Five Reasons to Use Fiction in Research

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Filling in for Rachel Kent

I’m about to start writing another novella; this one takes place in turn-of-the-last-century Alaska. I haven’t been to Skagway, Alaska, in 21 years, so I can’t trust my memory about events and locales. I need something to get me in the mood. So I’ve been reading fiction.

As an historian, I know better than to use fiction as “real” research, but it can provide something of what I need before I dive into memoirs and history books. I’ve come up with five ways fiction can serve the novelist preparing to write.

1. To find emotions

“They” say if you want to learn political history, read a history book. If you want to know about social history, however, an historical novel may be a better option.

History tells you what happened, historical fiction tells you why and how while giving you a sense of the emotions of the era. A good historical writer will be able to place the reader into the context of the times. Fiction can help with those feelings.

2. To understand setting

The mountains don’t change, nor do the waterways. The climate remains basically the same–does it snow in Alaska in August? What does the air “taste” like before snow falls? Is the rain vertical or horizontal?

What about the flora and fauna? I know bears inhabit the rivers and creeks, but what other animals live in my setting? How big is a moose anyway? Fiction can give sensory details in a way a text book might not.

3. To meet characters

Obviously, I’m not going to snatch characters out of Call of the Wild, but Jack London’s book can give me a feel for the types of grubstakers he met in Skagway in 1897. Particularly in short stories, authors sketch stereotypes to populate theΒ  wooden sidewalks of muddy frontier towns.

Most towns on the edge of the world feature drunks and prostitutes, but who else might be there? What Native Americans live in the area and how did townsfolk treat them? A good fictional story can inspire thoughts on the type of people I might want to include in my story.

4. To give insight into behavior

I live in a city. I don’t worry about gathering food for the winter, much less wood. One novel I recently read recounted how much trouble a family went through to collect berries, grow vegetables, and shoot game. They lived so far from the civilized “grid” that they had to focus on survival fundamentals. A novel can describe the necessary fortitude it takes to pioneer an area, not to mention the back-breaking work.

5. To inspire additional research

Sometimes what you find in reading fiction raises questions about accuracy. Apply discernment, don’t believe everything you read, and use fictionalized details as a jumping off point for your own research.

If it sounds unlikely, it’s time to break out the non-fiction works and double-check.

I recently read an Alaskan novel that featured people wandering around in shorts and flip-flops. I was so surprised I questioned my family: Did we wear shorts and flip-flops either time we visited Alaska?

My husband laughed. “Of course not. The mosquitoes and no-seeums would have eaten us alive!”

What about surfing?

I googled “Alaska surfing” and discovered a lot of surfing can take place in the state with more coastline than the entire continental United States.

Who would have guessed?

That information won’t affect my novel, but it sure is an interesting fact and prompted me to find out even more obscure information about Alaska.

What fictional works have been helpful in researching or understanding a setting or time period?

Can you recommend anything, fiction or non, about Alaska? πŸ™‚

52 Responses

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  1. Alaska Tip Of The Day-Don’t go there in February. πŸ™‚

    I worked for Princess Cruises in Vancouver one summer. (NO! Captain Stubing is NOT my father!! You would be stunned how many thousand people asked me that!!! It wasn’t even funny the first time.)
    The passengers LOVED the cruise up through the Inside Passage. In June, when the sun doesn’t set, ohhhh my, they all raved!!! And they got really tired too. No darkness=no sleep. I never got to go on the cruise, but I did find alot of lost suitcases and the pursers (NOT a single one was named Gopher) and I became great friends. I highly recommend that trip if at all possible. And there’s alot of Russian influence in Alaskan history, too. I guess the Russians weren’t content with *just* Siberia, they wanted even more people to freeze 345 days a year.
    In WW2, the Japanese made it all the way to the Aleutian Islands and the battles fought there were particularly fierce. Especially considering the length and ferocity of a northern winter.
    Thousands of US soldiers built the Alaska hihway during WW2. Many of them were from the Deep South and those poor men had never even seen snow! The engineering involved in that highway is well worth the trip over to Wikipedia and Google. My brother lives at Mile Zero of the highway and it is quite a tourist draw.
    If you go there? Or anywhere “north of 60”, in the summer, swim in bug spray every single day!!
    And don’t forget the Northern Lights!! It is the most amazing phenomenon Just so beautiful!

