How to Research Historical Fiction and Nail Your Setting
You know you have to actually research historical fiction.
You know you can't write your frontier romance using a few details you vaguely remember from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. If you want to make the world of your story truly come alive for your reader, you have to understand that world.
You must be able to see the sights of your world vividly in your mind. You need to be able to share the sounds, smells, voices, and cultural norms with your readers.
But, if you’re a writer first and a historian second—or let’s say 84th—this may feel like a tall order. How do you become so familiar with a timeline that was never your own and still find time to actually write your novel?
How do you research historical fiction thoroughly and efficiently?
Don’t worry. Yes, you have a big job ahead of you, but I’m going to lay out a strategy that will simplify your path. I’ll give you tools for:
- Prioritizing categories of research
- Immersing yourself in the world of your novel
- Checking for accuracy
- Knowing when you’re done
Let’s start with narrowing your focus.
Keep a Running List of Questions
What do you actually have to research for your specific historical fiction novel?
If you set the perimeters too broad—”Shang Dynasty” or “Victorian England,” for example—you’re going to overwhelm yourself. You’ll also lose precious writing time learning details that aren’t relevant to your story.
Before you start your research, make a list of questions you already know you need an answer to. This could include things like:
- What would my protagonist’s day to day life look like?
- How would they dress?
- Would my protagonist’s job actually exist?
- What behaviors would shock my protagonist’s parents at this point in history?
You don’t have to think of everything upfront. You’ll make new discoveries and think of new questions both as you research and as you write. Let your research list be a growing, evolving creature.
Now, if you’re a pantser, you might find the bulk of your questions arise as you write your first draft. I still recommend creating and researching that initial list of “must knows” to avoid any plot-destroying errors as you write.
And immediately research any mid-draft discovery that has a major bearing on the trajectory of your novel.
For example, if plot point one involves a letter arriving in Egypt exactly ten days after it was written in Oklahoma, make sure such a thing is even possible at the time when your story takes place.
What if I Don’t Have a Story in Mind Yet?
Maybe you’re wondering how to research historical fiction when you have no idea what story you want to tell. Maybe you only know that you love the world of 1920s France and you’d like to set your story then and there. In that case, I’d suggest what I always suggest:
Start with what thrills you.
Why are you so enthralled with this setting? Is it jazz that draws you in? The labor movement? Josephine Baker? Croissants?
Learn more about what interests you and start imagining what kind of stories might unfold in that world.
Whether you have a story in mind or you’re building as you go, here’s how to research historical fiction, step by step.
1. Go to Google
Yeah, you probably didn’t need me for this tip. You probably already planned to use the internet to research historical fiction.
Most of us turn to Google instinctively, whether we’re looking for a casserole recipe or trying to find the name of the screechy-voice guy who was in that movie based on the book by the author who was involved in that scandal.
Go ahead and follow that impulse when you’re researching historical fiction. The Internet can save you a lot of time with quick answers to simple questions.
However, be aware that anyone can post anything online for free. It doesn’t have to be true. So make sure you’re getting your information from a reputable source. (More on that in a bit.)
2. Go Deeper at the Library
Don’t stop at Google. Remember, your goal in researching historical fiction is not just to collect information about an era. You also want to gain a well-rounded understanding of what it meant to live in that era. Your librarian can help you with this in ways Google can’t.
In addition to housing biographies and history books, your library has the hook-up for old newspapers, maps, and photographs. Through your library, you might be able to access documentaries or old radio programs.
Even if the collection at your local library is small, ask if they’re able to borrow any of the materials you’re looking for from other libraries. Your library card may also give you access to digital materials like academic journals, film libraries, archives, and more.
And if you’re really lost, tell your librarian what you need to know. “I’m writing a story about someone traveling across Scotland in the seventeenth century. I’m not sure what that would look like. Do you know of any resources that can help me?”
There’s a decent chance they’ll have something to suggest because librarians are magic.
3. Find Museums and Experts
This is where we progress from informative to immersive.
If you have the ability to visit a museum that shines light on your setting, do it. Even better, take a tour. Museum tour guides give you way more information and deeper context than you’ll find on a placard.
