How to effectively research historical fiction

October 21, 2020

I write a lot of historical fiction. All but one of my book manuscripts is historical, whether that’s set in the 1850s, 1940s, or eep – 1990s. It’s easier to write about a period you’ve lived through, but what do you do when everyone who lived during that time is long gone?

You could just base your historical fiction off what you’ve seen in movies, but that would do a disservice to your writing. Funnily enough, movies are not always historically accurate… So I’ve put together my top tips for how to research historical fiction.

Research helps build the authenticity of your historical fiction, whether that’s a Regency romance or a Victorian crime novel. I’ve found that researching books uncovers facts that have ultimately influenced the outcome of my story.

And while there will be times that you need to research while you’re writing – your character gets into a fight and you want to know a historically accurate rapier or gun ASAP – it’s important to do as much research as you need before you write your book. At a minimum, you should be able to answer all the questions outlined below.

Define your fiction’s limits

Before you start your research, you must identify the location and year/s of your book’s setting. This will help narrow your research.

After defining the limits of your fiction, the basic questions you will need to answer researching any historical novel are:

  • Atmosphere and detail
    • What did the locations in my story look like at the time?
    • What sort of clothes would my characters wear?
    • What foods and drinks were consumed?
    • If it’s set in a city, what landmarks were built at the time? Big Ben was still being built in the 1850s, so it will seem funny if it’s in your 1830s novel.
  • Society
    • How would people of the period perceive my character? What class are they? How do they fit in with the rest of society?
    • What kind of employment was available? Don’t make assumptions about this. I assumed that early newsrooms were filled with men, but women played an important and documented role in both typesetting and editorial.
    • What kinds of rituals and etiquette were observed?
    • Are there any social issues I should be aware of that have modern consequences for readers? Things such as slavery, racism, and sexism of the period will bring out contemporary responses for readers. How will you address present-day concerns through the lens of the past?
  • Governance
    • Who were the rulers/governors at the time?
    • What wars and conflicts was the country/state/city involved with or influenced by?
    • If you’re writing a crime novel, what were the procedures for law and order? Was it organised or more informal?
  • Technology
    • What kind of transportation was/wasn’t used at the time?
    • What technology was/wasn’t available at the time? Be careful to check the dates on inventions, particularly regarding communications and medicine.
  • Language
    • Were there common languages or languages for the elite and poor?
    • Is there patter from the period you can use in dialogue?
Spartan warrior in the woods
I’m pretty sure the ancient Spartans didn’t have weight sets, but who knows until you research?

What if you don’t know when or where your book is set? You might have a general idea of the period you’d like to write in. In that case…

Start broad, dig narrow

The first place you want to start is in general histories. A simple search of your library or favourite search engine for books on the period will turn up a plethora of results. Look for the best reviewed books and start there.

Another way to find the best books on a particular period is to look in bibliographies. What books are referenced again and again by researchers?

Many popular books about the Victorian era rely on Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor, one of the first books to document firsthand accounts of poverty in London. It is an absolute must-read for anyone writing in that historic period. Rather than reading ten books which quoted the Mayhew, I just read the Mayhew.

What types of research resources are helpful for historical novelists?

Non-fiction books

The obvious first place to start is with non-fiction books. The kinds of books that are often useful for filling in historic detail are:

  • First-hand experiences and accounts
  • Books documenting how people lived in the era
  • Niche books relevant to your topic
  • Photography and illustration books
  • Costume books
  • Dictionaries – useful for language

While the library is my first stop when looking for unique books (some of which can be expensive to purchase), the following sites have useful resources:

  • Project Gutenberg often has first-hand accounts in the public domain
  • Wikimedia Commons is a great resource for imagery from historic periods
  • Better World Books, eBay and AbeBooks often have hard to find and ex-library books for a reasonable price

Maps

Maps are an invaluable research tool for the novelist, as you can mark them up and trace your character’s route through the city. I use maps a lot in writing fiction, both large printed maps that I mark up, and google maps.

Retro magnifier with old map

Websites

Yes, I’m going to say it. I use Wikipedia to get a general overview of an era…

…but that shouldn’t be the only source of information you reach for. While it’s helpful for outlining the basic facts and characters in a time period, there are far more websites out there dedicated to particular aspects of history. I won’t tell you how to do a google search, because it’s probably how you ended up here.

First-hand documents

First-hand research doesn’t have to be difficult! Museums can provide vast sources of inspiration and ideas for your novel. While you can’t touch the exhibits, you can document your research while you look through a museum. And if you can’t get to a specific museum, many of them have online databases and images of their collections that you can access for free.

A great example of this was when I needed to find images of Wapping and the London Docks in the 1850s. I searched the National Maritime Museum’s archives and discovered sketches that Turner had done of the docks. While it would be too expensive for me to travel to London to see the locations (as much as I want to), I could get a sense of what it was like.

Unless you have a particular interest in a topic or are basing your novel on a real-life figure, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to handle first-hand documents from the period. But if you need to, you can access these texts from many state and national libraries. While there might be strict location and handling requirements on items, many librarians would be keen to help a novelist research their book.

Ask an expert

On that note, if you are writing about a very niche topic, don’t be afraid to ask an expert if you can’t find the information you need. I needed to know something specific about how the postal system worked in the Victorian era, so I emailed the postal museum who were more than happy to help. Experts are often excited to meet someone who is interested in their work.  

Norwegian stave church. Heddal. Historic building. Norway tourism highlight. Horizontal

Visit your location

If you can visit the locations in your book, do! Make sure you take a notebook and jot down your impressions of the location. Think about how your characters would perceive and walk around the space. Take your time to absorb the atmosphere and take photos if permitted.

When I was writing a book based on the legend of Count Dracula, I was lucky enough to visit Transylvania. Not even Bram Stoker got to Romania (he based most of his ideas of Transylvania on a travel book). It’s a place I’ll never forget, and my writing was made richer for having gone there. Place is a powerful inspiration for story.

YouTube Videos

While YouTube is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has a vast amount of historical resources. Need to find out how an old gun works? Someone has made a video on that. Want to see a historical costume in action? Someone has made a video on that. I kid you not – I’ve used YouTube to see how both old cameras and guns worked for my novels.

Document your research

Now you might have all this amazing research, but don’t store it in your head!

Documenting is just as important as researching your book. Make sure you have a good note-taking system. Whether that’s a single paper notebook for all your research or using an online tool like OneNote or Evernote to keep it in one place.

Taking photos are also very helpful for documenting places – just check you’re allowed to in private locations and museums before bringing the camera out.  

Integrating your historical research into your fiction

While this topic could be a whole separate blog post on how to include historical details in your fiction, it’s important to integrate your research naturally in your work. While we might get obsessed with say, a certain shoe, if it’s not relevant to the story, you shouldn’t be giving a paragraph of backstory on a shoe.

Likewise, don’t be too obvious about integrating your research into dialogue. We don’t need tour guide characters who say, “And this is Big Ben, which was completed in 1859, and is actually the name of the bell inside the tower, not the tower itself. Now follow my umbrella…” A better way is to have characters comment from their perspective – “Gov, those builders better get on with finishing that tower.”  

Follow that damn rabbit

Some people will say not to go down the rabbit hole, but I say follow that rabbit. If you’ve stumbled across an interesting aspect of history that no one has ever written about, and you’re curious, keep going. Chances are that curiosity might spark something new.

I hoped this post has helped you learn more about how to research historical fiction. As always, if you have questions, hit me up in the comments below, and let me know how your research is going!

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