History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 May 2011

Research & Documentation: A Primer

I grew up in the world or re-enactors, so I have very definite ideas about what research is and what it takes to document the minutia of everyday historical life. In the re-enactment community, we talk about things being “documented” and “undocumentatable” all the time. We harp on it constantly, and argue over what is and what isn’t. We disagree about interpretations and conclusions. It’s a constantly evolving hobby, and this is part of the fun (really . . . no, really). And since we’re attempting “living history” we have to know not just the dates of battles and the names of major historical figures, but the little things like what food stuffs were available and, more importantly, common for the class and location of our persona.

I believe that writers of historical fiction need this same type of knowledge base. I’ve occasionally been vilified/attacked for pointing out that some cherished facet of Romancelandia is, in fact, erroneous (men wearing wedding rings), anachronistic (scones in Regency settings), or just plain wrong (engagement announcements during the Georgian era). I’m open to being shown that I’m wrong, but doing so requires documentation (which does not consist of point out that Heyer did it in her books).

There are three kinds (or levels) of sources/documentation: Primary, secondary and tertiary (and then there’s art). Most history majors in college studied primarily tertiary sources (such as Simon Schama’s brilliant three-part overview of British history). If they went on to grad school, where they had to produce a thesis, they would have then moved up to primary sources (secondary sources exist in a kind of limbo, being too nitty-gritty for most undergraduate programs and not suitable for a grad student who needs to produce his/her OWN secondary/tertiary work to obtain their degree). I think this is why I get a lot of push-back from writers who have a B.A. in history. They were never taught the levels and they think I’m attacking them when I ask for their sources, or when I state mine. I’m not, I just come to the study of history from a direction they may not have ever experienced. I’m not always sure why people take discussions of this sort personally, but they clearly do (here, on Yahoo Groups, and even on Twitter). I’m passionate about history, but that only makes me all the happier when someone has something new to add to my knowledge base. Nancy Mayer does it all the time!

Primary sources are actual items from the period (what historians call “extant”). A hat. A shoe. A saddle. Also in the primary grouping are period documents like letters, journals, newspapers, household inventories, and period books (cookbooks are invaluable). Though you have to be careful with some of these, because they function almost like secondary sources, since they are one person’s viewpoint and they often require context in order to obtain full understanding.

Secondary sources are frequently underused in the writing community (with the exception of the Oxford English Dictionary), but re-enactors live for them! If you really want to know how the clothing fastened, what it looked like, what fabrics were used, what the layers were, Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction, c. 1660-1860 (where she deconstructs and details historical garments) is far more useful than an overview like 20,000 Years of Fashion by François Boucher. Overviews, of course, have their own purposes, and Boucher’s book is on the list of “must haves” for every writer in my opinion.

The next level down is tertiary. These are the sources that most writers and students are using: All the biographies and history books that we snap up in the non-fiction section of the bookstore. You have to be careful with tertiary sources. In the re-enactment community, these are not considered documentation in and of themselves. Only primary and secondary count for that (hence some of the arguments). Only tertiary works which are extensively documented should ever be relied upon (look for authors who are respected experts in their field and for books with lots of citations). Often, something that looks great on the surface will be found to be less than useful when you dig in. An example of this is something like What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. The book skims the surface of many topics and fails to date them specifically within the 19th century, resulting in a mash-up of the late-Georgian, Regency, Romantic and Victorian eras. It’s a fun book, but it’s not all that helpful for an author trying to find out what her character might have served at tea (especially as afternoon tea only became an established “thing” in the Victorian era). Another is An Elegant Madness, which seems like a great book, but upon closer inspection is riddled with errors that leave my in doubt of pretty much everything the author says (such as the author’s inability to keep Frances Villiers, wife of the 4th Earl of Jersey and her daughter-in-law Sarah Sophia Child Villiers, wife of the 5th Earl of Jersey straight; some major blunders about who was having an affair with whom).

Lastly, we come to art. This area can be tricky. The problem is that unlike having the physical item in your hand (for example, the actual dress), you’re looking at an artist’s interpretation of that item (so these act a lot like secondary and tertiary sources). Add into the mix that much of the art we look at is highly stylized, allegorical, political, and/or farcical (so the see-through dress over the shift with a “display” hole cut out over the bum can’t be taken as a literal example of the clothing being worn in France c. 1800) and it’s sometimes hard to know what you’re really looking at. And then there is the problem of reproduction. A lot gets lost when the paintings are photographed and reproduced. Fine details can entirely disappear. And often you have to have a strong background in the period already to know what you’re looking at, which makes art useful for the knowledgeable historian, but problematic for the novice (and it tends to be the go-to source for many novices, since it appears to be the most accessible form of documentation).

The one thing that should NEVER be cited as documentation is a work of fiction. Not my books. Not Diana Gabaldon’s books. Not Bernard Cornwell’s books. Not Georgette Heyer’s book. If you see something in a book that intrigues or inspires you, make a note of it and then double check it. Authors are fallible. We make mistakes. We fudge things. We cling to our own preconceived notions or to “facts” we were taught (which often have built-in cultural, religious, or socioeconomic biases of their own).

