When I was still teaching world history, each semester I required my students to conduct original research on a topic of their choice for a short paper. For most of my students, this was the first time they had to locate a primary source or track down a reliable secondary source by a professional in an academic field related to their thesis topic (e.g., historian, sociologist, anthropologist).
Each semester, students asked me how they were supposed to get started on their research. In an age where college students have grown up accessing information and misinformation from the Internet, my forbidding them from using websites for their secondary source proved particularly challenging for them.
As a result, I developed a fairly easy way for my students to begin their journeys as amateur historians. Given that science-fiction and fantasy writers often use history and mythology to build their fictional worlds, this introduction to conducting historical research may be beneficial to my fellow authors as well.
In order to illustrate how we will conduct our beginner’s-guide-to-historical-research, I’ll use an example from the Classical world. Greek history and mythology holds a particular appeal to writers of all genres, so we’ll build our fictional world around the culture of the Spartans.
As an initial caveat, all of this advice supposes that your subject matter is at least somewhat well-known and established as a matter of historical interest.
1. Love it or hate it, Amazon offers the widest selection of online books I’ve found, so using their search engine will return numerous sources that we can begin to plow through.
I entered “Spartan culture” as my search term, which produced 375 titles in books. The top two choices are The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge and Spartans: a New History by Nigel M. Kennell.
First: check the publication date. Books published over twenty years ago may be outdated as newer research can and often does change the way historians think and write about a particular subject. Both of our books are recent.
Second: click on the author’s name. Paul Cartledge’s author page tells me he is a professor of Greek culture at Cambridge. That’s a good sign. Let’s Google him.
a. Why? Because having a PhD and working at a university – even a distinguished one – doesn’t make a particular person or book a reputable authority nor does it make their research and book a reliable source of information. Example: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners earned him widespread criticism from the historical community, yet it became a New York Times bestseller. Unfortunately, people outside of the profession had no way of knowing the numerous problems associated with Goldhagen’s thesis and research.
b. A Google search of Paul Cartledge doesn’t reveal any notable criticisms.
c. Using your public library’s database (in the U.S.), you can now access numerous scholarly (peer reviewed) articles. Search for the particular book and author and see how the historical community received this work. My search yielded peer reviews that are favorable, and highlight a particular issue with primary sources we’ll address below.
2. We now have a good secondary source that we can begin reading to understand the world of the Spartans. It’s a good idea to repeat the above process to find several secondary sources, and always resist the temptation to use a website for your information (there are exceptions – particularly in the case of accessing primary sources).
3. Primary sources are those sources that offer us firsthand accounts of a particular event or otherwise provide contemporary information from the time period. Examples are journal entries, court records, wills and other legal documents, plays and poems, etc.
How necessary is it for a science-fiction author to access and interpret primary sources? In my opinion, not very. In fact, it may do more harm than good. In our example, the Spartans have very few primary sources written from their perspective: much of what we know about them comes from the Athenians, and historians have to be careful when interpreting those sources as there is an obvious bias (the Spartans and Athenians were constant rivals).
If you would like to read some primary sources from your chosen culture, check the bibliography of the secondary sources you’ve selected. Historians will list the primary sources they’ve used in their own research and this is the easiest way to find sources for your own subject. Older writings that are not copyrighted are frequently available on university websites. In the case of the Spartans, we can find Herodotus’s and Plutarch’s accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae from numerous universities. Since the translation of primary sources is an important factor in their reliability, it’s a good idea to stick to university or library websites.
Why is it so important to research the influence of our fictional worlds before using it in our novels?
Because there are plenty of readers who will notice the similarities, and if they notice the source of the influence, they will most likely know whether or not we portrayed our fictional world in a way that is based on actual history or popular misconceptions about that history. Using history and mythology can be interesting ways for the science-fiction writer to offer social commentary or just draw parallels from an imaginary world to our own. And now that you have a basic guide to getting started on historical research for the science-fiction writer, I hope that you’ll be inspired to draw on our past experiences and beliefs for your next novel.
© S.M. Schmitz, 2016. All Rights Reserved.
S.M. Schmitz has an M.A. in modern European history and is a retired world history instructor. Her novels are infused with the same humorous sarcasm that she employed frequently in the classroom. As a native of Louisiana, she sets many of her scenes here, and like Dietrich in her Resurrected trilogy, she is also convinced Louisiana has been cursed with mosquitoes much like Biblical Egypt with its locusts.
Her prior novels include the Resurrected trilogy, which are science-fiction romances, The Immortals series, which are heavily influenced by Middle Eastern mythology and world history, The Golden Eagle, a dystopian romantic suspense, and Dreamwalkers, a paranormal psychological suspense.
To learn more, please visit www.smschmitz.com.
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Peyton’s Myth, Book 1 of The Cambria Code series
When a mysterious spaceship appears above Cambria, Zoe remains skeptical that it’s anything but an elaborate hoax. By the time the first spaceship is joined by two others, Zoe reluctantly admits that Earth has been invaded, even though it’s a pretty lame invasion: the aliens look remarkably human and keep to themselves. From what humans are able to learn about them, they seem incredibly arrogant and boring anyway.
After meeting Peyton, one of Earth’s newest residents, Zoe feels an immediate attraction to him although she is reluctant to become involved with someone who isn’t even human. But she soon discovers that these aliens are far more dangerous than they’ve led everyone to believe, and the secrets they are hiding may signal the destruction of her entire planet.