Episode 10

How to use archives to enhance your historical fiction

24 April 2024

Research is so important to piecing together the material world of your novel. Not only are archives an important tool in helping you avoid anachronisms that can be jarring for readers, but good archival research can have a huge positive impact, helping you access primary details that make your setting and characters come alive.

In this episode, Julia and Theo speak with Steve Dacus, founder of The Research Arsenal, which offers keyword searchable access to thousands of American Civil War documents including photographs, letters, diaries, ordnance returns, quartermaster specifications and more.

Steve is passionate about helping authors bring the past to life. Listen in to get over the intimidation factor when conducting primary research and to learn how primary materials can help you capture characters’ sentiment and reactions to major events and daily life, adding nuance to your characterisation and description.

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[00:00:00] Theo Brun: Hello and welcome to this month’s episode of the History Quill podcast brought to you by the History Quill, the home of historical fiction writers. And I’m here with my lovely co host Julia Kelly. Julia, how are you?

[00:00:29] Julia Kelly: I am very well. I’m, uh, I’m actually pretty excited because I feel like ever since this podcast started, I’ve been telling you about these books that I’ve been writing these books that I’ve been editing. The last book went off. It’s developmental edits went off, uh, as of recording this, uh, last the week before this recording.

So I am looking to the future and I’m looking at. Writing something new and I’m very much enjoying the process of figuring out what that’s going to be so it’s been it’s been fun It’s felt very very refreshing. How about you?

[00:01:02] Theo Brun: Yeah, that sounds good. I think I’m in a similar place in that I, I think I ended last year feeling a little bit frustrated with a few things. So I sort of turned the page, um, this year and have. Yeah, brought a different attitude to it, different approach, and opened up my mind to different ideas. And I’m actually having quite a sort of fruitful time in terms of new ideas and ideas that I’m pulling together for the next novels that I’m going to write.

So, all together, I’m in a good place, I would say.

[00:01:33] Julia Kelly: Ah, wonderful I love it when the creativity starts and it starts feeling productive as well at the same time. It’s a good place to be in

[00:01:40] Theo Brun: Absolutely. Well, today we’re going to do something a little bit different. Um, we have a, not a historical fiction author as our guest, but we in fact have Steve Dacus, who is the founder and CEO of a organization called the Research Arsenal, which is a historical archive primarily focused on the American Civil War.

Um, but essentially he’s been busy digitizing all the resources, letters, photos, um, official sort of technical reports and all kinds of stuff that makes for an incredibly rich resource for anyone who wants to look back into the past and tell actual history or historical fiction as well. So it’s going to be really interesting, I think, chatting to him about everything archival.

So should we get into it?

[00:02:33] Julia Kelly: Yeah, let’s go

[00:02:41] Theo Brun: Right. Well, it’s a great pleasure to introduce a slightly different guest for today’s episode. Um, someone who is, I would say, in the nitty gritty of what it is that we do when we’re writing historical fiction and trying to recreate historical scenarios. We’re very lucky to have Steve Dacus with us, and Steve is the founder and CEO of the Research Arsenal, which is a historical database that he’s got up and running, which hopefully he’ll tell us a little more about.

Over in the US, mostly it covers the American Civil War, but it’s obviously an amazing resource and an amazing model for what’s possible when it comes to setting up these historical archives that can be so useful. Um, so Steve, welcome to the History Quill podcast. It’s great to have you.

[00:03:32] Steve Dacus: Appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

[00:03:34] Theo Brun: Yeah, well, I’d love to know You can’t do a project like this or get involved in a project like this without having a deep love of history, full stop.

So do you want to, yeah, do you want to tell us a little bit of your kind of story that built up to the idea of, of, uh, founding this, um, archive and how that came about?

[00:03:57] Steve Dacus: you betcha. I mean, really the genesis of what was going on is like, I mean, kind of like you said, I was a history geek and a history nerd, uh, all along, even at school, uh, whether it was, uh, in history writing, you know, reports or in English class writing, you know, fiction, uh, essays, uh, and always, it always be in the genre of a historical setting, you know.

And, uh, I took whatever, whatever reason I took to the American Civil War as a niche, uh, type, you know, I guess framework of what I was interested in, uh, you know, other people were interested in World War 2, World War 1, um, you know, whatever, but, uh, I kind of latched on to the American Civil War, which is kind of popular back in the 80s and 90s when I was growing up.

And, uh, so, you know, fast forward, I mean, I was always a history nerd, always read books. And, uh, fast forward to just about basically five, six, seven years ago. Uh, I do living history, historical interpretation. I do, uh, I’m a docent at a few museums, you know, that I, you know, talk to the public at. And, you know, the history geeks in us, we always see things on the internet and like save photos and put them in folders.

Right? Like, like, Oh, that’s a cool photo. I save it in a folder. Uh, or I come across a really cool reference that I want to put into an article. Uh, and so I, I put that as a, as a, you know, save that or bookmark that. And my friends and I were all talking and like, especially at this point in our lives, we have like a million different folders with a million different photos in there labeled and we can’t, I can’t find what I want to, you know, look for and, uh, and in my head, I’m like, there has to be a database that I could just like search like a specific photo.

Like, you know, especially trying to describe in an article. I was trying to describe how soldiers. clothing in a very, uh, actually I was kind of making fun of how, uh, modern kids where, you know, actually when I was growing up where they’re bit brims, you know, flat brim turned up off the side, kind of all weird.

Uh, I was gonna make an article that basically says they did that 150 years ago, uh, in the U S and I couldn’t find the specific photo I was looking for and I knew I saved it in one of my folders. And so I said, man, there has to be a database somewhere that just you can type in keywords and you know, it pops up, right?

And there’s not. There’s nothing. Um, and fast forward to trying to research linguistic, um, I guess period, period language. Again, trying to talk about or bring in certain verbs or words that obviously have died out in our modern lingo today. Uh, in my head, I’m thinking, man, there has to be a database of, you know, thousands of letters that people wrote home that we can, you know, keyword search and I can search for the word, you know, Mississippi or search for the word, uh, whatever it is and figure out how often it was used and, uh, the context of how those words were used.

