When I think about researching the time period my book is set in, I cringe. How do I write it without becoming overwhelmed and giving up?
The amount of books to study (or lack thereof), websites to scour, and documentaries to watch can be daunting. How can you enjoy writing when you must do all this research? You didn’t sign up for that. You just hope to combine your love of history and writing to produce an entertaining book people will also learn from.
I’ve experienced this dilemma. But there is hope. Since historical fiction is my favorite genre to read and write, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I don’t like seeing fellow authors frustrated, so I’ve assembled a checklist to help you be diligent in gathering the facts with minimal hassle.
Step #1: Write What You Know
Every writer is told that, right? But I’ll adjust the maxim for historical fiction. Write a time period you’re passionate about, whether WWII, medieval, Civil War, or China’s Third Dynasty. Whatever it is, you’re probably already familiar with it because it intrigues you, so start there. Plot your book and flag anything you’re unsure about to verify later.
But what if you want to write in a time period you’ve never delved into, or maybe you’re not a history buff? I recommend perusing other books set during that time. These can be fiction, nonfiction, or a mixture. Sometimes children’s history books will supply key information about an era so you won’t have to read tons of thick volumes.
Step #2: Research the Basics
Focusing on the fundamentals will provide an overview of the time period that’s less intimidating than digging up specifics. Plus, if you’re like me, you won’t realize which details you need until you’ve completed your first draft.
Look up clothing styles, technology, the country’s leader, recreational activities, holidays, world events, and how people lived. However, that last one can be challenging to investigate because of the complex questions it generates. How would a character in a particular station of life be treated by others? Would the merchant’s son be able to become a knight in the king’s army?
I’m currently researching WWI. I haven’t read much WWI fiction, nor am I knowledgeable on the subject. But I’ve authored a couple series about the Old West leading up to 1890, so I started with that year and read books that covered a decade at a time to see how American life progressed. I continued until I reached 1914. Now I’m searching for a solid resource from an American viewpoint that describes the major battles and decisions that happened during the war. I don’t need specifics yet because I haven’t determined where I’m going to position my characters on the world stage.
Step #3: Write Your Rough Draft
Once you have an overview of your chosen time period, write a rough draft. As I mentioned above, if you come across an event, location, or other element that needs researched, jot a note and move on.
Extensive research can wait until after the rough draft, because you likely won’t pinpoint the details you need until you’ve fully developed the story. Fact-checking during revisions saves time since you can concentrate on the necessities instead of hoarding information you might need and ultimately discarding half of it.
Step #4: Do the Heavy Research During Editing
You finished your rough draft! Woohoo! Go celebrate! Then return to this step.
Remember all those areas you marked? Methodically comb through your manuscript and do the research required to fill in the blanks. If you wrote, “Marvin turned the key in the Ford Turnaround (check this model),” track down the real car model and insert it. (Yes, I made up that car model, and no, I wasn’t very creative.)
How do you accomplish this? By reading books that give you the details you need. You can also browse websites, but corroborate information from Wikipedia with other sources.
If you can’t find a precise answer, sometimes you have to accept that you tried your best. I had to do this with one of my books. I researched various places without results, so at the end of my book, I informed readers that the story might not be 100 percent accurate but I aimed to be as realistic as possible.
Take Joy in the Process
You know that overwhelming feeling you had before you read this article, which you (maybe) calmed with a deep breath? Well, it might resurface. Often. Either while writing, editing, or researching. Especially when you have to revise again and again.
This is by far the most important step. Make sure you have fun and rejoice in your victories. Did you reach 5,000 words? Celebrate! Did you write a captivating scene? Celebrate! Did you get to include an extraordinary fact in your book? Celebrate!
View research as an opportunity to explore and discover new things. Depending upon your mindset, learning about history can either be enjoyable or burdensome. Others have written historical fiction and survived, so you can too.
I pray that this article has helped you overcome dismay at the task before you. Now, open a document and put it all into practice!
