After researching and writing my novel Orphan #8—which was published by William Morrow in 2015 and is the August Target Club Pick and an Indie Next Great Read—I put together this list of eight rules for historical fiction research. For each I’ll give you an example of how I applied that rule of research to writing my novel.
By Kim van Alkemade
1. Take bad notes.
In 2007, I took some brief notes about a woman doctor who X-rayed eight children at a Jewish orphanage. I didn’t even write down her name. Yet these bad notes inspired me to write my first historical novel, Orphan #8. Only after the novel was finished, sold, and rewritten did I go back to this archive to consult the source of my notes. There, I learned the real name of this doctor, Elsie Fox, and with a little more research I learned she had been born in Austria, educated at Cornell, conducted X-ray research at the Home for Hebrew Infants, and founded a school for radiology in the Bronx. The character I created from my bad notes is named Mildred Solomon. She was born in the United States, went to medical school in New York, conducted X-ray research at the fictional Hebrew Infant Home, and went on to have a career in radiology at a hospital. The parallels are spooky, but I’m glad my bad notes allowed my imagination free reign to create a character who is entirely my own.
2. Use archives.
You don’t have to be an academic or a librarian to use archival materials. Archives are maintained for the purpose of preserving and sharing documents. Find an archive that relates to your period and subject. I did most of my archival research at the Center for Jewish History in New York where the American Jewish Historical Society has the archives of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. I found amazing information at the New York Academy of Medicine Library, and they later invited me to write a blog post about my research for the novel. But I’ve also used both paper and digital collections at the New York Pubic Library and materials from the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. When you use archival materials, look for quirky details and be open to inspiration.
3. Study old pictures.
Evocative historical writing is made up of more than facts and figures. By examining old pictures—either paintings or photographs—you can glean impressions that inspire your imagination and details that populate your descriptions. Many digital archives are now coming online, making this aspect of historical research easier than every before. I relied on the New York Public Library’s Old New York collection, where you can see a photograph of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. I also used the Beck Archives Photograph Collection at the University of Denver, where I saw a photograph that informed my description of heliotherapy (a real treatment for tuberculosis) and inspired my fictional Hospital for Consumptive Hebrews. The photograph below of a dormitory at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum was crucial for the setting of several important scenes in the novel.
4. Go on location.
Sometimes you have to go away from your desk and out of your house to get first-hand experience of your setting. I made two trips to Colorado while researching Orphan #8 and the descriptions based on those visits are more sensory than anything I could have gotten from a book or photograph. Your artistic impression of a place is crucial to creating an historical world that rings true for you as a writer. Landscapes may be the same as they were centuries ago; some city neighborhoods haven’t changed in a hundred years; ancient ruins can still be inspiring. If possible, talk to people while you are on location; their memories and impressions can yield invaluable details. I learned so much from Hy Bogan, who I interviewed at the location of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.
5. Read old books.
6. Visit museums.
7. Use the Internet.
8. Stop researching, start writing.