Despite the advent of the internet, where practically every published piece of human knowledge is only a few clicks away, a writer’s research still needs to be done the hard way. We still have to sift through the pile to get to the information that will truly bring our stories to life.
It’s not easy, especially when you’re sifting through sources that may not be any good. These are my tips for evaluating sources, so you can laser-focus your research on ones that stand up under scrutiny. Be sure to scroll down to the bottom for my list of Top 10 Resources for Historical Fiction Authors.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
A primary source is a piece of evidence (written account, physical artifact, interview, experimental results, reports, etc.) that relates to a person’s firsthand experience with an event. For example, Catherine the Great’s diaries are a primary source regarding her life and experiences. Everything her biographers wrote about her is a secondary source — material intended to interpret, discuss, analyze, or describe a primary source.
Well-rounded research is a mix of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources allow you to get close to a subject, while secondary sources frame the primary source in the context of expert opinions and academic discourse.
How to Evaluate Sources
There are some important questions to ask yourself before trusting any source, or wasting too much time on sources of minimal value. Because remember, “Everything on the internet is true.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1734.
Was the source published recently?
History isn’t written in stone, and new research often builds upon — and occasionally disproves — previous research. That’s why it’s so important to seek out the most recently published research on a subject, even if you end up comparing it to older works.
Depending on the field, you may not find any “recent” research. For example phrenology hasn’t been considered a legitimate science for quite some time. You’d have to go far back into the archives to find anyone who published clinical findings on the subject.
Do you know who authored the secondary source?
Any publication worth your time will have an author willing to take credit for the work. Anonymous blog posts and web articles are a non-starter. Same goes for content authored by someone who is obviously hiding behind a screen name (you really can’t trust KittyRainbows23197).
Check that the author of the source is a qualified expert. That might mean they’re an eyewitness or have firsthand experience. It might mean a degree or professional qualification. Either way, this person shouldn’t have popped up out of nowhere. Hunt for their paper trail — previous publications, interviews, etc. — that establishes them as an expert.
Does the author have a bias or ulterior motive?
For decades, the tobacco and sugar industries have kept medical experts on the payroll and contracted them to repeat to the press that the product in question is not harmful to human health. There are lab contractors who will run a test 600 times until they get the minimum results — anomalous or otherwise — that their employer is looking for.
So, how can you trust studies and so-called experts if they’re prioritizing the profit motive over actual fact? Keep digging until you find the dissenting source.
Do other sources support the same facts and information?
Consult at least two different sources and compare their assertions, findings, etc. against each other before you take anything as gospel. Some issues are up for debate among academics (for example, whether humans were better off as hunter-gatherers than agrarians), and others are proven yet still appear in conflicting publications every year (e.g. the non-existent link between vaccines and autism; the reality of man-made climate change, etc.).
In the case of conflicting information, check dates and methodology. Who published most recently, and therefore might have more up-to-date information? Whose study or survey had the soundest methodology, and is therefore more trustworthy?
My Top 10 Resources for Historical Fiction Authors
I’ve compiled a tip sheet of my top 10 resources for historical fiction authors. These are sources that work for authors if any time period or region. My focus is European and North American historical fiction, but these resources could be equally valuable to writers focused on other places.