    British Columbia is the Canadian province right next to Alaska. That’s where I’m from. Many parts of BC are just like Alaska, only there’s an ‘eh’ on the end of everything. πŸ˜‰

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    Eh, I know.

    Our first trip to Alaska we camped on the Alaska Ferry, top deck, and watched the Inside Passage from out the tent opening: spectacular! We lived not far from Seattle at the time and have laughed ever since that a lantern was the most unnecessary item we took!

    We drove home through British Columbia–7 days of hard driving from Anchorage. Alaska really is huge.

    Our last visit we stumbled into a little Russian conclave not far from Homer and a woman invited us into her kitchen and cooked an enormous Slavic meal.

    The view from above Homer spit, btw, is one of the finest I’ve ever seen.

    • Did you see any glaciers crashing into the sea? I would LOVE to see and hear that! I miss the Pacific SO much. The Atlantic is like a poor cousin who tries too hard. Shhh, don’t tell my Maritme friends that, they’d beat me with a cold lobster.

      You took that lantern in good faith! Did you see any Northern Lghts?

      It seems to me, Michelle, that you have seen most of the world? What a blessing to be able to take your kids on all those great adventures.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    I’ve yet to get to Alaska. It’s one of the few states in the United States I haven’t visited yet. Just reading what the two of you shared here makes me want to go!

    Some of the first historical fiction books I read that gave me insight into the times was the WW2 series by Brock and Bodie Thoene that was set in Jerusalem. I can’t remember the series’ name, but I still think about the struggle the Jews faced to make Israel an independent country, and the difficulties of the people who lived through that time.

    I enjoyed this post today, Michelle! Happy writing about Alaska. πŸ™‚

    • Those books were INSANELY good, weren’t they?? If the Thoenes wrote the alphabet, they’d still leave you on the edge of your seat wanting more!

      • Michelle Ule says:

        The Thoenes have written several historical series full of insight and memorable characters.

      • Jeanne T says:

        Jennifer–they were. I need to read them again. Alas, my TBR pile just grew by about 20 books after ACFW (don’t tell my hubby how many books I bought!). πŸ™‚

        Michelle–I’ve loved every book I’ve read of the Thoenes. Did you read their books from WW1?

      • Michelle Ule says:

        I haven’t read the Thoenes in a long time. I did read several of the World War 2 novels and I really liked First Light–which is the first of their series set during the book of Acts. Like you all, I’ve got WAY too much to read, but I keep thinking I’d like to get back to that series about Acts.

        Hmm, book club is looking for something, maybe I should look reexamine First Light . . .

    • My husband loves the Thoenes’ work. I think the series you’re referring to is The Zion Chronicles.

  4. Sarah Thomas says:

    Have you ever read “Mrs. Mike?” It’s set in Canada rather than Alaska, but I think the feel would be really similar. About a Boston girl who marries Mike Flannigan of the Canadian Mounted Police. Really good and plenty of hardships to go around!

  5. Lisa says:

    Great suggestions, thank you!

    I think I am a research nerd. I love recording all my discoveries for writing.

    The history room at the library! There are rows and rows of old yearbooks. Love the material that surfaces when paging through them!

    My brother and sister in law rode all the way through Alaska on motorcycles with a big group of friends. Their pictures are amazing!

  6. Lori says:

    When I was in fourth grade, my teacher read to the class “Call of the Wild”. In sixth grade I read it on my own. I love that story.

    My knowlege of Alaska (turn of the centuary or current) is very limited. But in regards frontier characters and their behavior wouldn’t our Old West or the Australian Outback apply in some instances? They were adventurers too.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Good point, Lori. I imagine the same type of people do push out to explore new worlds and frontiers–but where do those people go now?

      One of my sons has that itch (he was only 4 on that Alaska trip) but has turned it to the stars. One day last year he was the second person to view a new planet after one of his colleagues discovered it.

