How to do Historical Research

How to do Historical Research

Including relevant historical resources and citations such as chapter notes, footnotes, bibliographies, and appendices, are one of the unique features of my novels. Although fiction does not usually include these elements, I believe it is important to allow readers the opportunity to become deeply engaged in my stories by investigating the history. I encourage my readers to evaluate the sources I use, filter fact from fiction, and determine for themselves what the history means. But, in order to do that, readers need to the tools to understand and become a part of the historical process. Below is a step-by-step guide to get you started. 

Identify your topic – Start broad. Begin with an idea of what or who you are interested in researching. There is no need to narrow your topic until you have a basic understanding of the historical context.

THROUGH DAKOTA EYES, edited by Gary Clayton Anderson, provides an excellent overview of the people and events of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.

Do some general reading – Once you’ve identified a broad topic, start reading texts that provide an overview of that topic. For instance, if you’re interested in the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, begin by reading books about the history of Minnesota in the 19th century. As you read, slowly begin to narrow your topic by then selecting books about the history of the U.S. – Dakota War. This might include books like Over the Earth I Come by Duane Schultz, Through Dakota Eyes by Gary Clayton Anderson or Being Dakota by Alanson Skinner and Amos Enos Oneroad.

Identify a specific/narrow topic – Once you’ve done some general reading, think about what caught your interest—what made you curious? That should become your topic.

Identify potential sources – Thanks to the historical process, historians always leave behind a trail of sources that begin with secondary sources and lead to primary sources. Use the bibliographies, footnotes, endnotes, and other resources found in books related to your topic in order to find sources that will help you learn more. For instance, if you’re reading the MNopedia article titled, Battle of Birch Coulee, in the bibliography you will find a source recorded like this: Christgau, John. Birch Coulie: The Epic Battle of the Dakota War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. The article just led you to a new source that will lead you to even more sources.

Find your sources – In today’s digital age finding sources is easier than ever. Most sources are digitized, meaning you can find them with a computer and internet access. I recommend starting with Google Books (books.google.com), though there are many other digital platforms available. Search Google Books with all the information you have available such as book title, author name, and publication year. If you have a specific quote, use that. Put the quote in parentheses in the search bar and Google Books will take you directly to the source.

This is a letter written by Alexander Ramsey to Chief Buffalo of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. I discovered it in the endnotes of a secondary source, then located the microfilm copy at the Minnesota Historical Society, then scanned and digitalized the letter for my records.

For those sources that you cannot find on Google Books, try Worldcat.org. Worldcat searches all libraries throughout the world for your source. Use the search features to narrow your search. Sometimes, Worldcat will direct you to an electronic source other than Google Books. That’s great! Sometimes, you can only find the source in print or microfilm at a local or regional library or museum. That’s okay, too.

Gather as many sources as possible – It’s not enough to look at one or two sources if you wish to truly understand your topic. Historians will often use hundreds of sources when writing books or essays. Whatever sources you use, be sure that you consider multiple perspectives. That means you must evaluate your topic from the viewpoint of all people involved and then find sources from those people. For instance, when researching the U.S. – Dakota War, it’s important to find sources and viewpoints from numerous parties involved such as the white settlers, the traditional Dakota, the farmer Dakota, the missionaries, the government appointed agents, the traders, the Dakota of mixed racial heritage, the people held captive, the volunteer militia, and so forth. Each person and group of people will have a different viewpoint of what happened and why. As a historian, it’s important to acknowledge and understand each viewpoint in order to fully comprehend your topic.

Furthermore, when considering sources, be aware of the author and date of publication. Choose sources that were written during the event, after the event, and during contemporary or more recent times. Also, be sure to use a variety of authors who reflect a diversity of opinion and backgrounds.

A page out of my notebook. Notes on the Sandy Lake Tragedy.

Take notes – As you read your sources, take notes. Write down anything that interests you. Write down anything that strikes or startles you. Write down anything that seems important or relevant.

This is the bibliography from my novel, RESISTING REMOVAL. Notice that the sources are similar in format and they include all of the information you need to find and use those sources.

Make it your own – You’ve identified your topic, read through a variety of sources, and taken pages and pages of notes. Now it’s time to draw your conclusions. What do you think happened and why? You are now the expert. Using your notes, turn your thoughts into a readable narrative. Begin by summarizing your findings and expressing the historical context of your topic. Then, using evidence, build a narrative or argument to support the conclusions you’ve made about your topic. Tell readers what happened and tell them, based on your careful research, why it happened. Or, if you’re unable to draw any specific conclusions, pose new questions for future researchers. Ultimately, remember that this is your narrative and you should make it your own rather than repeating what’s already been said. By doing this, you are adding to the historiography so that others may use your work as their source.

Cite your sources – This is important. Cite your sources by including the title, author, publisher, date of publication, and any other relevant information from the sources you used. This will help historians track down and verify your sources. This way, you are building a map for future researchers that will help them delve into the historical event or person the same way you did. As more historians research a topic, history becomes revealed which builds upon our understanding of the past and leads to a more enlightened future.  

For those looking for broad range of history on the U.S. – Dakota War, download my Kindle ebook, Confronting Minnesota’s Past: A Resource to Test Your Understanding on the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. This comprehensive resource includes historically relevant information about the war, the people and places involved, and its context. An easy-to-read guide, Confronting Minnesota’s Past introduces readers to this important and tragic history through a variety of headings, quotes, discussion questions, and citations for further research.

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