And kind of look and see from, you know, mid 19th century to later 19th century, if those words died out or not. Right. And again, no, there’s, there’s nothing. And as a researcher, I was like, I’m not the only guy who, who wanted this or who wants this. And so, uh, realize there’s nothing out there and long story short or short story long.

Uh, I, you know, we friends, friends and I, uh, got together and we just started compiling. Um, every image we could, we got partnerships with some national databases and national archives, like the Library of Congress that has one of the largest collections of Civil War photos out there. And what our, our specialty is, is we take those photos and keywords, you know, tag everything in the image.

Uh, and so now we have a database that, that, you know, we can search and look and research kind of the material culture of the Civil War. And I understand this is, you know, it’s a niche, you know, but, uh, there’s. There’s a lot of people who are really interested in one of the things that people kind of confuse us on is they say, Oh, yeah, you’re just another ancestry or another genealogy side.

Actually, that’s not the furthest from the truth. Our focus is on the material culture and the, I guess, the culture of the time period. And so whether it’s the, you know, thousands of searchable photos that are keyword searchable, or the letters that are keyword searchable, or, you know, ordinance returns, or, you know, Letters that actually specify what, what regiments were issued specific, you know, for us that getting a nitty gritty, um, one of the things I kind of culminated and I’ll stop talking here.

Uh, the, one of the things that kind of culminated is, is a, a German, a German author kind of got with us and said, hey, this is awesome because he was able to research, he found an ordinance returns from one of the regiments he was, you know, framing his, his writing in. And he was able to put, you know, those details of what that soldier would have been carrying, how many cartridge boxes, and how many rounds of ammunition he had because he had that document that issued that.

And it’s those details that really separate out, um, you know, I guess, subpar, uh, writing from, from, from the nitty gritty, from the things that really latch on to people, you know, and, um, yeah, sorry, that was the genesis of everything, yeah.

[00:09:11] Julia Kelly: So, Steve, you’re speaking my language here because just yesterday, um, or rather the day before I was, I write primarily about World War Two and I focus on Britain. And so it’s a really well documented time period with a lot of photographs and all these things, but simple things sometimes trip you up.

Like, I was looking. I was searching and searching and searching, and it was the worst type of thing because I had looked it up. I had found what I was looking for, but about 6 months ago. And so I was going back to try to reconfirm something and stupidly. I didn’t save whatever it was that I had used to confirm this.

I was looking at how train times and locations and routes would have been displayed in Paddington station in London during 1941 and I know I found it and I cannot find it again. And no matter what I plug into Google. Eventually I found something that I think gets me close enough and I can do a little bit of creative rewriting, um, on the scene because I want to get it right, but I don’t necessarily have a single place where I can go and put my hands on that information.

So I love the idea of being able to keyword search and. Obviously not my primary area, but I think it’s a really fascinating approach to archives. And I’m also really curious because I do have a background in historical research, and I was a journalist, so I’m used to digging around in archives. I’m used to going through material, trying to find these little details.

But for writers who are sort of just starting out into historical fiction, and they might be finding the idea of archival research intimidating. How do you kind of talk to them about approaching this and sort of making it a bit more accessible for, for those people?

[00:10:47] Steve Dacus: Yeah, no, actually, that, I mean, that was one of the other things that, you know, my friends and I kind of got frustrated on is in order to find what we were looking for, we had to travel to different state archives, county archives, national archives. And, and no one has the time or the money to do that. And so, again, our, our goal is to do that for you.

We, we partner, right now we partner with a fair amount of, of, you know, county and state websites, uh, or sorry, state archives. And we take those records, and of course we focus on our, you know, mid 19th century. But, uh, we take those records, we transcribe them, we put them up for you, uh, for your reference.

And you’re right, like, going to the archives, for the first few times I went there, it’s really intimidating.

[00:11:26] Julia Kelly: Yeah.

[00:11:27] Steve Dacus: don’t know what, what do you do? What do you not do? What’s okay? Like culturally, like what’s, I’m not a researcher, but you know, you, you, you figure it out. But man, those, those first few times you, you feel out of, out of the water, you know, but, uh, yeah, for sure.

[00:11:43] Theo Brun: Do the, um, it feels like the sort of timing is right for this, that the technology, you know, has sort of recently developed that, that this feels like a kind of tip of the spear, if you like, of things that could happen a lot across the archival world of the West, let’s say, or in each different countries, you know, pick your topic as it were.

Obviously, the American Civil War is a, is a hugely popular and rightly so interesting area of history for anyone living in America. Um, Does it bring a different kind of a person because of the nature of, you know, the technology is there now that, um, people are sort of bringing a different sort of mentality to it?

And who are the kind of people that are using your stuff? Are they amateurs who, who’s like, you know, great grandfather was involved on, so if I could get, get the, the age gap right. Or, or, or is it, or is it like professional novelists or professional historians who are going, oh my gosh, this is gold. I wish, I wish you’d invented this 20 years ago, but, but this would now will do.

[00:12:54] Steve Dacus: Really, so the really your first question is, is where it’s at of who, you know, are we, are we expanding who is getting into research and archival material? The answer is yes. And the best example I can use. is people who use slider rules versus when calculators became really popular, right?

In order to use a slider rule, uh, of course, this is my mom talking, right? Um, but, uh, it was complicated and really the people who went basically from, you know, trig and on used slider rules, uh, and there’s, you know, for people who are kind of middle math, like, they were like, oh, I forget that, like, I’ll just do long division.

And then the calculator came out and that basically evened the playing field across the board. And maybe that parallel comes over to this of, of, yeah, you know, historically, you know, we have these professional historians or archivists or authors that really knew their stuff and they got that, but no one else with the state archives and research stuff.

And so what this is allowing us to do is, is, you know, what I call, I’m a hobby historian, you know, even though I’m. Uh, getting a little bit more on the professional side of things, like I’m still just a nerd at heart, a kid at heart that likes to go to research stuff, and it’s we’re opening it up to people who kind of like with the calculators, right?

