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


  1. Sarah, I love research! Reading old letters and trying to imagine how our world once was just fascinates me. Another good resource are the history departments of local colleges and universities. The University of South Carolina had a Caroliniana Library that accepts old letters, photos and family Bibles that folks would just otherwise throw away. Great stuff available there.

    Love the cover of your book and that time period. It looks fascinating!

    1. Great idea, Angie! And universities often have fantastic website info too. For example, Duke University has an extensive exhibit on WWII rationing.

  2. Great list of resources, Sarah! I completely agree about using historical societies. I found immense help at the Garland County Historical Society in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I was researching my post-WWI romance series set in that city. Everyone there was so happy to help, going the extra mile to track down information for me.

    1. That's what I've found about experts - they love to share!

    2. Myra, I'm so excited that you wrote about Hot Springs, Ark., one of my favorite places! I actually dashed over to Amazon and just ordered When the Clouds Roll By--can't wait to read it. :)

      Another resource that a historical society may have is a collection of oral histories, transcribed interviews, and/or unpublished memoirs from oldsters who lived during your book's time period. These are great not only for the first-person stories of what they remember, but also for insight into how people talked, the vocabulary they used, the cadence of their speech, etc. Wonderful stuff.

    3. Great points, Jennifer. Thanks!

  3. I approached some Confederate reenactors one day and began asking questions. Before I knew it, I had a great tidbit for my book. Loved it! Thanks, Sarah.

    1. How fun! Those reenactors know SO much - and they're sticklers for getting things right.

  4. Hi Sarah, what a great list of resources! I'm sure to come back to this many times! Right now I'm working on a western Christmas story I set in the most "west" you can get, Hawaii. So far I'm having good luck finding what I need in a terrific book I bought at the airport! Since I love history so much, I think I have a hard time keeping everything readable and simple and NOT sounding like a history lesson LOL.

    I loved your post for another reason, too...writers ARE introverts, and it's such a solitary occupation. It's great to have to get out there and meet people. Thanks!

    1. Don't you LOVE those wonderful book finds :) I also have problems with too much research in my stories. I've learned to give myself permission to dump it all into the rough draft, then ruthlessly prune on the edits. Then my editor prunes more. And more.

  5. You touched on almost all my favorites, Sarah! Newspapers are my #1 resource, and many historical papers can even be found in digitized formats online (such as the California Digital Newspaper Collection: For cultural and social tidbits, I also love period magazines like Ladies Home Journal or Fortune, and I'm a RABID collector of antique mail-order catalogs! Sears, Montgomery Ward, Charles William, Phillipsborns... they all provide great insight on fashion and everyday life. Old postcards, old letters -- you can scour eBay for all kinds of treasures. And one of my most recent discoveries is Google Books. I've found so many priceless research aids from these free downloads of no-longer-copyrighted books and manuals, many of which aren't even available in libraries. A manual on how to properly display leather gloves in a department store? No sweat! :-) Finally, I think the GREATEST resource is... other historians and historical writers! I've been able to connect with other researchers via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and more, and not only made several new friends, but also got invaluable research help and advice from all over the country. An absolute must, especially when you're writing a story set somewhere other than your own back yard! :-)

    1. Amy - I love magazines and catalogs! So much fun - how REAL people lived! And I agree about fellow writers - they can often point me to a great resource! And I love pointing fellow writers to resources too.

  6. Sarah, I'm not a historical author, but I admire the amount of research you talented gals put into your work.


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