Friday, March 9, 2012

How to Use Historical Research

I once read a historical fiction that was just okay. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything special. After finishing the book, I read the author’s note and was shocked to see that she had done an enormous amount of research. She read over two dozen books on her topic and spent who knows how long on some very thorough websites. This author knows her subject!

The reason this surprised me was that, honestly, she could have written the same book by reading a few Wikipedia articles. She had her facts right, but it had no flavor. The book didn’t delve into the spirit of the time period.

For example, she read not just one but several books about medieval warfare. She could have described her battle scenes just from watching Lord of the Rings. There were horses, swords, and blood, but nothing to distinguish the setting from any other. 

Moral of the story: Research is pointless if you don’t know how to use it.

Think of all the books you’ve read that take place in modern times. Those authors know everything there is to know about the twenty-first century; clothes, food, entertainment, current events. Yet many mainstream novels are bland with hardly any description. Knowledge of our surroundings does little to help our ability to describe them.

Here’s some advice that can help:

Copy Details While Reading

When I do my research, I take note of as many little details as I think I might use in the future. While reading about Rome, I learned that the only women who wore togas were prostitutes. I thought that fact was interesting, so I wrote it down even though I wasn’t sure I’d use it. Later I needed to add a prostitute to my book, so I had her wear a toga.

I also found out Romans didn’t have toilet paper, but had a sponge attached to a stick that they kept in a bucket of vinegar. Everyone in the household used the same sponge (yuck). I didn’t end up using this detail, but I put it in my notes just in case.

Seek Out Details While Writing

Often in the middle of the writing process, I’ll find an opportunity to add a fact I don’t know. Example, my characters might be eating breakfast and I don’t know what Romans ate for breakfast. They might go to the market and I don’t know what kind of objects Romans might buy. These are all easy to find on the internet, so I often stop what I’m doing, look up what I need (write down the source of my info, of course), and add it before I continue.

If you don’t like the stop-and-go tactic, you could add notes in the middle of the text, such as ADD BREAKFAST FOOD HERE, or make a separate list of things you need to look up.

Make the World Unique

Every place and every time is unique. Think of how different Texas is from California. Think of how different the US is now from how it was the 60’s. When you write about your setting, ask yourself: What makes this time and place different from any other?

What are your character’s values, experiences, worries? What’s popular? What do they get excited about? What were their surroundings like at that exact time?

Example: Sacred Fire takes place during the Second Punic War when Rome was still a Republic. Historians hold the Republic on a pedestal as a time of Roman valor and shun the Empire as a time or corruption (which is why everyone writes about the Empire.) The Second Punic War had a strong effect on the Roman people – they all thought they were going to die – so Rome was different during this time than any other time in history. In order for my book to succeed, I need to demonstrate that.

Get Nervous

When I first started Sacred Fire I didn’t read much historical fiction, so I didn’t know it was okay to make stuff up. I knew nothing about Roman history and was terrified of being criticized for being inaccurate. I trusted myself so little that I double-checked everything.

One of my characters bought a necklace, for instance, and I didn’t dare guess what kind of jewels a Roman might use. I found a picture of a necklace excavated in Pompeii made of emerald and mother of pearl, so I have her wear that necklace.

I believed this nervousness turned into a strength. Even if I had guessed my facts without getting caught, my book wouldn’t have been as interesting. I could have had my main character eat chicken for dinner without knowing whether or not the Romans ate chicken, but that doesn’t sound as interesting as dormice, snails fattened on goat milk, spiced sausages, oysters, or bread dipped in wine. I wouldn’t have come up with something like that on my own.

Here’s a rule of thumb I swear by: the truth will always be better than anything I can make up.

Enjoy Yourself

And above all… have fun! Learning about your time period should be exciting! When the research starts to be a drag, you won’t be able to utilize it as well.


  1. Useful points. Good research is the part of the iceberg you don't see. And you can add from the palette as you go along. My present WIP - just finished is set in Colonial America 1720 and I have to get that right!

  2. Great tidbit about Romans not having toilet paper. I knew they didn't have paper, but I never thought about what they used.

  3. Good advice! I would add that what works for me is reading narrative biographies of people from the time period BEFORE and during the story writing process. That way, I learn things that wouldn't have occurred to me to look up before, like what if people in this culture didn't eat breakfast at all? What if they wouldn't have the conversation I imagined because their cultural beliefs were different? I get a lot of story ideas from doing research ahead of writing scenes. Of course, it's important not to get bogged down in irrelevant facts, though. It's the story that ultimately matters--and the relevance and interest of the details--more than the accuracy of the details. Especially when you totally cheat like me and make up a fantasy kingdom. Ha!