It’s easier, it’s manageable, and as far as the time frame, you mentioned it, I mean, you hit the nail on the head of, of, uh, being in this perfect time, perfect place in history, uh, we are in a digital revolution, uh, of our digitizing archives, scanning them, transcribing them, the AI on these things.

Transcribe a lot of the material automatically now the handwriting not so much. That’s a whole other thing but Yeah, no, it’s it’s we are in a digitization revolution of archival material allowing The standard hobby historian to or author to do this. So That’s I think that’s 100 percent true

[00:14:51] Julia Kelly: I’m curious about, um, again, you know, because we, we talk primarily to, um, to writers who are at various stages in their careers, um, you know, having giving somebody a bit more of a, of an idea of how they might use an archive like this. I know you mentioned this German author who was able to write about, um, you know, the ammunition that somebody would have, you know, worn and various things, but for somebody who’s trying to, to give more material, um, texture to their books, to give sort of a sense of the slice of life and all those details that we all love when we read historical novels, cause it’s really transporting.

What are some of the things that you suggest people dive in and look for, um, when

[00:15:34] Steve Dacus: Yeah,

[00:15:34] Julia Kelly: kind of exploring?

[00:15:36] Steve Dacus: You betcha. Uh, I mean, again, I hate to stay focused on, on the Civil War, but obviously that’s our

[00:15:41] Julia Kelly: No, go for it.

[00:15:42] Steve Dacus: the, uh, we’re getting, getting the weapons right, right? Like, for instance, um, knowing every regiment had, were issued different weapons, um, and different cartridge boxes and, and, you know, some regiments carried certain equipment while others didn’t.

Now, the, the, the issue is the, the public doesn’t know what they don’t know when they read. So, uh, But yet they know enough to know when something’s wrong or off, you know, like uh to I don’t know I I hate to bring this up. But like the the uh, the drama that is Napoleon the movie right like um you have

[00:16:16] Julia Kelly: Yeah. Go

[00:16:17] Steve Dacus: that’s that’s a really good way of you know, but not only is it bad story, bad writing but bad historical context right, so I don’t want to get into that a whole lot.

[00:16:26] Theo Brun: I hear you. I hear you.

[00:16:28] Steve Dacus: The historic, the historical world is just like appalled at how can you get so much wrong. And even though the public doesn’t know what they don’t know, like I said, they still know when something’s just not right, right? And people who also know, like people who, I mean, if you’re reading historical fiction, you’re reading it because you’re interested in history.

So there’s already like a little side part of your brain that’s, that is already researching historical side parts. And so if you get certain things wrong, or if you describe something wrong, then you’ve lost, you know, say, half your audience or a quarter of your audience because you just, you’re not, the details aren’t right.

And, but yet on the, on the contrast, when you get the details right, when you say, hey, you know, Private so and so picked up his Sharps carbine that he was issued a week ago and he’s he’s he’s the first time he ever loaded It was in combat, right? That detail is not only true but it is transporting it those details bring out the nitty gritty of your story to where people even though they don’t know what they don’t know they can tell that mistake. Those are details that really matter and so much history is stranger than fiction.

I mean, the stories that are actual true history are actually one of the best stories out there, you know, and so there’s no need to make stuff up. So, um,

[00:17:49] Theo Brun: And are you seeing that? Are you seeing that in people’s use of it? That it’s not just people come here looking for something that they sort of half expect to find, that it’s actually turning up interesting stories that no one could have imagined. And then people are using those.

[00:18:08] Steve Dacus: yeah, exactly. So, whether it’s equipment, getting the description of equipment right, or keyword searching letters, and we have 30,000 letters. You can keyword search from both sides, get a really good feel of linguistics, of words used, of the sentiment, and really the mindset of the soldiers that fought, and the mindset of the wives and the family at home, right?

Uh, and so, all it takes is you read, you know, a few letters, and you really get a good idea of what these guys were thinking, going through, living through. Uh, when you like when you’re typing in, um, uh, or when you’re writing a story on, like, say a rainstorm and someone like walking through or sleeping in a rainstorm, I mean, we have dozens of letters of guys describing like, yeah, I tried to sleep last night, but it poured the whole night and they, I mean, these guys are, I mean, I wish I could talk like these guys, right?

Right? Like, I mean, the descriptions they use are amazing. Uh, the words they use are very, um, Yeah. Yeah. I guess they paint that picture and I mean you don’t get that. Um, and just modern archives or, you know, modern modern databases And so sorry answer your question. Yeah, they’re using the the text and the ordinance returns.

We also have morning reports of like how many soldiers, uh, showed up present and accounted for on duty on a specific day, you know, so like you can say hey, you know 13 guys were in this company at this point in time. It’s just those details really matter especially to historians that want to read some historical fiction And it gets it right, you know, so that’s that’s really uh, what prompted this and and really like I said to bring that Napoleon into it. Like that’s it’s a lesson learned of what not to do.

[00:19:45] Julia Kelly: Steve, I just wanted to, I just wanted to go back to something that you were talking about, because I think it’s a really good point to bring home for people who are sort of starting to think about, um, using some of these things like diaries and letters. Capturing the sentiment of a time is so important because often, I think, as historical authors, you know, we go to the secondary sources, we go to the big books written by people with big degrees, you know, who are experts in the field, and they give you a really good overview of a period of time, or even sometimes a period of months or days, depending on what subject you’re looking at.

But I think that often can be at a slight remove and can give you a sense of sort of what the big picture was, but it can be very different getting into the archives and looking at what people were actually writing home and looking at how many contradictions there can be. And I know I’ve, I’ve done this before with, um, in the UK, there was a project called the mass observation diaries where people were asked before the war actually to write.

Uh, about their daily lives, and then it happened to coincide with World War Two. So we have this incredible record of what people were thinking about reacting to headlines, reacting to what was going on, and then also reacting to just kind of the mundane details of daily life that gives you a much stronger sense of the war.

