Filling in the Blanks – Research for my historical novel

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by Tonya Rice

Recently, I finally made it to the Library of Virginia to fill in some of the blanks left in my novel. It sounds like a trek across state lines, but for me, it wasn’t. It’s in downtown Richmond, about a fifteen to twenty minute drive from home. I had to plan the time and the days I made it offered the moments I required. I have to return soon, but for the most part, I got pretty much what I need for this book AND the other historical stories shaping in my head.

I’ve been there before. It had been a while; I had to renew my card. :-/ No problem at all – it’s the research geek’s paradise and I fit right in.

My novel has been built upon memory, oral history, and a great deal of imagination. Authenticity is very important to me and with tackling a historical piece set in my hometown, I’m sure there will be readers familiar with Richmond history with equally scrutinizing eyes who will expect a fine sense of some type of accuracy along with my creative license.

Back in the mid-70’s, a pivotal event happens to the main characters. All I could see was the two of them standing on the steps of a particular building. However, I needed to know if the building was indeed there on that particular day. Of all the things you can find online, that was one that I couldn’t. Not even through Wikipedia (which one must take with a grain of salt anyway). So, I approached one of the reference librarians who went straight to a book with the information I needed. Walking around the stacks pertaining to Richmond’s history, which included city directories of oh-so-many years, I exclaimed, “This is a wonderland”. She laughed and agreed. It felt so nice to be understood. Armed with my new information – the building in question didn’t exist then – I had to determine just where their activity on that day would have taken place instead. For that, I simply asked my mom.

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By Smash the Iron Cage (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A different building in the city that I had envisioned another character driving to in the late 1950’s needed verification of its existence at that time. For that, I decided to search the microfilm for advertisements and sure enough, there it was – a full-page ad in an old Richmond Times-Dispatch. At one point, I needed the name of a building of a college campus. I couldn’t just add it to the book – I needed to make sure it was actually there in the mid-1970’s. I got a hold of the college’s student handbook of that year and found what I needed. This place is AWESOME!

In an important moment of my story set in the 1970’s, a character is watching television. Since dates are noted in the book, it was absolutely crucial that the show she had on represented just what was on the air at that time. I remembered the beloved “Green Section” – the Saturday pull-out television section – of the now-defunct Richmond News Leader (it used to be our evening newspaper) and jotted it down to locate in my research. Through my search across those scores of the newspaper’s microfilm, I, again, found just what I was looking for.

In the late 1930’s, there’s a horrific event that I penned. In order to make sure I tackled the reporting of the incident the way I imagined it to be in a particular newspaper, I combed through headlines of the old Richmond Planet, the black newspaper, of that period. I was on par and therefore relieved. There’s no better way to research history than to take a look at what was going on during a certain era. History books have been helpful, even some documentaries along with my memory and oral history, but those direct resources and contemporary materials triggered additional memories of more things, along with questions about subsequent and even earlier events. Such research wound up offering suggestions as to how I could settle my folks around those times as well as settling those moments around them. It also delivered a lot more meat for other stories shaping up in my head. So even if I don’t use all of it for this one, the information and my time aren’t wasted.

I sincerely do hope that my story teaches a bit of history and culture of an earlier time to my readers, the way historical novels enlighten me. I am actually blessed beyond measure to be so close to a spot with so many of the details I need to fully tell my stories. The internet is not enough for me. I knew it wouldn’t be. I can certainly visit there more often. I made excellent use of a good three hours there each day, so once a week or so will be easier than I thought. Parking is free there too!

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14 thoughts on “Filling in the Blanks – Research for my historical novel

  1. That’s why I love libraries. They’re truly a wonderland and there’s only so much Google and Wikipedia (grain of salt indeed) can provide. I’d love to visit this place one day.

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    1. You’ll never wanna leave! LOL! I can’t wait to go back. For local and state history, it’s the best. Many of the resources I find there, I wound up looking for and buying for my own shelves. The newspaper archives can’t be beat!

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  2. I love doing research at the library, although lately I’ve been lazy and depending on the internet. The library has a wealth of resources, and even though it’s a huge time commitment, it’s worth it. A person can explore so many “rabbit holes” that you just have to tell yourself “enough!” 😉

    It sounds like you’ve done a lot of quality research on your novel. This is exciting!

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  3. I love historical novels and will anxiously await yours. As a retiree, I’m finally experiencing the fun of researching for my writing. Libraries are the best – I’m heading off to my local one today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I finished it last week and have been in a catatonic state since then; it consumed me for so long I didn’t know what else to do! LOL I’ll keep you posted. Now I thankfully have time to read books by other people again – and I’ve missed that soooo much! 🙂 The Library of Virginia recently cut hours to their research room down to just 4 days because of the budget and laid off folks. Pains me a lot. Doing my research there made the work absolutely enjoyable, too. I have trouble understanding the state’s decision here on such a matter!

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