Tips on Research: Hands-On Research

Welcome to another installment of an irregular series of posts on research. The material that follows is adapted from How To Write Killer Historical Mysteries: The Art and Adventure of Sleuthing Through the Past (Perseverance Press, 2008) by Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett).

Queen Elizabeth the First's saddle in Warwick Castle

Hands-on research involves actually experiencing some of what you want to write about. If you write historical novels, go to museums that have items, perhaps even restored buildings, from the period in which you are interested. It it is at all possible, visit living history centers. These attempt to create an environment that closely resembles what a particular place was like at a specific time in the past.

houses at Plimoth Plantations

At Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, re-enactors take on the roles of real settlers and do not step out of them as long as they are in costume. They “live” in the reconstructed village and speak in the accents of seventeenth-century England, even to their individual counties of origin. They work with the tools of the period, thatching roofs, firing muskets, growing crops, and raising livestock.

Each living history center is a little different but all endeavor to give visitors an accurate picture of life in the past. As varied as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia;

mill at King's Landing

King’s Landing in New Brunswick, Canada; Washburn-Norlands in Livermore, Maine; and the Littleton Historical Museum near Denver, living history centers provide writers with a wonderful source of material—a firsthand look at how things were.

I’ve been to the Norlands many times, since it is only a few miles from my house.

2008 fire at Norlands

On April 28, 2008, fire destroyed the historic barn on the property when a heater used to keep newborn pigs warm proved faulty. The fire almost consumed the farmhouse, as well, since here in Maine farm buildings tend to be connected (no one wants to have to go outdoors in the winter unless they have to!). The local fire departments, however, had worked out emergency plans for just such a contingency. While firefighters fought the blaze, impossible to replace items were carried to safety by members of the community who came out to help. Now the barn rebuilding project has become an opportunity to study nineteenth-century ways of doing things. Norlands continues to be an educational resource for the entire state, hosting school visits, quilting bees, live-ins, Civil War re-enactments and other events. You can find out more at

Speaking of re-enactment groups, they provide more opportunities for hands-on research. From the Society for Creative Anachronism to the folks who recreate Revolutionary War battles, these are people who love their chosen period of history. No, the armor isn’t exactly like it was in medieval times. Some accommodations are made for comfort and for financial reasons, but don’t overlook what these organizations provide. If you want to experience the past you’re writing about, this is one way to do it.

Kathleen Ernst is one historical mystery writer who has been able to take full advantage of hands-on experiences.

scene at Littleton Historical Museum in Colorado

She worked for more than ten years at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum near Milwaukee that features a crossroads village and ten working farmsteads ranging in date from 1845 through 1915.  She “learned how to warp a loom, how to milk cows, how to make rennet and lye soap, wine and sauerbraten, hops yeast, and Finnish egg coffee,” and was then able to give many of these skills to her characters. She has used these experiences in her books for children for years, and more recently turned to writing mysteries for grown-ups. The detective? She a curator at Old World Wisconsin . . . in the early 1980s.

So, fellow Maine Crime Writers, what kinds of hands-on research, historical and contemporary, have you done? And could you have written your books without it?

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5 Responses to Tips on Research: Hands-On Research

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Great post, Kaitlyn! In some ways I live the eresearch for my historicals set inearly 10th century Maine – since the house I live in was built in 1774, and is filled with the sort of furniture and fireplace and kitchen implements folks in my books would have used. (And antique dealers in my contemporary mysteries sell in their business!) An artifact at Old Sturbridge Village ended up in one of my books once, and I’ve walked the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, and visited museums and gone on a “house and garden tour” there to see where my characters in one book lived. As I did in Edinburgh,Scotland, for one still-unpublished book, where the Edinbugh library and museum were helpful, but the.streets and tours of old buildings, combined with diaries and dolcuments, were even better. As for contemporary books — I’ve also tasted every poison used in my mysteries. (Just tasted, mind you!) And fired guns. Hands-on, Kaitlyn. Hands-on.

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Kaitlyn–funny this post should come up now as I am currently scrapbooking our family’s two trips to Williamsburg and one trip to Monticello.

    I love this kind of experience (not research for me because I don’t write historicals).

    One of the members of my writers group, Leslie Wheeler writes the “living history” series. Her books take place at Plimouth Plantation, Gettysburg and Mystic Seaport, respectively.

    Last Wednesday, I went to hear Attica Locke speak. Her new mystery, The Cutting Season, takes place on a fictional Louisiana plantation that does historical re-einactments. It’s the first book in Dennis Lehane’s new imprint for Harper Collins. Haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I’ll add one tip for anyone writing an historical –especially one set in the United States. To find out about guns, kitchenware, fireplace necessities (not always the same things), home decorations, even wallpaper (in early times hand printed and imported from England,) quilts, samplers, toys — the list is almost endless — check specialty books on antiques. They’ll usually picture an item, explain its use, give dates it was first used, and where it was manufactured (if it was manufactured) or whether it was an individually made item. There are also books of this kind on medical and pharmaceutical items, for example, that might be helpful to a mystery writer. And don’t think your question is too narrow. I have an entire book on guns made in Maine. And one on banknotes issued by 18th and 19th century Maine banks.

  4. Excellent post, Kaitlyn. Thanks! Authors really must immerse themselves in their fictional environments to be able to write accurately about them.

    BTW I resemble your remark about Revolutionary War reenactors. 🙂 I realized early on that, for my crime fiction set during Revolutionary America, I’d never be able to capture the sensory impressions and daily trials that our foremothers and forefathers experienced unless I got out there and did it myself. I guest-blogged about some of my own experiences here. In the comments section, writers shared some of the wild things they’ve done for research, like climbing a cranky volcano.

    • Thanks for your comment, Suzanne, and for the link. And hearing from you reminds me to mention that readers interested in historical mysteries might also like to know about a yahoo group called CrimeThruTime, where there are frequent discussions of historical accuracy in novels and other topics of interest.


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