In a period of time, I imagine you get the same thing with the Civil War. You get people who are actually engaged in these battles. And even though we know that eventually, you know, this side or that side is going to win this, their feeling in the moment is this is going terribly. Or, you know, there’s just a, you get a different flavor and a different sense of what reality was to these people.

[00:21:24] Steve Dacus: Yeah. No 100 um, it really kind of going along with that is you have, yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s amazing what, uh, you can tell because, you know, really history, unfortunately, history is washed out when you try to take it from the academic level to the high school level to the grade school level, or just the public level, it gets more and more and more washed out to where you just get these overgeneralized concepts.

Uh, and when we were transcribing a lot of these letters, it amazed me the sentiment of the Northern soldiers versus the Southern soldiers. I mean, you get the classic. It’s a classic cliche of the Northern, you know, the Union fought for slavery and fought to preserve the Union, um, and then the Confederates fought for, you know, states rights and, and, you know, to keep the, the right to preserve slavery, uh, and you have, you know, that, that kind of overarching idea and you read some of these soldiers that very clearly state why they’re fighting and neither one of those are why they say, you know, um, it’s, it’s really interesting, especially at the, the, The soldier level, not the, you know, commander, general or president level, uh, but at the, just the individual soldier fighting, it is amazing how many soldiers are fighting for none of those reasons.

[00:22:41] Theo Brun: Do you have a pretty even spread between the confederate side and the, um, union side? Because I, I, my impression was from the, is it the ordinance returns that they were federal ordinance returns so that the records were better on their side, at least for that…

[00:22:56] Steve Dacus: Significantly.

[00:22:58] Theo Brun: sort of records. But then in terms of the letters and the images, presumably, well, I don’t know, maybe just it happens that it’s spread one way rather than another.

But, but I imagine you’ve got a better shot of, uh, of having a kind of balance there.

[00:23:13] Steve Dacus: No, actually, really good point, and this is what is frustrating in Civil War research in general is There are very little confederate records, period. Very few confederate photos, very few confederate letters, very few confederate returns, very few confederate anything. Uh, and really like to answer your question, like numerically, uh, I would say the last time we checked about 70 percent of our database was federal or union and that, you know, the other 30 or 25, whatever percent is, is confederate.

And, you know, it’s just, unfortunately, there’s so many records that are lost, uh, you know, after the South lost, uh, I mean, before, actually, when they retreated out of Richmond during the war, they burned, I mean, buildings worth of documents, um, they burned so much, so many documents were destroyed, the civilians, the citizens of the South, they didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, that’s, that’s really what prompted the whole Western migration and the Wild West, is they’re like, hey, let’s Let’s get away from here.

Let’s just go in the West and just start over. And, uh, a lot of people didn’t want to be part of the South. They, they just, there was no pride in it. Well, that’s, that’s another argument. But like, there, there’s not a whole lot of, uh, you know, they just, so they threw away a lot. They destroyed a lot. There’s a lot not there.

Uh, and so unfortunately, like I said, the vast majority of federal records are union records. We do have, I mean, like I said, we still have, you know, 20%, 30 percent that are still Confederate records. But it’s not, it’s nowhere near what the federal side is. So good point.

[00:24:46] Julia Kelly: I’m going to ask you a question that I think I might. You might know the answer to based on some things you’ve said, but I’m always curious because everybody has a different approach to this, um, you know, authors, historians, whoever it is that you speak to. When you’re approaching historical fiction, how closely do you think an author should be adhering to fact and how, how much do you think, um, an author should be able to sort of take that license of where, where do you think it’s appropriate to take some artistic license?

Now, obviously Napoleon is maybe an extreme example of artistic license.

[00:25:18] Steve Dacus: Yeah. Really good question. I mean, I hate to dictate what someone’s story is. I mean, obviously it’s your story, do it, do with it what you want, but I mean, if you accept the framework of a historical fiction, then I think you really need to To do it well, you know, to do it as best you can. If you’re going to set it in a specific setting, then really, like, once you set that framework, then I think it’s important to get the details right, right?

I mean, like, one of the best examples is, uh, so the movie Gettysburg, if you’re familiar with it, really, you know, comment out here, but the movie Gettysburg was based on a historical fiction. Um, it wasn’t on a, on a documentary. It wasn’t on a book or a historical book. It was a historical fiction, um, that was set in a timeframe with true people, real people in real settings in real time.

Uh, but there was a fair amount of fiction in there. Like there, you know, three or four characters, you know, were completely made up. I mean, one major supporting character never existed. Um, And so, I mean, they, they really got that detail right, I mean, they got, that’s really almost, I mean, that was really close to a, to a historical book.

But, really, the more details you can get in there, the more, I think, the reader can latch on and really transport their mind into what you’re trying to describe as far as the scene. You know, if you’re reading historical fiction, most people generally have some interest in history to begin with, whether they, you know, Watch, you know, a history channel or whatever, you know, YouTube documentaries, but they already have a mindset of history.

And if you get some of those details, right, or if a history nerd reads a detail that only history nerds will have, um, or will know, then, then actually, you know, it’s something that, you know, a little gem that’s really important. Uh, it’s kind of similar to like Star Wars nerds when, you know, with these new Star Wars movies, when you put gems from the old, the old trilogy, and these, these nerds are like, Oh, I know that.

That’s, that’s a call back to somewhere else.

[00:27:25] Julia Kelly: Yeah, it’s an Easter egg.

[00:27:26] Steve Dacus: An Easter egg that’s really important, and so you can do that historically as well, uh, by getting, you know, details that are true. If you get it wrong, you really get it wrong, you know, and, and you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to alienate a good portion of your, your readers.

[00:27:41] Theo Brun: I think what’s, what’s so amazing also about what you’ve created is, is, is as a resource, you know, the, the ease and the speed with which somebody wants to tell a story can immerse their imagination, their minds in the actual true historical detail, then what you actually enable storytellers to do is avoid cliche.

It’s always, it’s always, it was one of the first things I learned was the chances are if you haven’t done enough research that. You’re going to come up with something cliche because your brain is just going to rehash something that you’ve picked up from somewhere else, may or may not be true. And so this sort of sets people free who are prepared to spend the time, full immersion on the detail, don’t need to recreate all the detail in then the telling of a novel, let’s say, but at the same time having that.

