author did his/her research (and there’s always the temptation to make something up), but they can be a reasonable shortcut to finding words which you can then check out in your historical dictionary to make sure they really are period. (The Oxford English Dictionary is exceptionally useful in this regard because it is not only more comprehensive than anything else, it gives references with dates for the earliest usage of a word in each meaning.)
Stage magic is another thing that’s not that difficult to find books about. A lot of basic sleight-of-hand tricks have been around for a really long time, and there are plenty of books about the history of sleight-of-hand, famous stage magicians, and how the tricks are done, as well as how-to books for those who want to learn a few tricks (or just find out how stage magicians perform some of their famous illusions, like sawing the lady in half).
In other words, an awful lot of the research that looks like it should be tricky and difficult is actually much easier than it looks.
There are really two sorts of research that writers do: general and specific. It’s usually most effective to start with general reading, whether you’re writing historical fiction or a modern murder mystery. An overview of the particular time and place (Elizabethan England, Heian Japan, modern-day Australia, etc.) or a particular topic (horses, guns, poisons, military strategy, accidental injuries) gives you some idea what you’ll need to know and where to go looking for it. Starting with a general overview also provides you with background and terminology that is a great help when you move on to specifics.
When I’m researching a particular period, I usually start with books like A Social History of England or The World of Jane Austen. I read at least three or four of these overviews before I move into the next phase, in which I continue reading general histories but start adding biographies. I pick the biographies according to what I know about the book I’m going to write: for the Mairelon books, I read biographies of Wellington and the Prince Regent; for the Kate and Cecy books, I read more of those, plus ones about Beau Brummel and Lady Caroline Lamb, and a charmingly gossipy period autobiography I found in a used bin, titled Diary of a Spinster Lady. For the Frontier Magic series, I started with books about the most recent Ice Age in North America and the geology of the continent, then moved on to the few titles about pre-Columbus America; I followed up with a bunch of biographies and autobiographies of settlers on the Great Plains, plus the journals of Lewis and Clark.
By the time I finish all that, I usually have a stack of additional titles that look interesting and a list of things I want to know but haven’t found yet, like the period slang references mentioned above. Sometimes the things I know I’m missing are very specific – I spent several hours at the library hunting up a street map of London in the eighteen-teens for the Mairelon books, and another hour or so tracking down descriptions of early railroad journeys for Thirteenth Child.
It is often extremely useful to expand one’s research horizons beyond what is initially obvious. For instance, there are some great books about the construction of historical costumes that are written for people designing costumes for plays, which you can track down in the theater section, there are lots of books about “the world of Famous Author X (Shakespeare, Pepys, Jane Austen, Keats)” under literary criticism, and there are books about the design of period furniture under antique collecting and about the architecture of historical buildings under architecture.
During the writing process, I usually accumulate things to double-check – descriptions, distances, timing of events – and I spend a day or two looking them up and fixing them every couple of chapters (usually because I’m temporarily stuck and want to do something productive). The worst ones are the ones I sort of vaguely remember reading about, but can’t quite recall where – it takes forever to track them down.
Obviously, a book with a real-world setting, whether historical or modern, will usually require a lot more research than one where the author is making up the background from whole cloth. The interesting thing is that it’s often present day settings that the writer has to be most careful about, especially if they’ve never lived in a place where they’ve set a story. One has to be extra-careful, because there are a lot of people who have lived there, and who will catch you if you get things wrong.
There are also a number of specific topics – horses, guns, period dress, ships – each of which has a passionate and vocal following of folks who have apparently memorized every detail of their chosen obsession down through history. If you can find one of these folks, they are invaluable research references; on the down side, if you make an error in the size of a screw, they will let you (and everyone else) know about it. It is therefore well worth the time to put in a bit of extra research in these areas (and on others that attract ardent hobbyists), and to find a knowledgeable person to vet the manuscript in those areas if you yourself do not happen to share that passion beyond what you need to know for the story.