More on historical novels
Published: June 25, 2007
|In the August 2007 issue of The Writer, novelist John Smolens offered advice on writing and researching a historical novel. Following is some additional information from him on using the Internet as a research tool for such novels. |
"Googling" has only recently become a part of our language. The Internet can provide seemingly unlimited information. To find material on a person, place or event, open your computer to a search engine (Google, Yahoo!, etc.) and type in the appropriate phrase: "Napoleon Bonaparte"; "Erie Canal"; "Pan-American Exposition 1901." Putting your phrase in quotes helps the search engine sort through the all the material that's out there in cyberspace. Furthermore, including a date often helps narrow your search.
You should gather potential words and phrases from your research. Some may lead to dead ends, but in many cases you'll find yourself drawn down a circuitous path of rare, intriguing information. Be prepared to encounter new words and phrases which, in turn, you might google.
A cautionary note: As most of us know by now, the Internet, though convenient, can be misleading, if not blatantly wrong. Use the Internet only after you've hit the books and have a firm grasp of the period you're writing about. Be wary of facts taken exclusively from the Internet without any confirmation in at least one reliable published source. The reality is that anyone can put anything on the Internet; it doesn't require the editorial process we associate with the publication of books.
Here are some Web sites that lead to historical material:
ABC-CLIO Serials Web: for articles, book reviews, collections, dissertations and theses
American National Biography: American biographies
ArticleFirst: to browse journals and magazines
JSTOR: full-text access to journals
Recommended historical novels
Anything by E. L. Doctorow, particularly Ragtime, which offers a brilliant portrait of America at the beginning of the 20th century, and The March, which examines the nature of war as seen in Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's destructive campaign through the South during the Civil War.
Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, a quiet, exquisite rendering of the world of Vermeer in 17th-century Holland, told from the point of view of a young maid who may have posed for the artist's famous portrait.
Hitler's Niece by Ron Hansen, which renders a chilling, personal portrait of the Nazi dictator and his complex relationship with his beautiful young niece, Geli Raubal.
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant, which follows the adventures of a courtesan and her dwarf companion in Renaissance Italy.
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, a story of love, war and art, which combines the horrors of World War II and the heroic attempts to save thousands of works of art.
True North and Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison, which offer historical ruminations on how northern Michigan has been shaped by conflicting forces such as Ojibway culture, logging interests, and the pursuit of the perfect fishing spot.
John Smolens, a professor of English at Northern Michigan University, is the author of five novels and a collection of short stories, including Cold, The Invisible World and Fire Point. His new novel, The Anarchist, will be published in the spring of 2008 by Shaye Areheart Books. His blog is at www.jsmolens.blogspot.com.