Can enable you to avoid pitfalls of cliche and obviously drawing actual real stories, real, um, you know, life experiences and all the rest of it that it just, you know, then it’s down to your storytelling skill, you know that how you knit these things together in an imaginative way to tell a good story.

You still got to tell a good story, right? So, um, yeah. But, but it sort of frees you up, it arms you and equips you in a way that, that otherwise it would be quite the, well, we all know, right, Julia, um, the headache that it, it can be to, to, to, to dig up, spend hours looking for things that if you could just do a tag word search, and then five, five photos popped up, I mean, that would help a lot, help, help very quick.

[00:29:22] Julia Kelly: Yeah.

[00:29:22] Steve Dacus: Exactly. No, and, and that’s really where we were, we’re already saving thousands, all right. Well, I mean collectively thousands of hours of research time, uh, you know, if you want to keyword search, you know what soldiers thought about rain or what they thought about rations or food or what they thought about weapons, I mean like Literally, all you do is keyword search those words, and any letter that has those words in there will come up.

I mean, so really, I mean, and that was usually, or that is the problem with historical fiction, or just historical research in general, is you have to invest the time, and man, sometimes you just don’t have the time, and you settle for, you know, a few hours research, and it is what it is. That’s what you got.

You got to get writing. And so then you’re, you’re stuck with, you know, I researched for like a day, you know, maybe two or three days. And I mean, I, I got to start getting some content going. And, um, and what this, like what our website allows us to allows you to do is. Is at least getting a niche or getting a genre getting a keyword or uh, Like if you’re trying to write about a specific setting then you can keyword search those and hopefully Reduce your time of research to get what guys thought about it what guys were issued the equipment people had and what they you know just Everything going on again, our focus is on the material culture of things.

I mean, like for the photos, you can keyword search certain items and look and see how these guys wore it. I mean, how they wore their coats, how they wore their hats, how they wore their vests is totally different than how we wear them today. And when you can describe a detail and really let your, let your writing just paint that picture of how these guys flamboyantly wore their coats.

Uh, man, that, that sets you apart from, from authors that you can clearly tell have not done their research, you know? Um, and that’s the thing, you can, you can tell the, the authors have done research. The writing brings it out. You can tell these guys have done the research, um, and again, our whole goal is to compress that time of research, uh, significantly,

[00:31:21] Julia Kelly: I’m really curious, sort of thinking back over this, over this entire conversation we’ve had, and, um, especially about, again, I, I’m so fascinated by the letters and the diaries, as well as photographs, of course. I guess for me there’s always the question of, um, with something like the Civil War, where a lot of people have done a lot of, uh, genealogical work, they’ve looked into their ancestry, and there may actually be living descendants of some of these people.

Do you have some sort of best practices or guidelines for authors who may be, you know, lifting details, or in some cases, you know, finding inspiration in stories that they find in these diaries or letters. And then fictionalizing that, how do you, how do you walk that line, especially when you know that you want to be respectful and you want to make sure that, you know, you’re, uh, acknowledging that this is a historical record or a historical event because somebody’s descendants may also still, still be alive and be very aware of, um, you know, what their, their descendant had done or their ancestor, I should say.

[00:32:21] Steve Dacus: Yeah, I mean, I mean, that’s a hard question, um, because everyone perceives or everyone views respect differently, obviously. But, I mean, really, I mean, everyone that I’m in, the community that I’m in, People would love the story just to be told, you know, um, I mean, we just had an, we had a, um, a re reunion of descendants of, of a regiment actually here where I live, uh, this summer.

And I guarantee you every single one of them would, if you were to extrapolate or say, take, pull, uh, something that happened from their ancestors, they wrote about in letters and then maybe insert that into your historical fiction with your main character or whatever. I think if you do it respectfully, then, then most people would be happy that that story is told.

I mean, that’s the thing is, is the experiences these guys wrote about, the events that occurred, the events that they wrote about, um, you know, they want their, I mean, our whole goal is just bringing these, the history alive. Bring it, you know, basically making it to where people don’t forget. Whether it’s the Civil War or the, you know, World War I, World War II, whatever it is, like.

These stories need to be told. People need to know about this stuff. And whether we do it through historical fiction, whether we do it through actual historical books, or whether we do it through movies or storytelling or YouTube, whatever, um, anytime, I think anytime you bring this out, acknowledge where it came from, you know, in your, in your, you know, in your writings or in your citations, but like, um, I think most people would be ecstatic to have a piece of their, story told, even if it’s in a fictional

[00:33:59] Theo Brun: Hmm. You reference my last question, because I know we’re running running a little bit low on time. We’ve had such an interesting conversation, but you touched on First World War, Second World War. Are there, have you got any plans as a, as a business, as an organization to expand, take the model of what you’ve done here?

I mean, is there a market for that, for, for taking what you’ve learned in how to set this sort of thing up and, and, and now take it off to another sort of sweet spot of history?

[00:34:30] Steve Dacus: Our, our original plan was to move forward with other genres. I mean, obviously we’re going to probably stick in on the American side of things, but, um, unfortunately, the Civil War is so vast and the documents are so numerous. I have a feeling we’re gonna be stuck here for the foreseeable future. Um, So, I mean, in a way that we’re gonna, I, I just pre, yeah, predicting where, what’s going to happen, honestly, our goal, we would love to do that.

I mean, we have the framework, it’s there. However, I bet someone will beat us to the punch. Um, it’s just, it’s inevitable. I hope someone beats us to the punch, um, on creating another database for each genre. I mean, like, already you have Fold3, uh, or Ancestry on, on the American side of things, that have kind of done this but they focus more on on the person they don’t focus on on I guess the material culture or or the story itself if you will I mean they kind of do but but not really still focus on the person Um, but I I can see uh, number one there there isn’t either I mean world war ii is is just because exploding in popularity right now

[00:35:37] Julia Kelly: Putting my plug in for World War II

[00:35:39] Steve Dacus: Yeah, right.