Faith Blum is a small-town Wisconsin girl. She’s lived in, or outside of, small towns her whole life. The thought of living in a city with more than 60,000 people in it scares her, especially after some interesting adventures driving through big cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Faith currently resides in the middle of Wisconsin with her husband and their cat, Smokey. She is blessed to be able to have writing as her full-time career, with household work and cooking to do on the side.
When not writing, you can find her cooking food from scratch due to food allergies, doing dishes, knitting, crocheting, sewing, reading, or spending time with her husband. She is also a community assistant for the Young Writers Workshop and loves her work there. She enjoys hearing from her readers, so feel free to contact her on her website.
I love this, Faith! I’ve had several historical ideas in the past and held off because of the research required.
You give fantastic advice I. This article that makes it sound a bit less daunting. Maybe I’ll try it out when it’s time to write my next story.
I’m so glad it was able to help and that you are more excited to start a historical fiction story!
This is amazing! I’ve always been afraid of attempting a historical fiction, but that makes it feel very doable. Thank you!
I’m glad you found it helpful. I hope you have some motivation now to get some historical writing done.
This is so helpful! I’ve been wondering how to tackle research for my historical fantasy. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind now.
Thanks, Jane! I’m glad it was so helpful.
Ahh…Yess. The amazing world of historical fiction!!! Research can indeed be daunting. I found Old West particularly hard; as the lack of resources and the hundreds of myths about the time era. Saving the specific heavy research for afterward is a great idea. Thanks for the tips. I pretty much only write historical fiction but I loved the tips and will definitely be refining my process accordingly 😀
Hi, Samantha! Another Western writer! Yes, it is hard. I have found one resource that was super helpful. The writer’s guide to everyday life in the wild west by Candy Vyvey Moulton. This is actually part of a series of books by various authors in different eras.
Again, these are some fantastic tips, even for those of us who don’t write historical fiction. Fantastic job! Congratulations on publishing your first Story Embers article. 😃
I’m glad you think these tips are helpful. Thanks! 🙂
Super inspiring and insightful, Faith!
I started a historical fiction novel a couple years ago, but gave up because I couldn’t find the balance between too much detail and not enough. These are some really great tips, and I may have to dig up that manuscript and start again! Thanks so much!
I hope you do, Serenity! We need some more good, historical fiction!
This was fantastic Faith! I’m an avid lover of history and I’ve always been searching for ways to research without pain! 🙂 I just got to go the the setting of my novel this summer and actually see the places I’m writing about! It’s really made a difference. I’m still working on the rough draft, but I can’t wait to start putting into practice all the things you suggested. Thanks again!
Thank you, Isabelle! How exciting to actually go to the place you are writing about! I hope the rest of your writing goes well. You’re welcome!
Thanks, Faith! I am in the middle of revising my historical novel, and I keep jumping from place to place in my plot. Your advice on having the plot already set and coming back to the details later is good!
As a side comment, while I’m researching, I get so many ideas for my story to be melded with facts that I get overwhelmed. History has so much story material!! 🙂
You’re welcome, Amy! I’m glad the advice was helpful.
Yes! That is so true!
This is great advice, especially the part about reading books set during the period you are researching/writing about.
I’m a bit of an oddball, in that I have read more Medieval Literature than Classics. By Medieval Literature I don’t mean modern novels set in the Middle Ages, I mean actual Literature written at the time.
I think a lot of people find the whole prospect daunting because they think everything is written in Latin, or that there simply isn’t much around, but there are some really good modern English translations of lots of great works and writers from past centuries.
I’d say I’ve learned a huge amount from reading Medieval Literature, and I am planning to branch out to Arthurian Legends, Chivalric romances, and Welsh Mythology soon, perhaps for some story ideas.
If someone ever said to learn about a period by reading its books, they were right.
That is so cool!
Thank you for this, Faith! You have stilled my overwhelmed-ness and given me hope.
You’re so welcome! I’m really happy to hear that my article helped.
I appreciate most of this, but I still know from experience that researching well can be lonely and exhausting.
Sometimes its the hardest thing in the world to keep going. I just have to keep in mind that I have to do this because I cannot write amazing historical fiction if I don’t.
Very true, Ariel!