Thursday, August 6, 2015

J'nell Ciesielski Shares Tips for Historical Research

J’nell Ciesielski is a fellow client of Linda S. Glaz and the Hartline Literary Agency. She finaled in the Dixie First Chapter contest in 2011, the Launching a Star contest in 2011, and won first place for the Inspy category of the Maggie Award in 2012! Her marvelous attention to detail comes through beautifully in her writing, so I invited J’nell to share some tips for historical research. You will enjoy what she has to share.

J’nell, please tell us something about yourself.

Born in Florida, I spent a happy childhood splashing on the sugar white beaches only known to the Sunshine Stare. While in middle school, my dad got a job transfer to Texas where I graduated from Texas A&M with a B.S. in Psychology. Not knowing what else to do with my life and seeing as how writing wasn’t paying the bills yet, I joined the Air Force. Stationed in Germany I was privileged to travel to France, Austria, the Netherlands, England, and my favorite, Scotland. I also met my awesome husband over there. Finding him was worth wearing camouflage and combat boots every day. After serving our four years, we now live in Virginia where I’m a stay at home mom to a busy one and a half year old and a very lazy beagle.

Want to learn about random history facts or things that time has forgotten? My blog is for you! I like talking about famous women spies, pirate foods, FANY ambulance drivers, and how to properly wear a filleadh mhor (that’s great kilt to you and me). It’s the perfect place to expound upon little details I uncover during research and that doesn’t get more than a passing reference in my books. Things like why Pekinese dog hair was used to make blankets for burned victims in WWI. 

A recommended resource.
What do you consider the best resources for historical research? 

Start with movies. No, Hollywood isn’t the most accurate when it comes to historical details (Pearl Harbor anyone?), but they’ll give you a sense and feel for the era. Get you in the mood, so to speak. Once you’ve mastered sitting in front of the flickering screen for hours, give your eyes a break and go listen to music from that time. If your story is in 1941 France then try Edith Piaf. If you’re galloping in the Highlands, go for some bagpipes, and for the Revolutionary War try a drum and fife march in your living room. Kidding. Unless it helps, and then I say no holds barred. You’ll find out not just the type of rhythms they liked, but the messages in there. What was important to people of that time? Were they hopeful, were they sad or angry, did they just want to get back home to their girls? It’s amazing how much history is written into those little tunes.

One of J'nell's favorite writing places, with her dog, Daisy, for company.

Now it’s time to stretch your legs! Go to museums, get in touch with professionals, interview those who lived during that time (if possible), or attend reenactments. Just don’t let your search stop at Wikipedia. And of course, read. Read everything you can get your hot, greedy hands on. Biographies, diaries, fashion magazines, newspapers, and anything else that will give you insight into the daily lives and extraordinary events going on.

Research notes!

Those sound like excellent suggestions, J'nell. What period of history do you find most fascinating? And is there a specific location related to that which you like to study?

I may have to cheat on this one, but since no one is here to stop me I’ll do it anyways. My mood determines which time period I find fascinating, and the mood is often dependent on watching certain movies. Like everyone else on the planet, Sunday nights spent at Downton Abbey give me a longing for Edwardian England. If a sense of daring adventure strikes, I’ll write about pirates and sailing the high seas. For bravery that defies society’s rules and honor that risks it all for love I dive into a world war. And if I need warriors and their fiery ladies amidst a backdrop of breathtaking beauty I head to Scotland.

J'nell at Eilean Donan Castle.
Even though I switch around the century that my stories occupy, I tend to keep them based on the British Isles and the western half of the Continent. Why? Because I’m an Anglophile and love writing men with Scottish accents. Seriously though, there’s such a rich history that is passed down from generation to generation that affected how they dressed, ate, social circles, what they said and how they said it. I’m so proud to be an American, but there’s something so exciting about places different from my own. Castles, moors of heather, centuries old buildings, driving on the wrong side of the road, moody weather, what’s not to love? And of course, the accents hehe J

The one thread that ties these centuries and places together is the characters that inhabit them. Characters who dare to risk it all, including their own lives, for the one they love. Clothes, countries, and politics may change, but love never does.

How true!

