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Friday, November 09, 2012

Researchng History ~ Melanie Dobson

Melanie Dobson has written twelve contemporary and historical novels. In 2011, two of her historical novels won Carol Awards:  Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa (for historical romance) and The Silent Order (for romantic suspense). This fall her latest novel, Where the Trail Ends, will launch American Tapestries, a historical romance series based on significant events that have shaped our country.Melanie and her husband, Jon, enjoy exploring their home state of Oregon with their two daughters. When Melanie isn't writing or playing with her family, she enjoys exploring ghost towns and cemeteries, line dancing, and reading historical fiction. To learn more about Melanie and her books as well as more information about her research trips, please visit 

Researching a Historical Novel

By Melanie Dobson

My favorite part of writing a historical novel isn’t the actual writing. It’s the research.  I love exploring old houses and museums, tracking down experts, and reading diaries. With each discovery of information, my story begins to take shape. There are five specific ways that I research to both develop my plotlines and add authenticity to my historical novels.

Visit the Location

My first historical novel was about a Quaker woman who ran an Underground Railroad station so I spent days exploring hidden places that had once been used to harbor runaway slaves. In one home, I climbed the secret staircase hidden in a closet and crept over the exposed nails and boards to the room where the Quaker homeowners once hid runaways. At night I stepped out into the surrounding forest, when the cloud cover masked the stars and the only sound was the hoot of an owl. My heart raced as I wondered what a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued by a slave hunter and his dogs. How would she find a safe place to hide for the night? While the terrain and photo features on mapping websites help tremendously with geographical details, it is invaluable for me to experience my main setting as well so I know a bit of what my main characters would have seen, heard, and smelled.

Interview Experts and Locals

Because I’ve written both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed experts about everything from how to sell stolen goods online to the technicalities of delivering mail in the late 1800s. I’ve spent hours interviewing about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in a religious cult, and how a family could travel for six months across our country in a wagon. I’m always surprised by something I discover during these interviews, something I hadn’t been able to uncover in the books I’d read.

The most important interview I ever did was with an Amana woman named Emilie. I asked her a simple question—what were Amana women passionate about in the 19th century? The answer to that question—friendship—shaped my entire novel.

Explore Museums and Landmarks

Living farms, museums, and historical villages like Williamsburg or Old Salem offer a unique and educational window to the past. I learned how to run a printing press in Ohio’s Roscoe Village, cook on the open hearth at a National Historic Landmark in Indiana, and drive an Amish buggy at a museum in Walnut Creek. Many of these museums and historic landmarks will give private tours to writers, and the friendly tour guides are often a seemingly endless source of information.

Invade the Library

One of my books was inspired by a beautiful mansion in Ohio that had been built before the Civil War. I couldn’t find information about this house, but the town’s librarian unearthed a research paper written sixty years ago that included pictures of the mansion, historical detail, and folklore about a secret tunnel that ran—and maybe still runs—underneath. This one paper gave me the information I needed for the details of my fictional house and helped form my plot.

Newspapers, magazines, diaries, archived research papers, and of course, books provide basics like how people dressed and what they ate during a specific era as well as more abstract concepts like how they approached life and what world events shaped their thinking.

Surf the Web

How did writers write before the Internet? I ask myself this question almost daily as I search for specific words or facts online. One of the most effective ways I’ve been able to use the Internet is to establish contacts where I can get additional information about a difficult research topic. In one novel, for example, I needed specifics on how a telephone would work in 1890, but I couldn’t seem to find this info anywhere. Then I found someone online who sold phones from this era, and we dialogued via email until I had my answers. Without him, I’d probably still be wondering.

It’s hard for me to stop researching, but after a month or two of work, I finally organize what I’ve discovered and input it into Scrivener. Then I use this research to begin writing my story.

Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan is Melanie’s latest novel.
As the Gilded Age comes to a close, Elena Bissette’s family has lost most of its fortune. The Bissettes still own a home on fashionable Mackinac Island, and they spend summers there in hopes of introducing Elena to a wealthy suitor. Quickly tiring of the extravagant balls at the Grand Hotel, she spends her days walking along the island’s rugged coastline. There she meets Chase, a handsome laborer who invites her to watch the ships from an abandoned lighthouse. The two begin to meet there in secret, hoping to solve a mystery buried in the pages of a tattered diary. As Elena falls in love with Chase, her mother relentlessly contrives to introduce her to Chester Darrington, the island's most eligible bachelor. Marriage to the elusive millionaire would solve the Bissettes' financial woes, and Elena is torn between duty and love. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this! Your love for research shows up in the reality of your books, and it helps us as readers learn more, too! I can't imagine the fear a runaway slave must have felt, but standing in a dark wood would at least provide an inkling. And researching the inner workings of the mafia? Now that would be exciting! Looking forward to reading your new book.


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