Some things are open to interpretation, and there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. For example, I like writing about strong, fast, wild, unusual women. Because these kind of women interest me, I read a lot of biographies and histories about the ones that really existed. Books like Jo Manning’s My Lady Scandalous (about courtesan Grace Elliot, aka Dally the Tall), Hallie Rubenhold’s The Lady in Red (about Lady Worsley’s disastrous marriage and divorce), the illustrated version of Amanda Forman’s Georgiana (about the Duchess of Devonshire), and Janet Gleeson’s Privilege and Scandal (about Lady Bessborough). I also read things like Harriette Wilson’s memoir, Sex in Georgian England by A.D. Harvey, and Broken Lives by Lawrence Stone. All of this feeds in to my version of Georgian England, which is very different from the one created by Georgette Heyer or one created by one of my current peers who prefers to write about sweet young things finding their HEA. Either one of us being asked to justify our preference is ridiculous, but this is utterly different than someone asking if it was really possible for Jo Beverley’s heroine Elfled Malloren to have a pair of lace stockings (and yes, it was; there’s an extant [primary source] example in a museum in Germany that belonged to Madame de Pompadour).


Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

I confess I'm surprised you can get a B.A. in History without learning the different types of sources. I wasn't even a history major, but I picked that much up from history electives on the way to that BS in Economics degree I've never used professionally. (I sometimes say my education enables me to b.s. about economic policy.) I can recall at least two history classes that required us to produce papers drawing our central argument from primary sources, though we were allowed to use tertiary analyses in support.

I think what my history electives did for me, and really my college education in general, was give me a solid grounding in HOW to research, especially how to evaluate the quality of a tertiary source. My main advice to a new researcher would be to read widely from all types of sources. The broader your base is, the less likely you are to be misled by one bad source. And you quickly develop a big picture sense of the era you're researching, which gives you a feel for what does and doesn't fit.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

It amazes me as well, but on one of my historical writer loops, someone claiming to have a B.A. in history couldn't grasp the difference between a "document" and "documentation". I was snidely accused of being obsessed with "documents" when I asked for her sources and then when she finally reveled them, they turned out to be other novels in her own subgenre. So I thought I'd play Clarissa and explain it all.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Terrific post, Isobel! I have Janet Arnold's books and used one of her deconstructed patterns to make a man's Elizabethan doublet when my theatre company was bringing a program of love scenes and fight scenes from Shakespeare into the schools and having discussions afterwards. I wanted the costuming to be as authentic as I could get it, as the fight choreography and weaponry were also accurate period re-enactments.

I must add, since I write historical nonfiction as well and rely heavily on tertiary sources,not being afforded the luxury of either the publishing advance or the time to travel to the appropriate European locales and sift through primary and secondary sources, that oftentimes even the sagest and most respected of biographers and academics don't agree on things. And even though I might know elements of an era fairly well, it's not unusual for those on the order of a Weir and a Hibbert (just as an example) to disagree on the details of how a historical event happened. So I need to hunt for "tiebreaker" sources and find as many as I can to discern who is the odd one out and where it seems that sources generally concur on a given thing. And of course every historian has his/her own focus or angle as well, even when they are covering the same subject. I sense this will be the subject of a future post by another hoyden on the roster. :)

11:41 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

We all rely on tertiary sources (we have to, curators and families aren't going to let hordes of writers get their grubby hands on extant garments and family letters). I just hope that people understand that they are not all created equal. You're a professional researcher. You get this. But when I see people taking a "historian" like David Barton seriously or using a "fun" book like What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew as a an actual resource, I'm simply horrified.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

What utterly stupifies me is when I see reviews of my nonfiction on Amazon with headers like "do some research before you write a book" (uhhh ... I guess they didn't read as far as the bibliography that cites close to a hundred sources, all of which were carefully read cover to cover).

12:44 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Isobel! I was a history major as an undergrad, and we used primary sources even in introductory classes and definitely in advanced ones. And my honors thesis was based on them. We also spent a lot of time learning how to evaluate tertiary sources, sift through author's biases, etc... Of course even primary sources don't always agree. I'm currently sifting through numerous primary sources for the battle of Waterloo and inevitably accounts contradict each other.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@Leslie: You totally have my sympathy. I've seen reviews for my books that claim all the details are anachronistic. Makes wonder when they think the book is set. *rolls eyes*

@Tracy: We did at my school too, but clearly this is not the norm everywhere.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm coming clean. I'm a total amateur here, a lifelong English major who likes to write graphic sex in nice sentences imitative of period cadence, and who's mostly flummoxed by how big and unwieldy history really was -- and how sad it was too, for large numbers of people at any given time.

I read around, of course. I do try for dates and details. I don't like getting things wrong if I can help it. With my long-suffering husband's help I've even gone back to a few primary sources encountered in the footnotes of our tertiary texts. But mostly I'm in it for the sentences, the sex, and a little of the sadness.

