Thursday, April 26, 2018

Doing Research Right

By Elizabeth Musser @EMusserAuthor 

My inspirational fiction is historical. 

I write what I like to read. With a novel, I want the author to have done her homework and present me with a well-crafted story that fits believably within whatever time-period she has chosen. I will very rarely pick up a history book and read it (I was not very good at reading my history books even in college), but I’ll gladly learn from a novel.

So, I do lots of research. 

Sometimes as a writer, it’s a bit maddening to realize that I’ve spent days and maybe weeks understanding a particular part of history that may in fact only be mentioned in a couple of paragraphs in my book. But the research must be done well to lend credibility to the story, and, in the end, I am richer for it.

A few months ago, I was blithely reading a historical fiction novel, one that had made it on many bestseller lists and came highly recommended. I was enjoying it immensely, especially because this engaging and harrowing story was recounting an unknown-to-me part of history in America. I turned the pages quickly…


…the author did something that made me mad. She used a caricature for a character, grossly exaggerating something supposedly historical to the point that I just didn’t buy it.

And I felt deflated. 

Suddenly all of her exquisite prose and careful research unraveled for me. I finished the otherwise fine novel, but that one little slip by the author had tainted the story for me. It also served as a fresh reminder to do my research ‘right’.

I remembered all too well my first historical hiccup… 

In my debut novel, Two Crosses, I included an Author’s Note at the end, explaining the details of the Huguenot cross as it fit into French history. Somewhere between my writing the note and the publishing of the novel, the course of history got changed! I was mortified to discover that I had inadvertently destroyed the meaning of The Edict of Nantes*. (I actually think my editor changed it, and I never got to proof that part.)

Boy, was I embarrassed.

Fortunately for me, Two Crosses was reprinted (and re-edited!!!) a few years ago. My dear editor friend and I giggled at the mistakes we had made way back when.

How do we do research ‘right’? 

I’m obviously no expert, but here are three things that have helped me:

1) Whenever possible, get a first-hand account. 


This could come through an interview, research in a reputed history book or magazine, visiting a museum that has documented the history—something a little more trustworthy that Wikipedia (although I sometimes start there, just to get an idea.)

2) Visit the area.

As often as possible, I travel to the place I’m writing about to see it ‘up close and personal’. I need a visual to inspire my writing, so that my descriptions are accurate. If I can’t visit, I watch documentaries or find photos online of the actual place.

I visited the town of Aigues-Mortes in France while doing research for Two Crosses. The Tower of Constance, where Huguenot women were imprisoned in the 17th century, is seen in the distance.

3) Have smart and informed historians read your work.

(ie family, friends, professors, teachers, experts in the field). I’ve often been saved embarrassment by having someone wiser than I correct me.

My latest inspiration comes from a recent trip to Florida to visit Fort Caroline, the very first place that French Huguenots landed in what is now the United States. Or is it? A Huguenot descendant just told me last weekend that a reputable source is claiming that Fort Caroline was actually in Georgia.

At Fort Caroline

And so I go back to the drawing board…for a little more research…and trust that it will be worth it. 

*In 1598 The Edict of Nantes granted religious freedom to the first French Protestants (called Huguenots) until it was revoked by King Louis IV in 1685.

About Elizabeth Musser

ELIZABETH MUSSER usually writes ‘entertainment with a soul’ from her writing chalet—tool shed—outside Lyon, France. For over twenty-five years, Elizabeth and her husband, Paul, have been involved in missions’ work in Europe. To be closer to family, the Mussers have moved back to the Southeast for 2017-2018 school year and are living in the Chattanooga area near their son, daughter-in-law and three grandkids. But you can read about her humorous Thanksgiving experiences in France here. Find more about Elizabeth’s novels at and on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog.

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1 comment:

  1. I so agree, Elizabeth! Careful research is so essential--and also fun! But, try as we might, errors will creep in.