On Researching to Write Historical Fiction (pt. 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

My previous post on researching to write historical fiction recommended starting large.

That is to say, beginning with a book that provides a broad overview of the historical era in question.

In truth, I recommend reading two such books back to back. Not only is this to compare, contrast, and verify the various claims of both books, but also to help solidify the basics in your mind.

For me, I know I’ve done well learning the basics when I’m able to spout germane yet impromptu facts during social engagements the moment people seem the least bit susceptible (as well as when they don’t seem that susceptible at all, to be honest).

However, overarching knowledge of a historical era will only take you so far. Definitely not far enough to recreate that era in a novel, complete with all the intimate details, customs, and ethos of the time period, especially for a reader who knows their history.

For this reason, choosing a good overview reference book to start with becomes all the more important, for the better the reference, the better its bibliography.

The bibliography is your passport into a greater depth of historical knowledge.

Since an overview texts touches on numerous topics, its bibliography will be a goldmine of sources covering specialized subjects, all neatly contained in one place. They are often organized by chapter/the order in which they’re cited rather than alphabetically, and thus by subject matter.

The bibliography of a good overview reference will likely list the works of other respected, long-standing scholars in the field, and also primary sources in which you can read about life in the time period from the hands and mouths of those who actually lived through it.

Figuring out options for your third, fourth, and subsequent references thus requires significantly less searching and vetting than is needed for the first reference.

(I do still like to search subsequent titles on Amazon or Goodreads, though, to see their star ratings and recent reviews since it is possible for a once seminal text to become outdated by new discoveries).

But although the possible options are taken care of in a good bibliography, there remains the question of how not to turn into the proverbial kid in the candy store. That is to say, how specifically to choose what’s next from such a list, which could be quite lengthy.

Discovery vs. proof

Ideally, you want to become well-versed in the time period without going down any rabbit holes, researching things that have no bearing on either the plot itself or your ability to devise and/or understand it.

One method for choosing your subsequent references is to let your style as a writer be your guide. That and how much of your story you already have in mind.

If you’re going into your research with a basic grasp of your plot well in hand, you might subsequently zero in on specific holes in your knowledge that you already know need filling.

Conversely, if all you know upfront is the historical era you want to write about—if you’re instead using research to find your story rather than to prove it—you might start reading about the next broadest relevant topic, and then the next next one, uncovering your plot bit by bit as you go.

I’ve employed both methods. In researching my medieval WIP, the next book I read after my two overview books was a very specialized title on three centuries worth of clothing details and patterns from England and France.

With my Ancient Greece WIP, I followed up with a comprehensive book about slavery in the Classical world.

Whichever method you adopt, the next most important consideration is how you plan to keep track of what you discover. I’m quite hands-on with my reference books—highlighting, marginal notes (and I crack the books’ spines if the margins aren’t wide enough), tape flags. This has the result of imprinting on my brain, if not verbatim lines of text, then definitely the text’s precise location in the book, as well as which book it came from, so that I can quickly look it up again as needed.

Transcribing relevant facts, whether in longhand or typed, is another useful way to remember and learn (and also to keep your research backed up if your physical books get damaged or destroyed—I really should do this more).

When transcribing, it’s best to organize the facts by subject for easier retrieval, and also to note both the page number and edition number since page numbers can vary across editions. As well, be sure to copy each passage word for word in case you later need to quote it, especially for reference books that you don’t own.


(Image source #1 and #2)

3 thoughts on “On Researching to Write Historical Fiction (pt. 2)

  1. One handy thing from ebooks (and Google) is that when you copy the section, the referring information comes with it automatically; if you want to use the quote, you actually have to cut off that bit.

    But if you’re keeping a list of your sources, it saves a lot of time to have that reference already typed.

    Digital storage space is cheap – there is no reason not to store the whole entry every time you find something you want to save.

    I find a lot of things on websites, and always save the link. Unfortunately, websites can also disappear without warning. So I tend to copy the whole piece I need to save/use, though I’m never going to quote all of it. Makes my files rather large, but text takes relatively little space.

    Whole pages take more, and images take a lot – and should go on the external drive if I want to save them.

    It takes a bit of time to save your references, but it is crucial.

    And that’s just for contemporary writing. I can’t imagine the size of your references!


    • I almost never read nonfiction ebooks because I don’t have the same recall with them as with paper books. It’s just not tactile enough to form the connection in my brain, even if I highlight and annotate them electronically. I also find that Kindle limits the number of highlights you can export, so I can’t pull out and print all the quotes that are relevant to my project. But yes, the metadata that exports with the quote is a handy feature.

      I save whole websites as well. Ninety percent of the time I do so using Evernote’s web clipper, which is an extension that can be added to most web browsers (for the other 10% that don’t clip nicely, I just download them as is). Every so often, I export all my clipped websites to my hard drives (internal and external) so they are saved somewhere I can control directly. I don’t trust cloud computing. All it takes is one natural disaster and the server holding all your data might not exist anymore!


      • You are so wise to have backups – and to keep the information you need under your control.

        I don’t read much non-fiction in book form; too old, I guess, and can’t see where I’d use a lot of the information. So it’s hard to want to store it in my brain.

        My period of gathering information purely for information’s sake is mostly over (if I hadn’t gotten sick, this might not have happened), and I get most of my current information (whatever I tolerate – the world is going to you-know-where in a handbasket) from The Economist. Except that they write up almost exclusively the bad stuff.

        I still don’t know how I’m managing to stay involved in the complex trilogy I’ve undertaken.


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