      Perhaps I should interview him? πŸ™‚

      • Lori says:

        Anything with space is a good thing in my opinion but I am prejudice that way. As for where people go today. I think Antartica or the Artic Circle would be good. Parts of Africa and Asia would be good too. A former co-worker showed me pictures of China that were so remote and were not included on any tours (the provinces of Qinghai and Gansu).

  7. Michelle Ule says:

    You’re right, Lori. And what type of individual is strong enough to endure the harsh conditions and set out?

    Thanks, you’ve given me some insight! πŸ™‚

  8. My aunt and uncle live in Alaska, so we visited them once in July. It was GORGEOUS! I couldn’t get enough of the scenery.

    I haven’t had to do a whole lot of research for my novels, since I write contemporary and they typically involve subjects I know. But for the research I’ve done, I like asking people who are experts in that field or know about the place I’m researching.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Even contemporary stories need some fact checking. It’s surprising how often my story has changed because something I looked up gave me further insight into an area I hadn’t even considered.

  9. Sorry, Michelle, I can’t offer anything about Alaska except that I’ve always wanted to go there. Here’s a thought. Did you ever watch the t.v. series NORTHERN EXPOSURE? If not, you might want to check it out on itunes or YouTube. A former friend of mine came from Alaska and she claimed that Alaskans tend to be quirky. The characters on the show definitely fit that description.

    Thank you for this post. I love to research and have been doing a great deal of it for my fantasy novel. I hadn’t thought of using fiction as a research tool, but now that you’ve said it, I’ve realized that I have done just that. My WIP is intentionally quite Celtic, especially Irish, so shortly after I started it, I read Yeats’ CELTIC TWILIGHT, which is a collection of Irish folktales inhabited by all sorts of supernatural creatures. My main characters are faeries. Yeats claimed that there were different types of faeries. He names them and defines them before sharing tales which feature them. So in my story, I communicate through dialogue and some narration that there are different “species” of Faeries in Cu Tailte (the setting), not all are tiny butterfly-like beings. The main character and her family come from a species that is human-sized and doesn’t have wings, which enables me, at one point in the plot, to send her to live with an aunt in the nearby human town of Baile Eile. The aunt who, as a teenager, rebelled against her family and went to live in the Otherworld, has been existing incognito among humans for ages. The aunt wouldn’t have been able to do this, and I wouldn’t have been able to pull off this complication in my main character’s life, if Yeats hadn’t told me that not all faeries look like Tinkerbell.

    The term “The Otherworld” comes from having grown up in an Irish household and being fed with a great deal of fiction, both written and oral, about the beings that populate The Otherworld. Now in my WIP, I switched it around so that to the Faeries, Unicorns, Dragons et al, The Otherworld is that of the human beings. Also, all of the folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy novels that I’ve read in my life have given me a sense of not only what an enchanted forest looks like, but what kinds of things happen there. I have two enchanted forests in the novel. One is spooky; the other is utterly dangerous. Reading Irish, Scottish, Welsh and even Peruvian folktales has helped me to come up with ideas for creatures to put in these places so that they seem familiar but are not the run-of-the-mill werewolves and headless ghosts. One of my favorites is the Welsh Ceffyl Dwr. There are different accounts of what this water horse looks like. The only agreement is that it seems friendly but is actually a treacherous murderer. Some tales say it can fly even though it doesn’t have wings. I decided to make my version a pony (everyone loves a pony, right?), color him purple and give him wings. So he should remind readers (especially teenage girls) of an adorable stuffed Pegasus or unicorn. He’s quite charming and almost convinces my main character, Siobhan, to mount him. He offers to fly her out of the haunted grove. Fortunately for her, she has an older, wiser companion with her who stops Siobhan since the horse’s goal (as with the Ceffyl Dwr and the Irish Kelpie) is to murder her. The Ceffyl Dwr entices people to ride it, then it flies up into the air and vanishes, leaving the victim to fall to his or her death. Siobhan is spared from this fate because she is my protagonist, but the incident serves as foreshadowing. She will later encounter the story’s real antagonist, a being who has even more charm and is more tempting to Siobhan than the Ceffyl Dwr. He is also quite deadly. So hopefully, she learned her lesson in the forest.