  4. I couldn't agree more. Reading primary sources, if available, is one of the best ways to gather those key details of daily life as well as insights into the thoughts, beliefs, fears, joys, etc. of real people who lived lives similar to your characters'.

  5. Thanks for this post! I've been doing a lot of research, wanting to get every detail right, but my husband tells me, "Eventually you need to write the thing. It's okay to make some things up."

  6. Great advice. It's always better to know than guess. i love your facts - sometimes learning the facts is worth it on its own :)

  7. Sometimes I wish I could skip the research and just write off the top of my head, even though it's historical fiction. I personally enjoy hist. fic. that's NOT laden with superfluous details (think The Girl with the Pearl Earring)--in which CHARACTER drives the story. I love it when the characters are so real, you almost forget they aren't living right now (minus the environmental/clothing/medicine/technology changes). It's what I strive for in my writing, that historical accuracy without the ponderous lecturing. It's a fine balance, and nerve-wracking sometimes to integrate all the info you want to! GREAT post, btw.

  8. When it comes to historical novels, the readers who will be most displeased are those who were particularly enamored with that period if something is out of place. For instance, if writing about a time in the early 1960's, it would probably be a very bad idea to introduce technological trinkets that weren't in existence at that time unless one is writing a time travel novel where the person who traveled back brought some of those things with them. And, of course, the people of that time period would probably have certain reactions to it, which should be displayed.

    Most importantly, you hit the nail on the head about having fun. It's possible that is what was missing the novel you read. Facts and plot are great for historical novels but having fun, adding flavor is what can make it memorable, in a good way.

  9. Ahh I used to think that research was one of the most boring parts of the writing process - essential, but boring. Yet the truth is that research can really make the characters and the setting of your book come alive. The more you know about your subject, the better you'll be able to write about it. Also, more often than not you come across some sort of fact or true story that just blows you away.

    -Wendy Lu

    The Red Angel Blog

  10. Research is hugely important in historical writing -- you don't want to make an obviously huge mistake, but it's all about balance. You also don't want to bore your readers silly with a three page discourse about the construction of aqueducts.

    When I'm writing historical fiction I like to throw in the occasional tidbits -- like the toilet sponge, or cosmetics, or the fact that Romans took their own napkins to dinner parties -- just to add in a bit of local colour! But it should never distract from the real story, which is the people.

  11. That was really interesting. I don't need to do a lot of research for the stuff I write, but I use the method of looking thing up as I come across them. I also use my friends on Facebook. They're used to me asking random questions, and I usually get the answer I'm looking for. Very knowledgable, my mates!

  12. Before I started writing my historical novel WIP I was intimidated by all the research I'd have to do. I found that the research was usually interesting in itself.

    Even my first novel, a contemporary fantasy, required an incredible abmount of research. I've discovered that, if you read enough, and take good enough notes, you can acquire enough expertise in almost anything to write about it authentically.

  13. This is an interesting and useful post. I agree it is best to be nervous. In Artful I was about to use the word posh and then found out, in time, that it was not current until later in the 19th century.

    Martin Lake

  14. Ohh those juicy details make ALL THE DIFFERENCE! Great advice. If you don't mind (and I dont think you do), I'll link to this post from one of my posts that I wrote about the importance of doing research for fiction.

  15. Really nice thought-provoking post. I do research before, during and after I do my first draft. Once I have the first draft and know what the detail of the plot is then often I go to find the sort of extra detail I need. I hope I don't end up being the person who does loads of research and it doesn't show, that would be soul-destroying!

  16. Research lots, write sparingly about the details you find. Works for me!

  17. I love the research part of historical writing. I get excited when I find something weird and different that can be used in my writing. It is those little difference that add to the story. Thanks for the post.

  18. Excellent post! I spent 11 years researching and writing my Guinevere Trilogy and afterward Writer's Digest Books asked me to do "How To Write and Sell Historical Fiction," so you never know what your research will lead to. Also, I found that learning more things about the era or area often enriched sub-plots and added a good deal to my enjoyment of the writing.

  19. I read "How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction"! It was very helpful.

    An author would have to truly love a time period to spend 11 years researching it. That passion alone makes me want to read your trilogy.


I love hearing from my readers!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...