I’ve always had a fondness for writing about historical fiction topics and eras that tend to be under-explored in the genre. While there’s nothing wrong with the popular time periods, I tend to find my attention drifting when it’s a topic I’ve already read a great deal about. So when I started writing my debut novel, Windswept, I knew I wanted it to be set in a time and place that hasn’t been fleshed out as often in the world of literature.
I settled on the British Palestinian front of WWI, setting my book in Gaza, the surrounding desert, and in Egypt. My heroine, Ginger Whitman, is a nurse on the frontlines in the casualty clearing station. The further I dug into researching the time period and events surrounding that front, the more I discovered a treasure trove of intrigue, adventure, and politics that continue to have global ramifications.
But just how do you research an era that is lesser-known like that? Here’s what I did:
1. Primary Sources Are the Best Sources
This is really true of any historical fiction research, but the very first place you’ll want to look for a good sense of the era you’re researching is in primary sources. Fortunately, we’re very lucky to live in a time period in which so many primary sources are being digitized. This gave me access to news articles, letters, diaries, and maps that proved to be invaluable to my research.
Of all the sources, diaries are my absolute favorite. Diaries have a way of being honest in a way that few other sources do—they bring color and life to an era through opinions that the diary writer may not have expressed to others. I was fortunate to find diaries of both soldiers and nurses working in the regions I was researching that really helped give me a clearer sense of what life was like.
2. Don’t “Diss” Related Material
Because there wasn’t a ton of preexisting fiction (or even nonfiction) material on the era, I lapped up anything that could be relevant. I watched a fictionalized miniseries on the true stories of Australian nurses in Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia. When a literary agent told me that an early draft of my book reminded her of an old novel called The Shiek by E.M. Hull, I quickly ran out and purchased it to see what an author from the time period I was writing about had written about the locations in my book.
What I was looking for in all this slightly off-topic research were nuggets that I could use for my own book. I took copious notes on little things—how people dressed, phrases and terminology, settings—and then did further research on each of those topics. These helped me paint a clearer picture of the setting and occasionally sent me down the path of hugely useful information that I wouldn’t have otherwise known.
3. Ask Lots of Questions
When you do any historical research, you’ll find that there are usually small niche communities who are very interested in the topic you’re writing about. In my case, there are whole forums related to the Great War online where history buffs make it a point to know the answers to some of the more obscure pieces of information.
Frequently, the people who are interested in these topics will have a personal connection—their relative may have been in a battle or hospital or location. As a result, they’ve done a lot of digging to find out some of the mysteries that affect their personal history.
Don’t be afraid to ask these people questions! They are usually happy to talk about their area of expertise or eras they have spent time researching. And if you don’t get an answer that’s helpful, they might be able to point you in the direction of another expert that might be able to help.
At the end of the day, you may not be able to find the answer to every question you have—and that’s ok. You are writing a novel, after all, and you can take artistic liberties as such. If you do deviate from reality or make things up, it’s always a good idea to note some of those things in your author’s note, though, as history buffs like to know.
And if you’re interested in seeing how my research played out, you can. Windswept is now available everywhere books are sold. Good luck!