How to Increase Your Efficiency When Researching for a Historical Novel

December 19, 2022

Writing historical fiction requires a level of thoroughness that exceeds other genres. Instead of constructing new worlds, you’re representing bygone people and places. You might pore over book after book in your library’s reference section, or you might scroll through dozens of online articles. Maybe you’ll even do both! Whatever time period your novel resides in, the amount of information you need to accurately portray it can seem overwhelming. 


What if you make a mistake? Will your editor notice? If she’s familiar with the era, yes. Your beta readers? Same answer, though less likely. What about your target audience? Many readers may miss or be willing to overlook minor inconsistencies, but an egregious error will catapult them out of the scene. 


The fear of losing readers (and negative reviews) often drives writers to spend more time packing their minds with facts than packing their manuscripts with words. But memorizing every cultural norm, household utensil, and slang term is impossible. At some point you have to let your ideas loose. Three habits can help you balance the necessity of research and the wildness of creativity so you can move forward with confidence.  


1. Focus on Relevant Resources 

You’re depicting real happenings, albeit in the past. That’s not an excuse to skimp on worldbuilding. Many readers will know nothing about the characters’ living conditions. But they don’t need to know everything either. 


If your protagonist is a farmer, you should recognize the differences between a handheld hoe, a sickle, and a flail. If your protagonist is a socialite in Victorian England, you should be able to describe the fashions she and her friends strut around in. And if your protagonist is growing up in South Korea a few years after World War II, you should learn the kind of food he would eat, the form of education he’d receive, and (perhaps most importantly) how the Japanese forces would influence his worldview. These are all topics that directly relate to your story’s development. 


On the flip side, if the farmer and his family never practice religion, why study the theology of southern churches during the 1800s? If the English socialite invests all her energy in solving a murder mystery, why collect statistics on political battles involving the queen? And if the Korean child never ventures outside his homeland, why investigate which parts of China Japan occupied? Questioning the direction of your curiosity will quickly reveal side trails that might be fun to explore but won’t lead anywhere


Wish you could dig up ultra-specific intel that’ll make your character’s environment more immersive? Libraries tend to store bundles of local newspapers and other memorabilia in their archives. You’re liable to discover secrets about the town that you wouldn’t have come across anywhere else.   


2. Filter Out Unnecessary Details

You’re allowed to add interesting tidbits just because you want to, but most of the time that shouldn’t be your motivation. Your characters and plot are your top priorities. If a portion of your research won’t contribute to either, you probably need to omit it. For example, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln may or may not carry significance for a recently freed slave depending upon which state he calls home. It may even be a distraction from his character arc.


Author Kim Van Alkemade recommends that historical fiction writers “take bad notes” and decide what to keep later. You shouldn’t let your novel turn into an encyclopedia, but the more attuned your imagination is to your setting, the more authentic the finished product will be, so don’t be afraid to jot down findings you’re not sure you’ll include. Alkemade also emphasizes the advantages of using period art as inspiration—you can imitate the motifs and tones you see without restricting yourself to one interpretation. The result is that readers will better understand the situations the protagonist is facing and trust you enough to drop their guards so you can touch them emotionally. 


3. Double Check Major Dates, Events, and Historical Figures

Precision comes with a risk. Citing a date and then deviating from the surrounding timeline can yank readers out of a story faster than an unbelievable plot twist. They have as much access to Google as you do, and within a few clicks they’ll realize that your character never mentions or hears about a cataclysm in his own backyard. The event may not matter to your plot, but readers will still react like they’ve uncovered a hole. Imagine a character who graduates from college and starts her career in 2020 but never deals with the effects of the pandemic. Readers would laugh such a book out of Amazon.


Unless an exact date is crucial to your story, choosing a broader range is wiser and safer. For instance, the Crusades, which are documented in segments, lasted from 1096–1291 A.D., so you could simply state that your story unfolds during the First Crusade. You’ll anchor readers inside identifiable perimeters without revoking your creative license. 


Put Down the Books, Pick Up the Pen

Historical fiction generates tension between the amount of research you do and the amount of writing you do. You need to maintain veracity while also making measurable progress. The key is to become proficient at sorting through historical data and extracting the details that enhance your story. 


Many classic authors devoted years to brainstorming and planning, but only after they took action did they stand out. C. S. Lewis examined and re-examined his beliefs on Christianity and storytelling before publishing one of the most beloved children’s series. Eventually you need to accept that you’ve done adequate preparation, and if you’ve followed the tips in this article, you should be ready! 

1 Comment

  1. Renee Leonard Kennedy

    This is so good. It’s an ocean of info out there, and what to include in the work seems like finding the dinghy struggling for land. Hence, the overwriting. Sorry.
    This right here: “ Questioning the direction of your curiosity will quickly reveal side trails that might be fun to explore but won’t lead anywhere.”
    Great wisdom here. Thanks.


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