Janet Oakley’s Advice for Researching Historical Novels

Janet Oakley, author of Tree Soldier, is back for Part II of her interview, sharing her advice and experience in researching for historical writing.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

The research was extensive, beginning with an overview of the program published in the government resources, but I was working for the Bellingham School District in a pioneer/outdoors program and had been introduced to some retired foresters who volunteered with the kids. Through one friend, I met and interviewed a number of men who had been in the “Three Cs” as it was sometimes called. One gentleman couldn’t understand why I’d be interested. He wasn’t a war hero, but I told him it was important to know. His stories just leaped out at me. I also read the local newspaper not only for announcements about the camps being built and the arrival of boys from back east, but for what was happening in the world at the time: movies, sports, radio shows, the price of chickens. And I went out looking for the projects.

What advice do you have for new authors who want to write historical fiction?

Well, you have to have a good story just as in any genre. Once you get the muse going, you’re going to have to do some research. There’s no getting away from that. In writing historical fiction you are dealing in worlds that had their own technology,culture, mores and media. I have researched four different eras for my novels: WW II, the early 1900s and  mid-19th century in the Pacific NW, and the Great Depression. For each I had to do some grounding. I did it old school and new authors should too. Hit your library and get out some solid books on the era you are writing in. There’s a tendency to just jump on the Internet and read Wikipedia, but the information out there is scattered and sometimes not reliable. Read the bibliographies in the back of books. Even fabulous non-fiction writers like Eric Larson have great bibliographies to lead the writer onto source material that will help things make sense. Some publishers (I think Writer’s Digest) have put out good books on life in a certain era that are helpful. Read newspapers and it you are lucky like I was, interview.

Create category files. For my WW II novel, I have them on the Gestapo in Norway, resistance groups, rationing, spy equipment, fishing and fisherman, occupation, deaf culture, etc. I started off on cards with a number on the card that went back to its place in my bibliography, but I seem to just photocopy everything now OR I write on sheets with a topic line. The most important thing is putting the notes with its source. This is not only vital for finding it while writing, but now that I’m going out on book tour, I see how important it is for talks. I can go to my notes and refresh my knowledge and write pieces like this.

Create a chart of topics you need to know about. See chart to right. What was the techonology of the times? How did they heat their homes, cook food, preserve food? Get around? Ship? Wagon? What was the medicine, communication? Politics? As you fill the chart you will come up with more questions, I’m sure. In Tree Soldier, a tree literally falls on my hero. I had him up in some sort of cast as I thought my brother was in during the late 50s, but after talking to a doctor friend of mine, discovered that in the 30s you were bound up with a figure-eight contraption with both arms in slings. For three weeks. Ulp. How would my guy feed himself? Enter the love interest.

After you get going on your background reading, taking notes however you want to do that, then you can go to the Internet and look at what’s really cool there- digital libraries and social media like Twitter and Facbook (Yes, museums tweet – I’m following the Gettysburg and Civil War ones right now) where you can read materials from the times, connect with historical organizations and find answers to your questions from experts. Having some background in the beginning will better prepare you for this phase.

One other advice is don’t get all bound up in the research. Keep the story going. Is Hannah really mad at her sister Rebecca going to the calico party (Huh? What’s that?) People are people throughout the times but as Diane Gabaldon said on a panel I went to on historical fiction, you have to take the times as they are especially in the roles of women and not put 21st century sensibilities on it. I’m researching the mid-19th century for both fiction and not fiction projects. There are definitely spunky women in literature as in North and South (the 1850s novel) The 1850s is the beginning of women’s rights, but there are consequences you have to consider. Keep it honest. And have fun.

Where can we find copies of Tree Soldier?

Tree Solder is available at

Createspace https://www.createspace.com/3493477

Amazon in Kindle and book form. http://www.amazon.com/Tree-Soldier-J-L-Oakley/dp/1453896473/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

And select bookstores such as Village Books. (I really want to support the indie book stores)

I’m blogging at http://historyweaver.wordpress.com and on Twitter at @jloakley

Tree Soldier’s at Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tree-Soldier/177455642270948

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Published in: on June 15, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. Janet, So many times I wish I had kept such good records of resources and historical facts for my historical novels and creative nonfiction. Thanks for showing that in your great interview. Next time I promise to do better. I have a lot of interviews with “tree soldiers” for articles I’ve written over the years and you’re right, their stories are important. The local Three C’s hold a reunion here in Arkansas at Devil’s Den State Park, one of their projects and I’ve attended several. There aren’t many of the guys left, but many widows continue to attend. I have some super pictures of their group. Thanks for taking the time to write about these guys here.

  2. great info! Can’t wait to read the stories!

  3. Excellent advice! I’m also anxious to read your book, Janet. I’m writing my second western historical and it’s so much easier than the first when I had to sit at a microfilm machine in the library for literally years reading 97 years worth of old newspapers. 🙂

  4. Thank you all for your kind comments. I was trained as a historian, writing my college thesis on the Comanche Indians As Prisoners of War. Used saddle reports, letters not opened in 70 years and other delights at the National Archives, Smithsonian materials in their archives.

    My prof was very old school, (well, to be honest, I’m a bit old school) but I’m glad he taught me strict rules. When I wrote my first novel, the cards definitely followed that line. For each book you put in the biblio created, give a number. Put that number on card. All cards, despite their topic have that number for the book. Same way with articles.

    I’m a lot more lax these days, but the source is always with the quote, the article copied, etc. The Biblio is on the computer, but the cards are still a handy way to organize.

    I’ve been reading CA newspapers for a non-fiction I’m researching. 1849-1858 so far.

  5. Interesting information. I’ve added your book to my list of “want to reads.” A woman at the local cafe at home (Kansas) has used family photos to decorate the walls. One is of a CCC camp. I’ll have to tell her about your book. I’m researching the home front on WWII for a kids serial story for several newspapers. I’m in Montana (near Troy and Libby)for the summer and have discovered to my delight that the Libby library has a complete collection of Life magazines. What a treasure chest for me.

    • Eunie, Enjoy Montana for me this summer! Wow, the collection of Life magazines–indeed a treasure! I may have to make a research trip to Libby one day soon!

  6. That’s neat Eunice. Where do you live in Kansas? Both sides of my family homesteaded there before the Civil War. Later my great grandfather lived in Burlington and Baldwin. Served as a mayor and later a state senator. I hope to go to do some family research. My GGF was a surgeon during the Civil War and was at Gettysburg.

    On the CCCs, remember that the program ended in 1941, in part due to recovery and to WW II. All camps were done by 1942.


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