[00:35:40] Julia Kelly: on.

[00:35:41] Steve Dacus: So, uh, I I am hoping i’m willing to bet that someone’s gonna Come out with something similar to what we have for world war ii and in the next, you know a few years I hope so. Uh, I mean if not, then we’ll catch up but It’ll be a while. So I hope I hope someone beats us to it

[00:36:00] Julia Kelly: Well, speaking of, uh, you know, uh, looking at where you are now and looking to the future, um, if people would like to, uh, follow along with what you’re doing and of course, potentially, um, use their History Cool membership, uh, to, uh, to access the archive, um, where should their first stop be?

[00:36:20] Steve Dacus: Yeah, I mean honestly the easiest thing to do is just do research arsenal.com. Our whole idea of the framework of the name is is an arsenal of historical research, right? And yeah, just go to, you know, researcharsenal.com, uh, you’ll, you’ll be able to see kind of our homepage, uh, any FAQs, questions you may have, uh, and then you can try a free subscription and on the free subscription, I know like we don’t even ask for a credit card, like that way there’s not even a chance that you might forget to cancel or whatever if you don’t like it, uh, and it’s not for everyone, I mean, like I said, we just started and we, even though we have hundreds of thousands of documents, it’s, It’s still proportionally pretty small as far as the records we have, uh, you know, it doesn’t have everything for everyone, and so that’s why we recommend try a free trial go through the searches, see if you can pull up anything if something triggers or if something. You know is there that you that you find interesting then then you can get a monthly or annual subscription But yes, just go to researcharsenal.com and and kind of surf around see what you can

[00:37:22] Theo Brun: It felt very reasonably priced. I have to say as well. It was like less than 100 bucks a year if you’re a serious researcher and that’s like a business cost. Plus you get, if you’re, if you happen to be a member of the history quill as well, then you get a discount. So, but that, that to me, I was like, gosh, the amount of things that go out the door in connection with my business, that seems like good value for money.

[00:37:47] Steve Dacus: It’s reasonably priced we want to attract as many people as possible try a free trial and go from there, you know

[00:37:55] Julia Kelly: Well, thank you so much, Steve. This has been, this has been just fantastic.

[00:37:59] Steve Dacus: Yeah, no, yeah, if you have any questions anything like that don’t you know for your viewers or listeners definitely have them You know visit the website ask questions. You can email us by the side contact form or even if you are You know, don’t want to really get into it. You’re, you’re just curious on if you have a specific keyword or genre, we can do a quick search for you.

I mean, I’m happy to, um, to do that for you and see if it’s worth your time. So, um, you know, if you’re, if you have, you know, viewers or listeners that are interested in the niche of the American Civil War and want to write about it, um, you know, I think this is, especially for being able to describe that material culture of the war, uh, that’s, we’re hopefully your one stop shop for that.

[00:38:41] Theo Brun: It sounds fantastic. Thank you so much, Steve. It’s been fascinating and very different, um, conversation that we’ve had with you. So thank you for that.

[00:38:50] Steve Dacus: Yeah, you bet. You know, I appreciate it. Thanks for having us on.

[00:38:59] Theo Brun: Well, that was great, wasn’t it? How different to our usual fare interviewing historical authors, but a very, very interesting and important part of what we do, I guess. So many great points to come out. Can’t wait to dissect it.

[00:39:13] Julia Kelly: Yeah, I’m really excited to talk about this because archival research is a is a favorite of mine. But before we do that, I wanted to let you all know about a special bonus episode of the podcast that’s available exclusively to our email subscribers. The episode is about how to succeed in historical fiction, and we’re joined by two very accomplished historical fiction authors.

Jill Paul and David Penny, who share with us all the ingredients to their success and how you can succeed in the genre as well. To get the bonus episode, go to thehistoryquill.com/bonus. You can find the link in our description or enter it into your browser.

[00:39:50] Theo Brun: That’s right, there’s so much great advice and insight in that bonus episode, so do seek it out. Um, you don’t want to miss it if you’re a historical fiction writer. Okay then, back to Steve Dacus, where should we start, Julia?

[00:40:04] Julia Kelly: My little nerdy, um, The historical researcher brain is is pinging like crazy right here. Um, first of all, thinking, I really wish I had this for World War II. Um, I, I really enjoyed that conversation because I enjoyed how much Steve, uh, focused on getting the material world that you’re writing in right. Um, and it’s, it’s very.

I’ve had this experience before. I don’t know if you have as well where I start a book and I think my research is solid. I have an idea of timeline and you know where my characters would be and what would be happening. And then it’s something as simple like what would somebody have been wearing or eating or doing on a specific day as you actually send your characters out into the world and have them interact with the world.

Getting that detail right. And also knowing where to look for that detail can be so challenging sometimes. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience as well.

[00:40:57] Theo Brun: Yeah, I think one of the challenges of medieval writing we were talking about on a sort of online webinar the other day was how to get the dialogue right and Of course, in a sense, it’s all a fiction. Like we’re not writing medieval Anglo Saxon. We’re not really trying to recreate Norse language. Do you know what I mean?

Or Latin or Greek, Byzantine Greek. Um, but you kind of try and give it the veneer of something a little bit archaic. So you’re, you’re, uh, and of course, some people look at that and go, well, that’s either it works really well, or it doesn’t work at all. Whereas I think the wonderful thing for me anyway, about the idea of this thing, the American Civil War is, is all the letters. I mean, it’s not just, you know, the letters, the, the material culture, the images, the, the actual technical detail of the ordinance and all of that. But certainly the, the way in which people express themselves suddenly leapt out to me. It’s like, Ooh, that would be so, such a useful thing to, to have for any period. Um, and, you know, query whether people actually speak how they write. That was a question that I didn’t ask him, but I suppose it’s something that you have to figure out and I’m sure there are, there are enough, you get a sense of that as you read different kinds of letters that people are writing anyway.

But I just love the, the notion of the whole thing because it just immediately thought all the different ways that your imagination can sort of be, ignited by one little detail that suddenly leads on to, you know, a plot point or an idea for a story or a character that’s coming. And there’s just so much there. It’s just great.

