On Researching to Write Historical Fiction

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.

Getting started

Without question, the strength of historical fiction research rests on the quality of your historical references.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.

Continues in Part 2

(Image source #1 and #2)

9 thoughts on “On Researching to Write Historical Fiction

  1. There is a lot of research work in fiction done properly – and a real incentive to skimp if the writer is trying to put out books in quantity. Those aims are incompatible.

    Some ‘historical’ novels need to be reclassified as either alternate history or wish fulfillment. Using the clothes of a period without knowing the mores is play-acting.

    I admire those who want to tell the stories, as you do, but I have been reluctant to read anything written in our era set in the past, for fear of being knocked out of the period by anachronisms.

    Stories such as Jane Eyre, written by a contemporary (more or less) author, I read as part of a general education. I think it’s a much harder task to write good fiction in a historical setting.

    I’m waiting for yours!

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    • There’s definitely a lot of “historical-ish” fiction out there – the stuff with the set dressing but none of the ethos of the time period, as you say. So much of that comes down to insufficient (if non-existent) research and/or a reliance of Hollywood portrayals of history. Even using other historical novels as research is a huge no-no as authors (rightly) often take artistic license.

      I do a lot of research for my projects. Amazon’s used shops make it easy to get my hands on obscure historical reference books and so many historians are blogging and active on social media. Still, I am a product of my own time, so anachronisms are a real danger. I plan to hire a medieval historian to read my WIP. For my next project (set in Ancient Greece), there is a particular historian I hope to consult with even earlier in the process, on the finer points of my plot once I complete my full outline and do a bit more research on my own. That’s the best I can do and even then some anachronisms might still slip through. All I can do is hope that readers will be forgiving if I give them an otherwise great story.

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      • You will go to a great deal of detailed trouble to make your story as perfect as possible – many, if not most, of the authors who think they write historical fiction don’t seem to even bother.

        And their readers don’t care!

        I’m guilty of preferring a good story to an accurate one in the interests of, say, a movie about a historical period I remember briefly from my education (there is an awful lot of history).

        But I think I wouldn’t want it in my historical period if I were a historian.

        I read very little ‘historical fiction’ – not my preferred genre for reading – but I’m looking forward to yours, and that of a couple of other serious writers I’ve met online.

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  2. I can’t imagine you doing anything in a less than meticulous manner Janna.

    I have an ongoing concern about ‘one source’ historical information, where a writer or commentator from the past can state something which is then repeated and becomes ‘fact’. An interesting one here in Jersey (C.I.) is the story of our ancient sanctuary paths which supposedly gave criminals an escape route. Turns out it was interesting speculation by a single commentator, and has only recently been debunked as having no basis. So, always best if you have more than one independent source.

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    • I am nothing if not meticulous, Roy. Surely this is evident after all these years of following my blog. I would never advocate, nor am I currently, relying on a single reference for obtaining historical information. What I am discussing here is solely how to get started in the process, the very first reference one chooses, to launch them on their historical journey. One source would never be enough, for the very reason you (and I) state about the ongoing emergence of new historical finds and interpretations.

      As you see, the post is to be continued, so I’ll have much more to say about the process. For my medieval WIP, I easily read 15 books cover to cover, plus specific chapters from another 10 or so. I’ve also watched documentaries and follow the blogs of medieval historians who are carrying out new research at this very moment. For my Ancient Greece WIP there will likely be even more researching (I’ve already read six books so far) since it’s not a topic I’m coming into with a lot of existing knowledge (I read a lot of medieval history as a child). So not even a hint of danger of one source historical information exists in this camp.

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      • Indeed Janna. Like your approach to editing and revision I just don’t have the patience to do a thorough job. I was sure though, in my two historical novels, to fact check everything. There are too many good historians around here who would have pounced good and proper if I’d have taken short cuts, or guessed.

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      • Ah, I see. I realize now I misinterpreted part of your original comment. I’m glad that your local historians spurred you to get the facts right for your books. Fear of ridicule can be a strong motivator! (I’m joking – but only a little). Having local historians is a great boon as well if they’re willing to either consult with you on the subject matter or read a draft of the novel to check for inaccuracies. I have a couple of historians that I follow online (one of Medieval history and one of Classics) who I plan to reach out to for that purpose when the time is right.

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  3. Great post. I was about to write about the value of children’s books in this comment section till I read what you said about them. They are especially useful to lay a basic historical foundation for the era we’re studying. I also find journals and diaries excellent research sources for details–games people played, furniture, fashion, schools, etc.

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    • Thanks, Jack! Yes children’s books are great because obviously anything written for the comprehension of a young person should be a very smooth intro to the subject for an adult, who will then likely ask the follow-up questions that a child will not, helping guide subsequent research.

      And you’re right: journals would be an absolute windfall if you can find them. Personal letters as well. I actually really love learning about games of the past. Since my eras of interest are quite distant, historians often know the names of games but not what they actually were. But then sometimes when they do know the games they seem surprisingly juvenile for having been played by adults (e.g. Blind Man’s Buff, one of my favourite summer camp games as a child, was popular among medieval adults).

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