    As I said, until you brought this up, Michelle, I hadn’t thought about how much research I’ve been doing just by reading stories. Really, for my type of novel, my primary research has to come from mythology, folklore and fantasy novels.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      An interesting idea, Christine, and I suppose mythology really is fiction . . . Tolkien, of course, based a lot of his work out of Norse mythology. It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, to know the myths and beliefs of the native peoples where your story takes place–which is true of my Alaska story, as well.
      Thanks for sharing!

      • Thank you, Michelle.

        And I’m sorry about making it sound as if mythology was simply fiction. Mythology, of course, is intricately connected with spirituality and religious belief. I just got talking about my sources and mythology–Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Native American especially, has been an interest and love of mine since childhood and certainly has been a source that I have mined in writing this novel. That’s why I included it with my other primary sources: folklore (including legends, which stem from truth) and fantasy.

        I’m looking forward to hearing more about your book.


    • Tedra says:

      That’s really cool I based a few novels on the Celtic folklore. Never even heard of Celtic Twilight. Thanks for the tip.

      • You’re welcome, Tedra. I read it for the first time when I took a folklore course in college. Now it’s come in very handy for my WIP. Yeats was afraid that the Irish culture was going to be lost because of suppression by the English government. (No offense meant to the people of the U.K. It’s simple historical fact that the English tried to extinguish the Irish culture much the way the U.S. government, at one point, tried to wipe out Native American culture).
        Anyway, so Yeats went around Ireland collecting oral stories, many of which had to be translated from the Irish (language). That’s why the book has the title it does; he thought the Celtic culture was in danger of dying. I’m so thankful it’s been revived!

      • By the way, what are the titles of your novels and what are they about?

      • Michelle Ule says:

        How kind of you to ask, Christine. A Dogtrot Christmas was part of A Log Cabin Christmas Collection and is the story of an embittered Mexican returning home from the Alamo in 1837 to find Anglos on his property. Through the preaching of his long-ago tutor, he comes to recognize the need to forgive a young woman and her brother–Anglos who have come to make a new life for themselves in Texas–and ultimately falls in love with a woman who puts the needs of others before her own at great personal sacrifice.

        Bridging Two Hearts, which comes out in February, is the story of a massage therapist at the Hotel del Coronado who is terrified of the Coronado Bridge. She falls in love with a Navy SEAL who doesn’t believe he’s afraid of anything.

        An Inconvenient Gamble is about a Civil War prisoner of war and reformed gambler looking for a new life in 1867 Texas, who finds himself enmeshed in the life of his worst enemy’s pregnant widow. He struggles to come to terms with a gamble that destroyed her life, while she tries to trust again. It’s due out next summer, part of the Texas Brides Collection.

        Goldrush Christmas is the story of male and female twins hunting for a missing father in 1897 Alaska, confronting challenges to their faith and their life; even as the bumbling boy next door grows up enough to prove himself worthy of character and strength for the woman he loves. Christmas, 2013

  10. Using fiction for research can be helpful. It can also be lazy. And I’d say that before a writer does this they need to be very careful to check that the author knows his/her stuff. I once had a published historical fiction author look at me like I was an alien life form when I mentioned research. “You really do that? I just make it up.” Not all writers do the kind of work they should do if we are going to use their fiction as research.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      I agree with you completely, Stephanie, and I’m one of those picky readers. If I find an historical error, I start doubting everything the writer says and it ruins the read for me. I wonder if I can trust anything about the history or the story if they get details wrong.

      OTOH, I’ve learned some surprising facts I wouldn’t have known just by double checking–as I mentioned above. There actually is surfing in Alaska. Amazing.

      • Wow, Stephanie! That is crazy about that historical fict writer who made it up. I have busted my butt for months to make sure my information is accurate. I am adamant about it. I want people to learn as they read my historical fiction. πŸ™‚

  11. So much of what I am able to include in my stories comes from my love of the Little House series. Wilder captured the pioneering era wonderfully. Since I am writing for the same age group, the books have definitely been a help. Reading this series truly set me off looking for research materials on the pioneering era and the settling of the West.

