Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Historical Research - Getting Creative by Sarah Sundin

Someone who loves to get the facts right and goes to great lengths to do so is author Sarah Sundin. Her World War II novels give the reader the feeling they've taken Wells' time machine back to the 1940s. Today, she's giving us some advice on where to look for elusive details while researching. -- Sandy 

Sarah: Dead end. When researching historical fiction, nothing is more frustrating. You’ve read every book you can find and Googled till you’re googly-eyed. You simply can’t find the information you need. Now what?

I faced this situation with my new World War II novel, On Distant Shores. My hero is an Army pharmacist and my heroine a flight nurse. Not enough information was available about these specialties to write my stories.

This is when you get creative and explore lesser-known resources. Here are some ideas to get your brain ticking.


Museums are chockfull of experts, and the variety of museums is boggling—air, automobile, maritime, and train museums. Mining, doll, wildlife, film, and surfing museums. I’ve found that experts love to share their expertise.

Historical Societies

Some historical societies have fantastic websites and some have museums, but they all have a wealth of information. These groups have historical maps, photos, journals, and newspapers. Often they sell books about the area.

National and State Parks

Parks are a great resource. For the Revolutionary War, think Minuteman National Park. For the Civil War, Gettysburg. For westward emigration, St. Louis’s Museum of Westward Expansion. Parks have experts and amazing bookstores. Even if you can’t visit, explore their websites and contact them.

Reenactment Groups and Sites

These people know their stuff. Civil War reenactors can tell you which button was worn by which regiment. The staff at Plimouth Plantation knows how the Pilgrims grew crops. The staff at Old Sturbridge Village knows about spinning wool in 1830s New England.

When I couldn’t find out how the cargo door of a C-47 plane worked, I talked to my nephew, who belongs to a WWII reenactment group for the 82nd Airborne. He told me all I needed to know.

Period Newspapers

If you have access to a local period newspaper, use it. You learn what people knew about events, when they knew it, and how they perceived these events. For my World War II novels, I found out what movies were playing, how many ration points were needed to buy a pound of pork chops, and how to prepare newspapers for collection. And the ads! Priceless gems!

Your Librarian

Librarians go to college to learn how to research. They have access to databases inaccessible to mere mortals. When you ask a question, they’re delighted to have a chance to use their training. Make a librarian’s day and ask!

Professional Researchers

When all else fails, consider hiring a professional researcher. The researcher I’ve hired has access to the National Archives. I don’t. He lives in Washington DC. I don’t. He found the entire unit history of the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, the setting for On Distant Shores, complete with photos and anecdotes. I cried.

When you hit a dead end, get creative. Contact people and ask questions. Yes, even if you’re an introvert like me. Experts love to share what they know. Give them a chance to do so, and everyone benefits.

Have you ever faced that dead end in your research? Where did you go from there? Share your story or your most unusual source. We're all looking for help at some point.


Sarah Sundin is the author of five historical novels, including On Distant Shores. In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Sarah lives in northern California with her husband and three children. Please visit her at