I have a feeling that my imitation period cadences create an impression among readers that I know more history than I do. And when readers get angry at me (so angry -- geez, I don't get it) I think it's the sadness I have about history that they pick up on.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I've been a lifelong student of history, with a special love for British history. Visited the crumbling ruins of Framlingham Castle at age nine and I was hooked. And when looking for research books about specific subjects I prefer books published during the Regency, in spite of the fact they too can be anachronistic depending on who writes them.

This is really a great post, Isobel, as it lays it out there for anyone with half a brain to see what is meant by those terms some people might deem obsessive, but I find simply the only intelligent way to research history.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Here in Washington DC, the local newspaper discusses exactly how to do research because people fight wars over that stuff TODAY. Reference war crimes tribunals in Bosnia or how bin Laden was tracked down. You'd better know if it's primary, secondary or tertiary - and the risks - before you ask somebody to risk their life, based on your conclusions.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

Great post! I love doing research - my education background is in material culture - but I'm lucky enough that my period, WWI, even has some film to look at.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Great post, Isobel! I wanted to add to the "enjoy but beware" category all the servant how-to books, such as Samuel and Sarah Adams' "The Complete Servant." Although they have a huge amount of great info, they were writing about how things should be, not how they were!

I own a copy of the Janet Arnold book, which is marvelous, even for a non-dressmaker, and also the superb book from the Kyoto Institute of Costume, which has ravishing close up pics.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Isobel Carr said...

Not sure what the hell is up with Blogger today. I've been trapped in an endless loop of sign in all day. *grrr*

@Pam: You always say you’re not a research wonk, but whenever we discuss anything, you always seem to have some brilliant insight! Plus, you know all kinds of things I don’t (like period politics).

@Louisa: I’ve become a Goggle Books ADDICT! I love having access to all those period sources. Now if they’d just do period news papers . . .

@Diane: Yes, how research is done has real world applications too, and all too often there seem to be breakdowns and wrong conclusions drawn because people cherry-pick their sources.

@Victoira: Ooooooo, material culture. What a cool thing to study!

@Janet: Using the complete servant as a how to for some poor new countess who doesn’t know how to run a large house could be hilarious though!

11:52 AM  
Blogger Jackie C. Horne said...

An interesting post, particularly for someone from an English, rather than a History/reenactment background. I wonder if you could define more clearly for those of us not familiar with the terminology, what exactly is a secondary source, as opposed to a tertiary one? From your descriptions, it seems as though a secondary source is a scholarly work, one that includes a bibliography and cites its sources. And a tertiary source would be a a source aimed at a more popular audience, rather than a scholarly one (WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE...), a source that draws upon scholarly research but doesn't bother with all the footnotes and documentation. Is that right?

6:45 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

A secondary source shows you a primary source without interpretation. It's not so much about audience, as it is about purpose. It just so happens that not a lot of casual historians want that level of detail. It's simply not useful to them.

For example, Janet Arnold's books are exacting studies of extant garments that detail everything from fabric to construction to ornamentation. She's not interpreting the garment for stage and show, she's just showing you all the nitty-gritty details. If you want to recreate period clothing, her books are must-haves. If you write histoical novels and want to understand how your characters clothing works, the books are also must-haves, but I'm not sure that all authors really care when her gown fell to the floor will suffice. And I'm not making a judgement call about this. If the clothing doesn't interest you, then it's mere trivia.

The OED is a secondary source. When you look up a word, it details the etymology and quotes the primary source.

Just because something is tertiary, doesn't mean it's not scholarly, nor does it mean that it doesn't have footnotes and offer documentation of its sources. GOOD tertiary sources do. For example, A.D. Harvey's Sex in Georgian England is a tertiary work, but it's annotated and footnoted. Peter Ackroyd's London, the Biography has an essay on sources at the end. Simon Schama is a noted historical expert and his A History of Britain has an extensive bibliography.

What Jane Austen Ate... could have been a wonderful resources if they'd taken the time to A) date the entries and B) annotate their sources. As it is, it's literally useless as a research book, since it jumbles together a hundred years of quickly evolving history.

Hope that helps.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Jackie C. Horne said...

Thanks, Isobel, for clarifying the differences in terminology. Literature scholars commonly use "primary" to refer to texts, and "secondary" to refer to analyses of said texts, so the idea of "tertiary" muddled the waters for me...

I'm trying to imagine what a "secondary source" according to History would look like for a literature scholar. A book that collected and reprinted whore biographies, or other primary literary material? Such reprints almost always include introductory essays, though, making them a combination of what historians would call secondary and tertiary sources.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

No idea. The college I went to didn't believe in teaching lit crit (secondary sources), so I have no real experience with it.

I don't really see how you could have a secondary source, in the way historians use the term, in lit. You're either reading the thing itself (primary) or you're not (secondary).

7:31 AM  

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