Do you need to take a research trip?

For many writers of historical fiction, the place they’re writing about is nowhere near the place where they live. And, unless they have a great deal of extra cash in their budget, going to those places will be difficult if not impossible.

Writers living in the Southern United States won’t have any trouble finding Civil War battlefields and museums dedicated to that period in our history. Historical societies abound, as do many extremely knowledgeable folk who are quite willing to share their expertise. But what about writers living on the West Coast? Where do they go? How far east must they travel to find something authentic?

Maybe not far at all. In 2017, California hosted two dozen events which focused on the Civil War. These included reenactments, displays, and various other “You Are There” events and activities. So, just because you aren’t blessed by having a deep South address, you can still do some valuable research on the Great Unpleasantness.

If you’re writing about a particular period in the history of Europe, there’s a good chance you’ll need to write a scene, if not a great deal more, set in a castle. If you’re interested in capturing the feel of a castle, does that mean you’ll have to pony up for tickets to the Old World? Maybe. And hopefully, you’ll know in which country your story takes place. That’ll make the selection process easier. But just in case you don’t know or aren’t sure, Wikipedia has lists of castles in over 40 different countries. That’s a lot of castles!

But if you’re an American writer on a budget, and a trip outside the country isn’t an option, don’t despair. There could be something much closer that’ll  give you a taste of castle living. Just do an internet search of castles in the United States. You may be surprised to discover there’s something worth seeing within a day’s drive or less.

There are two in upstate New York: Bannerman Castle (shown above) and Boldt Castle. Hearst Castle is located in California, and the Biltmore Estate is snuggled into the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. But they’re not the only options for those needing some close-up castle time. If all else fails, Disneyland and Disneyworld offer options based on the opulent Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. (You can always ignore anyone looking like Cinderella. If you’re over twelve, they won’t be interested in you, either.)

Writing a western? There are ghost towns–populated and unpopulated–all over the West, where the wild days of the frontier are brought back to life. The pickin’s are slimmer in the East, but if you look hard enough, you can find something, even if it’s just a theme park. While not exactly museum quality, a good bit of time and effort go into making some of those parks quite authentic.

Your best bet for experiencing the flavor of an era is probably a “living history” museum. Columbus, Georgia, for instance, features Westville, a re-created town based on pioneer life in Georgia in the mid-1800s. Not exactly Dodge City, but a great source of historical material just the same. The many delightful volunteers there are more than willing to share their passion for the past. The Tullie Smith House in Atlanta, run by the Atlanta History Center, provides visitors with an up-close and personal look at rural life in Georgia before the Civil War.

If you’re writing something set during the Revolutionary War, go ahead and spend whatever it takes to visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, an incredible recreation. Like most living history museums, Colonial Williamsburg provides very knowledgeable staff decked out in period clothing who can answer your questions. Best of all, many of them remain in period character, speaking in terms comfortable to those living in 1776, if not today. It’s not a bad way to pick up on the nuances of that era’s language. If you’re smart, you’ll sneak some of it into your dialog.

Whatever period you’re writing about, take the time to search the options made available by living history museums and expositions. What you’ll discover are details which can only enhance the realism of your tale. If you can’t be an expert, you can always talk to one.

And whether you drive, fly, or swim to your desired destination, keep track of your expenses; more than likely they’re tax deductible.**

Got some travel/research tips of your own? Please share them in the comments section below. I’d love to read them!

–Josh

**I’m neither a tax attorney nor an accountant, nor have I ever portrayed one on stage or screen. So, when it comes to the tax man, you’re on your own!

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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5 Responses to Do you need to take a research trip?

  1. Doris Reidy says:

    Excellent suggestions. And for those of us who can’t be stirred out of our nests, the Internet is a treasure trove of information.

    • joshlangston says:

      The web can be a trap, too, because it’s so easy to use. What it lacks, however, is the chance to experience more sensory input. You can’t feel the texture of cured leather or the softness of a pelt on the internet, to say nothing of the smell of draft horses, or the sounds made by a stagecoach.

  2. Gerald Flinchum says:

    Great suggestion about keeping receipts. I travelled extensively in the SE researching family history and was able to deduct most of my expenses for my trips. I itemized deductions back then. Now, using the “Standard Deduction”, I no longer keep receipts but include friends in my research trips and make such outings a pleasure. Friends often enjoy the experience of historical research.

    • joshlangston says:

      I suspect Schedule C will still be around, so I won’t be too quick to discard future receipts. Who knows what changes will occur in the new tax law? I’m a Fair Tax supporter, but I fear that’ll never happen. Too many vested interests.

      But, more to your point, there’s no reason why one can’t share some of the joys of research. My bride accompanied me on trips to Wales, Brittany, Colonial Williamsburg, and a variety of other places. We both enjoyed them.

  3. alicegristle says:

    Wow! Never knew there was a castle like Bannerman! And in some ways, it looks much more interesting than some castles in Europe. It’s ruined, but still retains a lot of distinctive intact character. A queer, delightful combination!

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