Are you the kind of person who searches for answers to particular questions? Or do you completely immerse yourself in your historical research?

J'nell on more of her world travels.
Both! I’ve always loved history. I was the nerd in school who put together historical research papers and read them to the class for fun. So I have a pretty fair knowledge of what happened when and the general essence of different eras. Starting with that broad scope, I then narrow my focus to what was happening during the time frame I set my story in. What were the politics, who wasn’t getting along with whom, what kind of transportation did they have and how long did it take them to get from place to place. Most exciting of all were the kinds of fashion for the day. Once I have a big overview of the year, I then go back to look up specific questions which often lead me down more than one rabbit hole, but sometimes those holes hold the most fascinating tidbits that end up in the story.

As the story goes on, I find myself looking for very specific things. What color chairs did Hitler have in the Berghof? What brand of lipstick was available in 1941 England? How would a sailor get tar out of his hair on board a ship? What song would a Tommy sing hunkered down in a trench on the Somme? For A Rolls Royce in No Man’s Land it took me a whole week of reading and watching youtube videos to learn how to change a tire on a vintage Rolls Royce. No detail is too small for me because I believe it’s these little things that bring the story to life. And yes, I’ve been known to look up weather records for certain days in history.

I have looked up weather record as well. I guess I'm not alone in that.

Another recommended book.
Do you have any tips you’d like to share for effective historical research?

Never stop reading! Books are our gateway to the world. That’s a little heavy I know, but it’s true. You’ll never know the kinds of things you’ll learn each time you open a book and let the pages take you away. And if not a book, the Internet is a boundless source of information. For pretty much anything you could possibly want to know about, and even the things you don’t, there’s a website out there.

If you can, visit the places you’re writing about. I was privileged to live in Europe for three years and we took as many opportunities as we could to visit different places. I remember the unique smell of Paris streets, the feel of the wind whipping through my hair as I stood on a cliff in Skye, the bullet holes still in the stone walls of Kaiserslautern, Germany as we walked to get a pretzel, the beautiful green richness of Bavaria, and the clanging of Big Ben on a gloomy afternoon. I can feel these places each time I write about them, and hopefully my stories are richer for the experiences.

Just remember to always double check your facts! You don’t want your Scots running around in clan tartans ala Braveheart when the ‘clan tartan’ wasn’t really invented until the nineteenth century.

You are indeed blessed to have been able to visit all those places, J'nell. 

Thank you for taking the time to be a guest on my blog, J’nell! You've shared very
helpful information. 

You’re welcome! I loved sharing with you!

We'd love your comments. What do you find difficult about
historical research? Do you love it? Or does it bog you
down? Do you have a question for J'nell? 

Tweet and share:
Need tips for smarter historical research? Learn from award winning writer, @JnellCiesielski.


  1. So true about the movies. I'll never forget my husband pointing out the elec front door bell in North and south. Yeah, they get it right some of the time, but def not all the time. LOL

  2. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment, Linda.

    Funny, you should mention the elec doorbells in North and South.
    That reminds me of my hubby pointing out a man wearing a
    wristwatch in one of those movies about ancient Rome--it was
    Quo Vadis or something like that. Somehow a wristwatch
    doesn't go with a toga, unless it's sun dial! ;)

    But seriously, movies are a good way to get yourself into
    the era, but can't be taken as completely factual, for sure.

  3. Are you referring to the American or British North and South? Both excellent movies. Have you ever visited I love that site because it shows all the trivia for movies like fun facts, and idiosyncrasies. Your friends will either be really impressed or really annoyed with all your new found movie knowledge.

  4. Great interview! And I love all things Anglophile, too! Trying not to be envious that you've traveled to Anglo-land.

  5. So great to see you here, Karla! As somewhat of an Anglophile
    myself, I'm right there with you in the trying not to be envious!
    At least not too envious. ;) Thank you for your comment.

  6. Of all my travels, England and Scotland were my favorite. If you get the chance to go, and you should, you have to try the deep-fried Mars bars. Delicious! Actually, you don't have to go to Anglo-land for them. If there's a Scottish festival near you, they'll have them. Karla, I always love seeing your pins of Wills and Kate.