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How To Do Research For Historical Fiction: Balancing Fact And Fiction

When it comes to writing historical fiction, don’t panic at the word research. If you follow popular advice—write what you know—then researching your novel will help you do just that. And if you write what you love, then your research will also be a labor of love. Immerse yourself in the process and bring your novel to life.

First, find a happy medium. Don’t just throw your characters into costumes and alter their speech just a tad, but don’t overwhelm the reader with hundreds of pages of historically accurate detail and end up with more of a nonfiction history text either. Find a good balance. Readers of historical fiction are usually well-informed, and while they don’t want to be bogged down with useless information, they also don’t want to see a Celtic maiden wearing pleather, or a World War I soldier using laser sight.

Secondly, decide how you’re going to approach your project. You can either write your story and then do the research, or you can research your setting and then create the story, depending on how much the story relies on accurate data. For example, if you’re writing about a medieval battle in England, certain details will be crucial to your plot—the landscape, weapons, existing castles and cathedrals—but if your story takes place 200 years ago in a small town you’ve made up, you’ll have a little more leeway (although it will still bother your readers if the small town has an Internet café or a multiplex).

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The basics.

You’ll need to research their style of dress and your characters’ names—a 17th-century woman is unlikely to be called Kaitlyn or Tamesha. What type of clothing would a pirate wear, exposed to the wind and rain, and what type of footwear? And don’t put a confederate uniform on a union soldier. Sometimes looking at old photographs or paintings can give you a good sense of the clothing and hairstyles of the period.

If your setting is New York City in the 1800s, find out what streets, buildings, and parks existed at that time. If the location isn’t crucial to your story, or if you’ve created a fictional town or city, keep track of the basic information and stay consistent.

Dialect is a pretty important area to get right. Nineteenth-century Southern belles will speak differently than 16th-century Irish farmers, and neither will use “thee” or “thou.” An English earl will use vastly different language than a peasant from the same time period, and neither of them will use the word “dude.” Also, make sure you’ve got the correct terminology. An Australian mother will change her baby’s nappies, and an English mother will push her baby in a pram—not diapers or strollers.

Where to find information.

You can get absolutely everything you need from just one source: Wikipedia.

Okay, just kidding. Internet sources are not always reliable (although reference links on Wikipedia can be helpful), and any information gleaned from them should be carefully cross-checked. The Internet is full of great sources, and you might start at a historical fiction writers’ site for some valuable and pre-tested Web site links.

If possible, personally visit the location you’re writing about. Tourism offices and historical societies are often helpful and usually have the most accurate information about their cities and towns. Visit the local museum, attend re-enactments, or interview old-timers. Take a tour, take some time, take pictures, and immerse yourself in the depths of the setting. If this is impossible, check with historians and/or the local library.

The library is an obvious place to start, and a good librarian can be invaluable. They may have original documents and maps hidden away from the general public, or they can steer you in the right direction. Books aimed at younger readers can also boil down the basics of a time period—what people ate, how they dressed, what their bedrooms looked like, what their mother might say and more. Also, check out the history section of bookstores, and don’t forget about used bookstores—they often have out-of-print history books that can offer a glimpse of the past.

Ask the experts. Find a local expert on the Civil War, or check out the Web site of a well-known Roman Empire scholar. Many experts are happy to answer your questions as long as you’re professional and have done some of your own research in advance.

Keep in mind that you can’t please everyone. There are bound to be gray areas where you’ve taken some liberties, or you may have overlooked some pretty obvious anachronisms. If your plot and character development are strong, editors and readers will be more forgiving of technical inaccuracies, but remember—one glaring anachronism can cast doubt on the rest of your research and, ultimately, on your writing. If you’re writing and researching historical fiction, check out Writer’s Relief!

3 Responses to How To Do Research For Historical Fiction: Balancing Fact And Fiction

  1. Wikipedia is a good place for a quick look to get some down and dirty information. It’s definately not an authoritative source. But I love to go to Wikipedia for quick answers to my questions…not always to totally believe, but to get a quick overview. I appreciate the sources usually included at the bottom of W’s pages.

  2. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of NOT relying on Wikipedia! It has become the "go-to" source for everything these days, but if you really want to be able to trust your information, it is the last place to go! A fellow university professor who was an expert in a certain 18th-century author once noticed that the Wikipedia article on this author contained seven errors–just in the first sentence! He obligingly decided to correct these errors (as one can, with Wikipedia), but this set off a "Wiki war" with the original erroneous poster, and by the time the professor decided to give up because it was just taking up too much of his time, the article now contained TWELVE errors–just in the first sentence! I don’t even know how you can WRITE a sentence with twelve factual errors in it without really working hard to do so, but the moral of the story is, Wikipedia (and other web sources) are certainly not trustworthy resources for research (of any kind). The author of this piece is correct–visit your actual, physical library! If something has made it into an actual print, nonfiction source, the likelihood is vastly greater that it will, in face, be correct. Happy researching!

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