When it comes to writing historical fiction, your plot, however entertaining, will only take you so far.
You also have to present a well-constructed setting that captures the culture, customs, details, and ethos of the historical period in question. In this way, histfic genre conventions have as much in common with an honours-level history class as with any other genre of fiction.
Especially when it comes to those readers who actually know a thing or two about history.
I previously wrote a three-post series on how to devise your historical fiction plot. In one way or another, all of my tips involved drawing direction and inspiration from historical research.
Given this, it likewise seems useful to offer a post on how to conduct effective historical research.
Without question, the strength of historical fiction research rests on the quality of your historical references.
Meanwhile, the quality of your references is further affected by where and how you go about finding them.
Any advice on how to research invariably calls for discussion on the Wikipedia question—namely, whether Wikipedia is a useful research tool or not.
Most people would agree that as a sole source of historical information, Wikipedia is grossly inadequate. However some consider it a great starting place, one that provides both a broad overview of a subject and a ready-made reading list in the form of an article’s bibliography.
Personally, I agree with Wikipedia’s usefulness to a point; I won’t deny the value of its bibliographies. However, in order to get to a given bibliography, I first have to read the article to see how the individual references are used.
It goes without saying that I’d never take any claim that’s un-cited on Wikipedia as fact. But not even the cited facts are inherently reliable. I wouldn’t trust any fact until I’d verified it in it source, to ensure it’s been accurately reported. I would further use my time with the source to assess its own quality.
Which really begs the question: if I’m going to have to work backwards, verifying every fact against its sources, why not just skip Wikipedia altogether and read a reliable overview book on the topic instead?
Nine times out of ten, that’s exactly what I do, and thus what I recommend others do as well.
A bird’s eye view
Good overview books often have expansive titles like Life in a Medieval Castle, The Spartans, or A Day in the Life of Ancient Athens (these are all books I’ve read in support of my Medieval England and Ancient Greece WIPs).
Books like these are usually packed with information on countless aspects of life: food, clothing, marriage, housing, education, religion, and transportation to name a very small few.
One way to discover such books is by searching the appropriate keywords on Amazon or Google Books. Another is to locate the appropriate section in your local library where books on the given subject are shelved and then just scanning the titles.
Upon finding a likely overview book, you’ll then want to assess its quality. An easy, modern way to do this is by looking it up on Amazon or Goodreads to see its number of reviews and average star rating.
More reviews and higher stars usually indicate better books, especially reviews from news outlets, trade journals, professors, and other subject matter experts that are often found in the Amazon product description, before the customer reviews.
I usually choose a book written by a historian or scholar that is attached to a prestigious university or museum. But here I’ll digress to tell you my research secret:
Sometimes the book I start with is a children’s book.
One advantage of children’s books is that they are short, usually covering several decades in a handful of pages and discussing many of the same topics listed above.
In truth they’re no more reliable than a Wikipedia article, and likely don’t even have a bibliography to make up for this. However children’s books tend to be loaded with illustrations—usually artist’s reconstructions rather than extant ruins.
This is an invaluable visualization tool since historical fiction requires both physical descriptions and having characters interact with their surroundings.
Another important consideration in assessing the quality of an overview reference—or any reference—is its age. Ideally you want something that’s not too old, as historical findings and understandings are constantly changing, even for distant historical eras.
The next best thing to a recently published title is one that’s older but recently been reissued. In some regards this might even be better, for it suggests the material is still supported and trusted by experts despite the intervening years, and is now evergreen, making the book a landmark reference in the field.