Research for me is an important part of my job. History and the historical setting almost become characters all their own and it’s my job as an author to give the reader an accurate portrayal, without boring them to tears. It’s a fine line to walk.
When I first began reading, I was easily drawn into the settings and time periods. I remember as a child going in search of the historical facts as I read a particular book. One of my favorite books was Pride and Prejudice and so I wanted to know more about England and the 1800’s. It happens that way even now when I read historical fiction. I think that’s due in part to the author’s ability to relate the history in an intriguing way. But, to do so requires work on the author’s part. In the case of Jane Austen—she was writing contemporaries. She wrote about what she knew, which is the writer’s first encouragement in basic writing classes. Research accuracy is just as important in contemporary stories as it is for historical. Nothing is worse than to be reading along about a place you know and have the author describe it inaccurately. For instance, I grew up in Kansas where there are no mountains, but I’ve read poor fiction that put them there.
When I was managing editor I received a lot of manuscripts from would-be authors and attended numerous one-on-one appointments with the same. In many cases the historical details were either few and far between so that the story was simply a contemporary in period clothing or the details weren’t there at all. Worst of all were the stories where there were a ton of historical details, but most of them were wrong. In dealing with one author whose historical facts were mostly historical inaccuracies, I ask her why she hadn’t done her research. I pointed out detail after detail, explaining to her that publishers check facts and want accuracy. She was completely indignant and replied, “Why? It’s just fiction.”
As a storyteller who loves to write historical fiction I am in defiance of poor research. I want my research to be as detailed and accurate as possible. People who read my books know this and expect it. It’s a trust between my readers and me. They know when they pick up my work, I will have done my job. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes—because I have and do. And when I do, my readers love to point it out. Keeping that in mind makes me work all the harder. Sometimes, however, I do get called on the carpet for what the reader believes to be inaccurate when in fact it might be a detail that was subjective to the individual or the location. I had one reader berate me for details I had in a character’s breast-feeding, yet the issues were documented and I’d even talked to women who’d experienced the same. So you have to keep in mind that sometimes facts can vary. Another issue that’s hard to deal with at times is the reader who writes to tell me that what I wrote can’t possibly be right because their grandmother told them stories about the same event and my details were different. I always try to explain that if you have ten eye witnesses to the same event – you’ll most likely get ten various opinions. When researching I usually go for the details that seem most often agreed. As a historian, my husband taught me early on to use the “rule of 3”. Get at least three various sources regarding the detail I’m researching. If they all agree, it’s probably accurate.
Keeping that in mind, when I sit down to plot out a story, I make notes about the location, time period and events that might have taken place in the locale. I start reading as many non-fiction books as I can and watch documentaries. Right now I’m working on a series set in Oregon Territory in the 1840-1850’s. I have about twenty books on my desk that deal with the time period, location and events. I have an additional ten on my Kindle or computer that are public domain. Many of these are diaries from people who lived in my time period and location. I listen to lectures from experts on my topics and dig into government records. The series I just finished writing deals with the discovery of Yogo sapphires in Montana. I had to research sapphires and how they were found, how they are treated and faceted, and what goes into actually creating jewelry. I found a wonderful team of folks who still mine Yogos and create jewelry to advise me. In fact, I even bought my own Yogo sapphire ring. Hey – it’s research, right?
With each book I have historians I talk to. I go to the places that I write about (if at all possible) and I even go to the trouble of learning various arts and crafts that might pertain to my story. For instance, right now I’m learning to use a spinning wheel. In the past I’ve learned to tat, make soap and candles, panned for gold and even drive a stage coach. The travel and learning are fun for me and make my stories come alive. Best of all, I hear from the readers who have found themselves intrigued enough that they want to visit the places I’ve written about. Homeschool moms have told me they’ve used my books to interest their daughters in history. Seniors RVing through their retirement have told me about reading my books on the road to each other and suddenly remembering stories about the location or events that were handed down to them from great-grandparents.
Another aspect of this trust regarding accurate research is that my writing is a ministry for me. I often speak at events and when I do I explain that I’m unapologetic for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you find that offensive, you’ll find my books to be the same and we might as well get that matter settled right up front. I want to share the Gospel message and Bible application for everyday living, without beating people over the head with the Bible. In doing my historical research accurately, hopefully it will also encourage the reader to believe I’ve done my Biblical research as well. That’s important to me and definitely stimulates my defiance of poor research. I want to share my faith, because it’s the foundation of all that I hold dear. It’s my life and of course is going to come out in my writing.
So when you pick up a Tracie Peterson novel, remember that a lot of research went into the story, location and time period. Know that you can trust me to have done my homework to bring the history alive in as accurate a way as possible. And, if you find that I’ve made a mistake—you may feel free to write me about it. I promise I won’t be at all defiant. Now, I must be off. I’m plotting a story with three young women who will work at a chocolate factory so I have to go research chocolate.
Phoebe Von Bergen is excited to accompany her father when he travels from Germany to purchase sapphires in Montana. Little does she know that her father’s plans–for the gemstones and his daughter–are not what they seem.
Ian Harper, a lapidary working in Helena, finds the young woman staying at the Broadwater Hotel more than a little intriguing. Yet the more he gets to know her, the more he realizes that her family story is based on a lie–a lie she has no knowledge of. And Ian believes he knows the only path that will lead her to freedom.
Meeting Ian has changed everything. Phoebe is determined to stay in America, regardless of her father’s plans. But she may not be prepared for the unexpected danger as the deception begins to unravel.
Tracie has also offered a book giveaway to celebrate the release of her latest book, A Beauty Refined. The winner will receive a paperback copy and is open internationally. Enter through the Rafflecopter link below:
The giveaway will run until July 19, 2016 and the winner will be announced on July 20.
Tracie Peterson is the bestselling, award-winning author of more than one hundred books. Tracie also teaches writing workshops at a variety of conferences on subjects such as inspirational romance and historical research. She and her family live in Montana.
Visit Tracie’s web site at: http://www.traciepeterson.com.