    My one challenge when writing historical fiction, however, is that I tend to get stuck if I can’t describe something or I don’t know what an object was called or a certain process. For my current project, I was wondering how a young boy would unhitch a wagon from horses, and what certain parts were called. I had to do some searching for that. At one point, I was able to correspond with a man who wrote a book about horses that I reviewed. The information he provided was invaluable.

    Thanks for a great post, Michelle.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      That half-pint sure inspired a lot of writers, didn’t she? πŸ™‚

      I had questions for the Civil War novel I hope to get to someday, about cavalry and general horsemanship. I went to a Civil War days and found an ostler in character who answered every question I could think of and more.

      Tehnically, I suppose HE was a fictional character, and yet I learned so very much about riding and horse care circa 1865, it was terrific!

      (I used that info in the novella I wrote this summer, An Inconvenient Gamble, and so I could write off the cost of my entry ticket!)

  12. Sarah Sundin says:

    One way I like fiction for research – novels written during (not about) the period I’m writing about show me a lot about attitudes, vocabulary, and phrasing used in that era. I like to watch movies made in the era too, for the same reasons.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      That’s an excellent point, Sarah, written DURING your historical era. I remember reading a book by Elsworth Thane in which a British family gathered around the radio during the start of WWII and listened to the weather report for the last time. Britain was not going to report on weather “for the duration.”

      That scene has stuck with me for years as a small detail I’ve never seen anywhere else but which makes perfect sense.

    • Great point, Sarah! I plan to read novels from that era too. A future wip of mine involves England suffragette movement and I found two novels of that era written by English woman in the movement. I plan to get them from Persephone books. If you have not checked that website you should! The books are so neat and all written by British females. Girl power! πŸ™‚

  13. Not that we needed any more, but there’s another great reason to read more fiction, Michelle.

    One nonfiction book both my husband and I loved was Wild Men, Wild Alaska by Rocky McElveen. He’s the professional guide who took President Bush on his famous fishing trip in Alaska. That’s just one of the stories he tells in his book, and it’s full of details of terrain and survival.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      I’ve been steering away from modern day stories, just because I’m writing historical fiction, but when I was IN Alaska, I bought Bear Tales and we used The Milepost every single day. One recent non-fiction book I enjoyed was “If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name,” which is about life in Haines–small town Alaskan life.

  14. Leah Good says:

    When I was working on a historical fiction about post WWII Poland, I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about the period. I discovered that you can find tons of great research leads by looking in the historical notes, research notes or bibliographies in the backs of both type of books! Not to mention all the great ideas you listed.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Excellent suggestion, Leah. Read not only the novel but all the reference lists in the back. I’ve done it myself and used those books as a jumping off spot for my own research.

  15. Tedra says:

    I know nothing of Alaska but would love your reading list. I have an UF who will travel to an Alaskan like place.
    I agree with you totally that reading fiction is better than sawing through texts upon texts of facts. I needed to know about Iowa recently and the text books gave me nothing on community or the world there (because eberywhere is different) until I came across a book that showed me that life is pretty much normal down there with a few qirks but it is not Mars. πŸ™‚ So I could breath knowing I wasn’t going slaughter the Iowans if I didn’t mention farming or crops or how the rooster crow eary in the morns because lets face it I have no clue what farm life is like and that’s okay. I just need the basics.

  16. Ann Bracken says:

    I love Alaska! I haven’t been since I was young, and really want to go back. It was a long trip. My parents drove my three brothers and me there for vacation. From Florida. Yes, they are insane.

    My stories center around the American Revolution, and a book I found invaluable was Family Tales and Letters by Lloyd Muller. The author tells about his mother’s life as an indentured servant up until he was born. It then follows his life until after his service in the BRITISH army. What I found really interesting was reading something from the point of view of a loyalist! Understanding the other side gave me great insight that I think will help flesh out my characters.

  17. Michelle–and everyone who commented–thanks for all the great tips! I have completed a Christian Contemporary manuscript and have begun an Historical Fiction novel. Several of you have given some great advice on research. If anyone has further advice specifically on 17th century England, I welcome your input.

