Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Doing Research--Backwards

Yeah, it could be that kind of backwards, as in "Why do I have to do all this silly research? I write fiction, don't I? Can't I make it up?"

But I mean the kind of backwards that refers to what is seemingly a back-to-front process. In other words, I have to gain facts from a later time with a view towards an earlier time. Here's the circumstance that puts me in that sort of process.

As I finish the final tweeks on my current WIP, Spinster's Folly, I am also doing research for the next book in the Owen Family Saga, Gone for a Soldier. The storyline occurs mainly in the point-of-view of the oldest son of the family, Rulon, during the American Civil War. I have stated in a previous novel in the series that Rulon was wounded in a particular place at a particular time. Now, my job in the new book is to get him from his enlistment to that battle.

So? You write fiction. Make it up!

Not so fast, Grasshopper. I write historical fiction, especially in this book. Do you know how many millions of American Civil War buffs, historians, and aficionados there are?

Many. Many-many. A whole lot of many.

If I get my facts wrong, I'm going to be the laughingstock of all those millions of readers, who KNOW THEIR STUFF.

I have to get Rulon into a unit that will actually be engaged in the battle in which he is wounded. I have to find the kind of encounter that would give him the type of wounds I've already said that he suffered, which are from shrapnel, or exploding shell fragments. I can't simply stick him into some cavalry unit or other that had skirmishes with other cavalry units (or a cavalry unit that captured cattle during a daring raid on Union resources).

  • He has to be in a unit that took bombardment from Union artillery.
  • He has to be in a unit that was formed in his area of Virginia.
  • He has to be in a unit that survived to serve in the battle.

Civil War Units from Virginia

The above specifications sort of point toward "Infantry," so although Rulon is a fine horseman, he's going to join a unit of foot soldiers "raised" or recruited in the Shenandoah Valley.

Three units from the Shenandoah Valley

I previously wrote that Rulon was wounded at Petersburg, Virginia. However, Petersburg was not a single battle. It is often called "The Siege of Petersburg," but it wasn't a classic siege. It was a ten-month series of battles, encounters, skirmishes, cattle raids, starvation, yes, siege conditions, and a lot of sitting around, waiting for something to happen. It covered a large area, not one city. There are several opportunities during that campaign for Rulon to receive his wounds.

Federal offensives during the Petersburg campaign, 1864-65

Due to calamitous casualties or military reorganization, some Confederate units didn't get as far along in the war as I need Rulon to be. Therefore, among other things, I have to become an expert on the configuration of the Confederate military, from the end to the beginning. Rulon must be in the correct unit from the start.

Example: Combatant Units at Gettysburg

Now you see the research task I have before me, and a great deal depends on doing it backwards. I'm not helpless, though. I have my resources:

Primary sources: Eyewitnesses

Accounts from eyewitnesses, both private soldiers

General James Longstreet's account

and general officers

Works by Noted Historians

Histories of the Civil War by eminent historians

Overviews and Maps

Overviews of the war and collaborative works, plus maps

Dynamics between the leaders

Many of the Civil War leaders on opposing sides graduated from West Point Military Academy in the same class, and gained strategic and tactical battle experience in the War with Mexico.

Information on specific battles and campaigns

With good information on specific battles and campaigns, I can place my characters in situations that will seem very real to my readers.

Remember, this war went on for several years: 1861-1865. The lengthy time involved has the potential to give a lot of richness to the forthcoming novel.

Pictorial presentations of the scenes of the War

The American Civil War was the first conflict in which the common civilian learned about real war--not from glorious schoolroom prints depicting famous battles of the past, but from illustrations made by newspaper illustrators on the scene; and from photographs taken by those who worked for Mathew Brady, and independent photographers.

You can tell that I've already done considerable research, and spent a great deal of money (including expenses for my recent two-week research trip), but I have more work to do before I'm finished.

Wish me luck!


  1. As an avid reader of historical fiction I often run across historical mistakes. It is like the old, chalk screeching on the blackboard when I find them. I taught history for 42 years and enjoy writers that get it right. Good Luck!

    1. Thanks, Old Guy. I can't guarantee that I won't make any mistakes--no one can make such a guarantee--but I wish that they may be small ones and totally non-irritating to you and other historians and fans.

  2. Good luck indeed. Looks like you do excellent research, even if it is as you say “backwards” – so important because an error can discredit a good historical effort. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you, SB. I hope I won't make any major errors, but I can't promise that I won't have any at all. It is fascinating, though.

  3. Anonymous6:51 AM

    Thanks, Marsha for this post. It really helps a lot with my Civil War project I talked to you about. It also has given me a new idea for my current manuscript.

    1. Thanks, Ann. I'm glad it helps.


I welcome your comments.

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