Researching your novel (part 2: historical)

Historical Fiction

Ahh, the historical novel.  It’s a novel set during historical events — pretty much any time period prior to the 1960s (or fifty years ago is the rule of thumb).  The author uses real events, real people, and real places, but often times details are adjusted (0r made up) for the story’s sake.  Writing a historical novel is well covered online — for example, check here or here — so what I’m going to talk about is the research.

Historical fiction requires just the right amount of detail.  You want suck your reader into the setting, but too much historical description, and you’ll bore your reader to death.  Historical fiction requires hours and hours and hours of research to write a single sentence.  For example, you can’t slip up and dress your 1876 heroine in a bustle — the bustle had been faded out of style the year before.  And your savvy readers will strangle you for for having mail delivered by the Pony Express in 1862 since it shut down in 1861 (it only lasted 19 months anyway!).

Aspects you’ll need to consider in your research:

  • Social class
  • Transportation
  • Fashion and fabrics
  • Food and drinks
  • Shelter and buildings
  • Weapons and technology
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Currency and wealth
  • Recent events —  wars, natural disasters, etc.

It’s that’s a lotta stuff to think about — I can hear your groans.  Take a deep breath and think of it like this: start broad and then zoom in.  Take the time period you’re interested in and head to your favorite resource (and mine!): Wikipedia.

You can peruse the 18th century, the 19th century, or head on back to Ancient Egypt.  This will introduce you to the general but critical details for the time period in which you’re writing (those pesky wars, volcanic eruptions, leaps in technology, country unifications, etc.).

Or, another fabulous resource for introducing global history is Timetables of History. Trust me when I say you will love this book…  Well, er, you will love it if you enjoy history…and research…

Primary and Secondary Sources

Now, we move on to the trickier stuff: primary and secondary sources.  You probably learned this phrase in high school history, but to refresh you: a primary source was written at the time of the historical event, a secondary source is something written after-the-fact about the event.

An example: George Washington’s diary penned in Georgie’s own hand is a primary source. The biography of Washington’s life entitled His Excellency George Washington is a secondary source.

Let’s start with secondary sources since you’ll likely be using these at the start — especially since they’re often more readily available than primary sources.

**No matter what the time period, it’s highly probable someone has studied it and studied it in depth.**

So, head to your local (or nearest well-stocked) library because the easiest way for you to find the secondary sources you need will be to talk to the librarian.  He/She can help you locate all the resources available at that branch, and if you’re really lucky, he/she can set you up with some interlibrary loan.

Do you live near a university?  Then you, sir, are in luck!  Head to the university library (they will almost always be better stocked than the public one).  Sit in on a history course (if that’s allowed).  Or, better yet, talk to a faculty member who knows about your time period.  Most people are willing to share their knowledge, so set up an interview and come prepared with all the questions you need answered.

Any questions you can’t answer with secondary sources will lead you to the primary sources.  Maps, photographs, architecture, clothing, vehicles, wills, poems, novels, paintings, journals, census reports, newspaper articles, and on and on and on…  These items will give you a glimpse into life at that time.  Simply reading a novel from way back when will open your eyes to how people thought, spoke, and lived day-to-day.  Newspaper articles will clue you into events and attitudes while original city guides can take you step by step through your novel’s setting.

Where does one find such items?  First place I check is  If you search within “texts”, you will find a plethora of primary sources.  However, keep in mind that these sources are limited to the last two centuries or so.

Museums, universities, government institutes, local historical societies, and the like will be the ones with the primary sources (usually locked away in archives).  Contacting these places will be your best bet to find the resources you need — and the permission to see the original items.

A Few Sites and Books to Peruse

  • — a wide variety of primary sources scanned in and free to download.  This has been my most relied-upon tool — do not miss it.
  • Project Gutenberg — public domain books also free to download.
  • Costume Manifesto — a costume site filled to the brim with information on fashion throughout history.
  • Newspaper Archive — allows you to access historical newspapers dating back several centuries and from all over the world, but it’s not free.
  • Writer’s Guide to Everyday life in… — this is a whole series of books, and they’re each packed with information on slang, food, transportation, entertainment, etc.
  • Tickets to ride: Basic historical research — an upcoming workshop taught by Beth Daniels.  I highly recommend any and all of her workshops.  She’s extremely knowledgeable, extremely entertaining, and extremely helpful.  She also teaches courses on Steampunk, Historical Fashion, and Historical Weapons.

That’s just a start to the resources you can scour from your couch.  The key is to not be intimidated by the time it will take, and trust me, it will take a lot of time. If you’re not that into research, than writing historical fiction is definitely not the right direction for you.

Another thing to remember: keep track of all your sources!  You never know when someone will call you out on a historical detail and you’ll be required to prove you didn’t fudge history.

Happy writing!