How to Research Historical Fiction

Writers often have a bunch of tabs open on their internet browsers. Sometimes we go incognito, because we look up some weird, weird stuff.

Crime and mystery writers might look up police procedures, stages of putrefaction, how to kill someone, types of poison…but not just that. Car models, flowering shrubs in a particular part of the world, average rainfall on a particular day. Train sounds, what color the Ligurian Sea is…you get the picture.

“You” being the reader. Details are important in fiction, because details help readers quite literally get the picture in their heads that makes the ‘fictive dream’ come alive.

Some genres, like hard science fiction or military thrillers, require some deep research or personal experience (or a degree!), along with a vivid imagination.

Historical fiction is similar in that you must either have time travelled, OR you must have a knack for researching.

Luckily, this knack is not such a secret thing. It can’t be learned.

A short story about a long process

I’m writing historical fiction again. It’s the second in a trilogy. Here’s the story of the first one, if you are interested in the sheer doggedness required to write a novel when your skills are insufficient. On that first novel I got through the initial draft, then realized it was thin because…details. Needed them, didn’t have them. Knew sort of how to get them, thanks to an undergrad degree in History.

For the next two years I read a lot of nonfiction about the time period. I also read some fiction set in that period, but not too much–I didn’t want to use the same details everyone else used. Also because I had deliberately set the story in a place and time where there weren’t many “comparative titles.” (Here’s an explanation of what comparative titles means, if you’re new to the term.)

Tip #1: Let your research serve the scene & not vice-versa.

All the time spent reading and researching led to one thing: a few close-ups of particular moments in time. Yes, I set an entire scene in a swimming pool on the Seine because I thought it was a cool venue–but the scene had to happen somewhere. The setting worked for the action and for the characters’ emotional arcs, so it was fair game.

Tip #2: Keep characters’ point of view in mind.

This first novel in what I believe will be a trilogy was from a male POV. Just one POV. He was a newspaper illustrator, so I had to remember that photos weren’t yet used much in the press (The Illustrated London News used sketches, as did most other outlets at the time). I had to remember, for the 7 or 8 scenes where my character was sketching, that the form had certain specific limitations because they’d be made into engravings that the newspaper could print in multiple thousands of copies. They needed to have simple cross-hatching, enough white space for the image to stand out.

And on a more general level, I had to remember that my POV character would see everything from under a hat brim, at least in outdoor scenes. So I also gave him “hat head” in every scene set indoors (where he removed his hat at certain times) because it made me laugh, and because I think it made him more sympathetic.

Tip #3: Academic texts, newspapers from the time, weird websites, and primary sources are your friend

That particular historical novel has some characters that came from my own field of historical study as an undergrad, which was the Meiji period in Japan. During this time, the Japanese sent out “missions” to study the exemplars of everything developed during the 200 years Japan’s borders had been closed.

A mission might consist of a few dozen men. They went all over the world. They would tour shipbuilding facilities on the River Clyde in Scotland, study hospital design and breakthroughs in medicine in Holland and Scotland, scientific research and democratic structure in Germany, Western art in Italy, and so on. Wherever these missions went, they took a deep interest in all those working on the cutting edge of their field.

Because there wasn’t a lot of information out there on the internet on what it was like to be part of a Meiji mission, I got a library card for the local university. I pored over the academic texts and theses that studied that period from a number of perspectives and topics.

The internet is great, but it can also be full of misinformation. Websites, much as I love the people who blog on subjects dear to my heart, are simply a starting point to gather information and ideas for various plot turns.

Academic books and trade nonfiction from university presses, on the other hand, have been stringently researched, are heavily footnoted, have the most incredible list of jumping-off points in their bibliographies, and best of all, they dive deep into a particular subject in a way that most blog posts can’t. There is nothing like an entire nonfiction book on a subject to bring up your level of understanding. Five different books from five different angles is even better.

Newspapers are a goldmine for the comings and goings of famous people and for the advertisements for products and services.

Guide books from the historical time period (assuming it’s post-printing press) are invaluable for information on fares and schedules.

You can gain access to much of this stuff through the Internet, by the way! Internet Archive (a digital library), Victorian Voices (a fantastic compendium of journalism and other treats from the period), Project Gutenberg (lots of old books, including guidebooks).

Libraries are another goldmine. Your local library card might get you free access to JSTOR and other databases for academic articles and primary resources. Here’s a website from Fordham University with some good links. Academic articles are a goldmine for historical novelists. Peer-reviewed journals publish articles that, although they have a slant, are as close to factually correct as we “modern” humans can be about our past.

Finally, if you’re really into the facts, you can get some records from governments and institutions. When I was researching cinematographer Gregg Toland for a novel about F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, I sent away to the state of California for a copy of Toland’s marriage certificate. They asked no questions! And sent me the info.

Don’t you love history?