[00:42:40] Julia Kelly: Well, it’s really funny. You, you speak about the language portion of it, because I think you’re right. I think that’s one of the most challenging things as an author to do is how do you pitch yourself so that you’re not pulling a reader out of the story because it feels too modern. And of course this applies to detail as well.

And you know, different things. Um, I, I once was at a talk given by, um, Graeme Macrae Burnet, who wrote Case Study, uh, which is a phenomenal book. Um, he’s a wonderful writer, but he talked about going back into the archives and looking at. Women’s magazines from the 1960s to get a sense of how this character would have spoken and how she would have thought about herself and how she would approach life and express that.

And I thought that was a really wonderful way of, um, showing how archives can be so valuable. Maybe you’re not looking for specific detail about, you know, what type of tin cup would somebody have used to drink their coffee or, you know, what would the ration have been, but, but to get a sense of character and layer on detail to your book, um, in a way that a reader might not realize you’re doing, but can be so impactful.

I think it’s, it’s. It’s, it’s a great, it’s a great example of how archives can kind of be really expansive and, you know, they can be inspiration for ideas or the way that you’re going to try to write your prose, um, or of course, you know, those details and those events and the things that you really want to get right.

[00:44:09] Theo Brun: Yeah. And I, I mean, I guess your worlds are, you know, there are bigger archives and there are bigger databases. And for, for the kind of thing that I, I do, you tend to get, you know, a big, let’s say a Viking exhibition at the British Museum, and you go around and you look at all the material culture, and that’s helpful.

And then you might, Go off to a library and find some sort of source material of saga, old sagas that are still there, that someone’s translated, and da da da. But it’s, it’s quite rare that it all comes together. And I don’t know, what’s your experience of, I mean, I know we, we’ve talked about the Imperial War Museum, which is, is, is quite a good repository of, um, uh, material information for you.

Does it work anything close to what he’s describing, or is it? It, it, it, how, how, what’s the sort of level of frustration in terms of your dial when you’re dealing with

[00:45:07] Julia Kelly: know, it’s really funny that there are certain things that will really trip me up sometimes. So the Imperial War Museum for World War II British, um, historical authors is fantastic because they have a digital collection. A lot of it is keyworded, um, not necessarily to the detail that he’s talking about.

And of course, you know, this is more images or objects that have been photographed as opposed to letters, diaries, things like that. So you do have to go digging around in a few different sources. Um, in my experience, but it’s funny, the things that will trip me up. So for instance, the cost of things, um, can be sometimes very difficult to find, uh, depending on what it is that you’re looking for.

So I was able the other day to find out the cost of a pint in 1942, super helpful. It’s a tiny detail that like. I’m the only person who’s gonna care about, but it helps. Um, and it means that, you know, I’m saying it was nine shilling or nine, not even shillings, nine pennies rather than, uh, nine pence rather than, you know, a pound 25, which decimalization and everything hadn’t come in yet, but let’s, for all intents and purposes, let’s just use it as an example.

So it can give some, um. Um, you know, there’s some, some accuracy and some detail there, but then I think what becomes more challenging is when you’re trying to find things like, um, advertisements, shop names, telephone exchanges, I find really hard, what movies were playing, and that’s where you really have to go in and either look at photographs, or you have to look at, you know, newspaper listings, and then in that case, you need to know where to go, and so some of that is just gaining the experience My advice for people when they first start sort of mucking around in archives is to make friends with a librarian because they can kind of walk you through the system because every archive has a slightly different system.

So what’s amazing about something like this is it’s kind of taking all of that, putting it in one place and making it at home. Inexpensive and powered by keyword searches, as opposed to powered by, okay, you know that the index for this archive says that there’s this box that has this set of letters in it.

And then you need to physically go or convince somebody to photocopy stuff for you. And it can be a very long and very arduous process because, of course, digitized yet. It’s better than it was. Trust me, it’s better than it was. Um, but it’s not always as straightforward as you think it’s going to be. And for me, sometimes little things, um, can trip me up, uh, because it just is more difficult to get your hands on that information than you would think.

[00:47:44] Theo Brun: Do you go there and find stories in your, in the course of your research, or do you do you sort of have a pretty clear idea of what you’re looking for, you know, in terms of detail or sort of color around a story that already exists in your head?

[00:48:00] Julia Kelly: So I think the dream for me is that I get to go to, I don’t know, the National Archive here and just like open up some boxes and order some stuff and just spend a couple of weeks figuring out what’s there. It’s never worked like that for me. It’s always been, and I think this is partially probably because I was coming from a, you know, working a day job and writing at the same time.

Um, and then, you know, writing under contract as a full time author. Um, I haven’t always had that luxury of time. I wish I had. So most of the time what I’m doing is I’m, at the beginning of my research, I’m trying to figure out what the book is going to be about, trying to establish a sense of when things happened, how they happened, who a character might have been, and that’s sort of the first level of research for me.

And then it’s, Then it’s the sort of, okay, you have to set your character off into the world and they’re gonna encounter stuff and they’re going to do stuff, and they’re going to eat stuff and wear stuff. And what is that stuff? And filling that, um, you know, understanding how life would’ve worked during that period of time.

You can get some of it from history books, especially ones that are about social history and as he was saying, material culture. But I have often found that what I end up doing is going back and I, I put a little, um, TK. In my manuscript, which I think has a Latin name, but it basically means to come detailed to come later and I go back and I search at the end of whatever draft I’m working on and I knock out the TKs and sometimes that will take me a couple hours.

Sometimes that will take me a few days of researching, depending on how many holes I had in my manuscript. So my general rule is if I’m writing a first draft, I will. If, if it takes me five minutes to find something, I’ll take the five minutes. If I find myself going down a research rabbit hole and it’s going to require a bit more than that, I’ll leave it till the end and I’ll make myself kind of push on and figure out what to write around it.

Do you have a similar approach in that you’ll, you know, stop and research or decide, you know what, this is going to have to wait for another time or?