Meanwhile, the contents themselves help you imagine days gone by with greater clarity. You can see the texture of fabrics, the design of a tool, or photographs of daily life.
Too far from a museum that’s relevant to your setting? Consider:
- What museum would you visit if you could? Do they have any online resources? Maybe a virtual lecture series or virtual tours?
- Is there a museum nearby that features an exhibit related to your setting? Maybe you can’t get to a Japanese history museum, but you can explore Japanese art from your era in your local art museum.
- Who can tell you what a museum guide could tell me? Is there an expert on this era who might be willing to answer a few questions?
As you dig deeper, the details of your time period come into focus.
4. Collect Images and Video
Bring it all home. Photographs, paintings, furniture, clothing… whatever you’re finding out there, bring images of those things into your workspace.
Treat these images like clues about life in your chosen era. How do people dress or stand to indicate their social ranking? How are children positioned in photographs? Are they shoved into the corners or primped and paraded? How would one move in that dress or sit on that gosh-awful chair?
If there’s video footage from your era, chase that down, too.
5. Pretend You Live in Your Novel’s Timeline
You don’t have to go full-on Ren Faire. Just expose yourself to a few things that would be part of your characters’ daily lives.
Read books, newspapers, and other published materials from your chosen time period. This step is an absolute must as it not only gives you a ton of cultural insight, it also helps you nail the voice of the era. How did people talk? What were the hot topics of the day?
Music and food also provide great immersion opportunities. What sounds, scents, and flavors would have colored your characters’ daily lives?
If your novel takes place in recent history, watch the movies or television shows that were popular at the time. Check out the art that defines your chosen era.
Put yourself in the shoes of your characters (maybe literally if you have easy access to a costume shop) and see what you discover.
6. Actually Go There
This may not be realistic for you. But, if it is, you can learn a lot by visiting the physical location where your story takes place.
Wander the streets and compare them to photographs or maps from the era. If you can tour a building or home from your chosen time period, do it. Look for a local history museum.
And definitely visit the library. They may have some obscure pieces of local history you won’t find anywhere else.
Now that you know how to research historical fiction, let’s talk about something extremely important.
How to Research Historical Fiction Accurately
Misinformation and bias abound. Here’s how to navigate your research results wisely.
Always note your source. Did you find your article about Regency marriage traditions at SmithsonianMag.com? Or from KrazyKoolHistoryFacts.net? Where is your source getting their information?
Know the difference between primary and secondary sources. A primary source is anything created during the time period you’re researching—a document, a recorded interview, a shoe, whatever. A secondary source is created after the time period in question.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence is a primary source. Your grade school history book’s explanation of the Declaration is a secondary source.
Primary sources give you the most accurate account of the attitudes, voices, and direct experiences of the era. Secondary sources have enough distance to put the experience into a wider context.
On that note:
Be aware of bias. Always ask yourself what biases might be baked into both primary and secondary source material.
That’s not to say you should discount material that comes from a biased source. In fact, much of our history is colored by the people who wrote it. There’s a reason most Americans think the temperance movement was a bunch of hyper-religious spinsters nagging men to stop drinking rather than a crusade to curb domestic violence.
You can’t escape bias in your research. What matters is that you know when you’re getting a prejudiced take on history and that you seek an opposing viewpoint to get a more rounded picture.
How to Know When You’re Done
Now that you know how to research historical fiction, here are some key signs that you’re ready to start writing:
- You’ve answered all the questions that directly impact your story
- You have a pretty firm grasp of the societal norms and structures that would influence your characters and conflicts
- The setting of your historical fiction novel is starting to take shape clearly in your mind
- Anything you have to guess about now will be an easy fix if your guess is wrong
Like worldbuilding, historical fiction research can become an easy excuse to procrastinate. Get your story rolling as soon as it makes sense. You can continue researching as you go.
One final tip: Use your Dabble Story Notes to keep everything you learn organized and at your fingertips as you draft your novel.
If you don’t have a Dabble account, I highly recommend checking it out. You can do that for free for fourteen days. No credit card required. Just click this little link and start your free trial.
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