  18. Jenni Brummett says:

    I’m reading a fiction book about the Lowell Mill girls for my WIP. Although my story doesn’t take place in Lowell my main character worked there as a young girl, and since her backstory affects who she is now, I know there’s value in the research. Finding a novel that highlights Key West in the 1830’s would be helpful to me and my WIP.

    My family and I had the pleasure of visiting Skagway this June. I remember how the wind whipped off of the water and through the town, and the clouds overhead were constantly changing from one shade of gray to another. There isn’t a hospital in Skagway so when pregnant women are nearing full term they have to stay in Juneau (the nearest hospital) until their baby is born.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      See? Do you find out pregnant women have to travel to Juneau to give birth in a history book? And good observation about the wind whipping off the water and the shades of gray on the clouds.

      Thanks! No babies in The Goldrush Christmas, and I’m sure midwives were delivering in town then anyway, but I’ll be watching the weather! πŸ™‚

  19. Chiming in a little late on this discussion, Michelle, but you hit on one of my favorite topics. I love Alaska! Have lived and traveled all over it (still have a cabin there, too). In fact, I am living aboard a sailboat, right now, getting ready to adventure up the Inside Passage, next spring. For my health, mostly, as I have a chronic case of gold fever.

    Anyway, just for the record, I couldn’t keep my kids out of shorts, even during the spring and fall months. However, they always had a decent jacket, heavy shoes and socks, and usually some kind of hat on. One of my most endearing memories of those days is seeing so many beautiful high school girls standing at the bus stop, wearing flimsy dresses… with long underwear and boots on underneath.

    Two books I loved (which you probably have already discovered, but just in case) are Mary Kellogg Sullivan’s A WOMAN WHO WENT TO ALASKA, and TRAIL OF A SOURDOUGH. Both of them are on Gutenberg, and are a gold mine of details (like making REAL sourdough bread) that only people who have lived there would observe. Time-travel books, I call them, because they literally take you there.

    I also wanted to mention that the best thing about Alaska are the people. Real characters, most of whom could keep you up all night with their fishing tales, or bear stories. Lived next door to Larry Kanuit (BEAR TALES and MORE BEAR TALES) for about three years, who was also my daughter’s English teacher. But I do love the southeast best of all, as I have a soft spot for fishing families.

    Something unique to that region I enjoyed, was the lack of regard for the rain. You would see a kid ride by on a bike, totally soaked, without even a rain jacket on. Often saw men who were working outside like that, too, with the cuffs of their jeans and sweatshirts dripping water. Always got the same answer when I asked where their raincoat was, “What rain?”

    OK, I’ll quit, now. But I envy you such a wonderful, colorful subject as Alaska for the backdrop of a story. Many blessings, and may it be a virtual delight for you to write!

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Thanks for your suggestions, Lilly, and I’ll be making tracks for the Gutenberg books!

      I think I may have met Larry Kanuit–is that possible?–at a craft fair I attended some seven years ago in Anchorage. I read all his books–those tales of grizzly bears on the alert!

      Unless people have lived in a rainy climate, like we did near Seattle, they may not realize how much of the world lives quite happily with a little mist falling from the sky and no worries about a raincoat!

      Thanks for your input.

      • Definitely could have been Larry Kanuit, as when we were neighbors, it was in a suburb outside of Anchorage, called Rabbit Creek. Besides that, Alaska is such a huge place, most locals tend to stay congregated around the three big cities (Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Juneau).

        I stick mostly to the latter two, lately, because of my gold fever. So, even though I return frequently (my mother still lives there), looking a person up from one of those cities to the other is like having someone ask, “Hey, as long as you’re going to Denver, this week, mind stopping in on my sister in Seattle?”

        Alaska is so amazing!

  20. Robin Levin says:

    Reading historical fiction is a wonderful way of learning about the past. I became interested in writing about ancient Greece and Rome from reading works by Robert Graves, Colleen Mac Cullough and Mary Reynolds. I think it’s the responsibility of the writer of historical fiction to get the facts right. I recently read a work of historical fiction which had the Egyptians of the 14th century BC using gold coins, which was not possible since coinage was invented in the 7th century BC. This particular author also has the Egyptians using eucalyptus leaves as medicine when Eucalyptus was confined to Australia and New Zealand until the 18th century. Caveat Lector.