[00:50:01] Theo Brun: I was quite, I think, I mean, the big example I had a lot of the books that I’ve written, the first couple, I had quite a lot of the sort of material culture know how or knowledge from university degrees, stuff I’d read since then. So it wasn’t like this was not, it was more like revision rather than discovering stuff for the first time and certainly sufficient to tell the story I wanted.

So that was really in the third book where I went down into the Byzantine Empire, which I knew nothing about from the beginning. example of, Oh, I need to now know a lot more than I do. So there was, there was quite a bit of background reading leading into it, but then I, I was surprised how I could kind of get by with, um, as I’m going along, you know, dipping into here, finding a source about, you know, um, the Byzantine navy, for example, or, or this kind of, you know, the administrative, the bureaucracy is a big thing in the way the Byzantines organize themselves and stuff like that. And, um, yeah, it wasn’t so much the TK marks, but I think there was a bit of like, uh, I’ll stop and now I’ll try and find out a little more of the answer, which maybe creates a bit of a stuttery, um, sort of flow to the thing.

Um, so, yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? How you, uh, you can’t know everything before you set out, but you, and you, and, and, and as he was saying, and you, you just said, it’s a business along comes the next book, you’ve got to be efficient, you want to be more efficient. So tools like the thing that Steve’s created is, it just seems like, uh, you know, gold dust in terms of, and hopefully it is the future in terms of where at least your, your area, but even there’s no reason why.

Why further period periods further back couldn’t also digitalize, um, stuff that’s available resources that are available and things like that. Um, I thought it was interesting. I don’t know. You know, we’ve got a little bit more time maybe to discuss. But one of the things that occurred to me that I think you found interesting was, um, about If you’ve got ancestors or people connected with, um, historical characters or actual historical people, what’s your responsibility to them?

And his response was like, basically people just like having their story told. And I think there is some truth in that. And, and I’ll give you an example because my mother actually, on her mother’s side, is American. And, and from Boston, and only recently did she discover that her family goes all the way back to some of the early pilgrim fathers.

So a guy called John Wheelwright, who was actually a quite well known character in that, those sort of early communities around Boston, a place in Massachusetts anyway. And he doesn’t sound like the most appealing character, you know, he was mates with Oliver, he was mates with Oliver Cromwell. I imagine he was quite, quite a, uh, a staunch Puritan, you know, and maybe a difficult man.

And certainly there were stories connected with his life that meant he’d got put into exile basically because he was causing, causing trouble within the community in, in no way does that. Impinge on my desire to hear his story told, you know, you don’t need to know that he was, uh, a wonderfully likable person or, or the, uh, you know, his daughter, I think got kidnapped by Indians and dah, dah, dah, you know, all kinds of interesting things come out, which say nothing really about, um, whether this is a good, good or a bad person, you just are genuinely interested.

There’s enough distance often that, that you just, want to know what happened and does it make a good story? So I thought that was that was sort of flesh on the bones of what you guys were talking about.

[00:53:53] Julia Kelly: Yeah. I, I think it’s, I think it’s tricky also, you know, everybody has a different feeling about these things and obviously certain subjects are much more emotional or, um, taboo or difficult than others. And so I think as an author, you kind of have to balance out what you’re doing. I think also, you know, I’m, I, I will be the first to put my hand up and say, I’ve never written.

a sort of biographical novel of anybody. Um, so I haven’t taken a famous figure and fictionalized their life. And I think that that’s a very different, that can be a very different prospect because that can be highly well documented if they’re famous enough to have, you know, enough material around them that you, you’re going to write the story.

Um, you know, there can be some different conflicting things from, uh, from descendants. Um, I did really like what he had to say about, um, the importance of obviously giving credit and acknowledging, you know, where things come from. And I feel that very strongly. If I use a historian’s work, um, in, you know, researching and inspiration for my book, I try to make sure that I’m, uh, you know, bringing to the forefront.

The fact that this book was a really important source, or if there’s a family story behind whatever it is that I’ve written about, if it’s inspired, and I’ve done that a few times kind of drawn inspiration from real life without actually writing the real story itself, very much writing a fictionalized version.

I think that, you know, you sort of have to weigh your comfort and then, in some cases, you know, in the cases of descendants that can be contacted, I know of authors who absolutely have, um, you know, reached out to. Important figures in World War Two and said, you know, I’m really interested in writing about your grandmother or your great grandmother and sort of figured out a way to work with the family.

If the family has been open to that. And I think that that’s a really interesting approach to it, because in that case, sometimes you can get into personal archives and things that haven’t necessarily been seen by the public before. So every book is different and every, um. Every figure is different, uh, but I do think it’s an interesting question to ask yourself as you go through, um, and look at archives and potentially draw some stories from, uh, from real life.

[00:56:08] Theo Brun: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Really interesting. Well, I, uh, I mean, if ever I have a flicker of an idea for an American Civil War novel, I’ll be straight off to the Research Arsenal And I just I yeah I suppose I suppose we should mention that you get a discount if you are one of the History Quill email subscribers, you get a 15 percent discount with the Research Arsenal and a 20 percent discount for the History Quill members.

So that’s worth bearing in mind. So, um, anyway, that’s, that’s it. I think for this episode, it’s been different. It’s been, uh, interesting. It’s been quite challenging in terms of, you know, his, uh, his sort of commitment to authenticity, I think, was quite a challenge, wasn’t it?

[00:56:56] Julia Kelly: Yeah, and a good one to think about. Absolutely.

[00:57:01] Theo Brun: Cool. Well, that concludes this episode of the History Quill podcast. Before we go, I wanted to remind you to head over to thehistoryquill.com/bonus to get our bonus episode on how to succeed in historical fiction, featuring guest authors, Gill Paul and David Penny. It’s essential listening for any historical fiction writer.

So make sure you check it out. You can find the link in the description or enter it into your browser.

[00:57:26] Julia Kelly: And of course, wherever you’re listening to this podcast, make sure you like, subscribe and leave us a comment or a review. Thank you so much for listening and we will see you next time.

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