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So I’ve written before about the necessity of research in writing historical fiction.  You have to get rid of pretty much all your assumptions about what’s normal, and question every aspect of life.

But you also have to give in to your inspiration and write a good story.

I have a tendency to get stuck doing research.  I have an idea for a novel, I buy a bajillion books about the time period and tell myself I can’t write a word until I’ve become an expert in every facet of the time period, and then I get stuck in a book, or bored with it, or read it and get so overwhelmed with information that I’ve added in about seventeen subplots based on cool stuff I read in the book, and before I know it, I’ve killed my initial inspiration dead.  So I’ve thought about the ways in which I’ve done research before, and what has and hasn’t worked, and come up with a handy guide.  Of course, your process might vary, but if you have no idea how to balance historical research with writing, this can be a good place to start.


  1. Reading books written in your time period.  The wealth of details about daily life are what’s good here.  You’ll find out more social history from reading The Count of Monte Cristo than you will in reading a weighty academic tome on the political and social history of 19th-century France.  You’ll find out what a servant’s monthly wage was, what forms of inter-city transport were available for the artisan class, and so on.

    The Count of Monte Cristo (1934 film)

    It’s possible that despite all your efforts, the aesthetic of your time can still project itself onto your historical project. Exhibit A: her hair, Exhibit B: HIS hair, Exhibit C: those dudes at the bottom left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  2. Ruthlessly using the index of a book to read only the chapters that really interest you. I started a book about a year and a half ago set among a partisan band of Jewish fighters in the woods of Belarus during the Second World War. I bought a book that was about the partisan bands of Jewish fighters in the woods of Eastern Europe during the Second World War.  Convincing myself it was “cheating” to skip straight to the chapters on daily life in the woods, I read 150 pages of social history on the integration (or lack thereof) of Jews into Poland and Russia, and on daily life in the ghettoes.  I also convinced myself it was “cheating” to write any of the bits set  in the forest until I’d finished reading the whole stinking book.  Guess what?  I never finished reading the book.  I never even got to the chapters on daily life in the woods, which was the relevant section.  And the novel I was writing got stuck at 15,000 words and will probably never get finished.
  3. Watching films set in that time period.  Okay, it’s a secondary source, but it will help give you an idea of material culture and slang.  Obviously, if the film has made errors, you run the risk of passing them on – however, IMDB message boards are usually full of historical accuracy wonks, so you can read their comments or post questions of your own.
  4. Doing incredibly specific Google searches. The internet has hit critical mass.  It used to be that if you typed the question “how much would a chamber maid in 1910’s Britain be paid?” you would get a bunch of ads for French maid costumes, some estate agents’ websites selling Edwardian houses in Brighton, and a few pages with the phrase “how much” in their title.  Now, thanks to Yahoo Answers and the proliferation of message boards, it’s pretty likely somebody has asked that exact question before.  If you’re in the flow and need one specific piece of information, the internet has reached the point of actual helpfulness now.  If you’re willing to be patient, you can actually post your own question in Yahoo Answers and see who pops up.
  5. Checking the basics. Before you have your characters read a specific book, make sure it had been written by that point.  Same with singing a piece of music.  Or eating a particular food – don’t have your gripping novel about the Battle of Hastings sidetracked by people eating potatoes, which are a New World food.  I once wanted a character to buy a croissant from a bakery, and did a brief check on the Wikipedia page to make sure croissants existed by then.  I learned two things: 1) no, croissants were not known in France in the 1820’s, and 2) the Wikipedia entry on the history of the croissant is alarmingly comprehensive.
  6. Museums.  Actually seeing the objects of your time period, with information on their use, can help you bring the era to life.  It’s also an active and inspiring activity on its own – I find it much more conducive to getting the literary juices flowing than reading a book on the same subject. Bring a notebook and a camera – take pictures of what interests you and have the notebook on hand in case inspiration strikes.
  7. PinterestI keep a Pinterest board with images relevant to any writing project I’m working on.  This gives you a handy reference point for material culture and all it requires is spending a few hours on Google.  I have:
    1. Maps of Paris between 1830 and 1851.
    2. Maps of Paris with the locations of the barricades.
    3. Photographs of Parisian barricades from 1848.
    4. Fashion plates of women’s fashion from the late 1840’s (remember, of course, this was not what ordinary people wore.  For people writing in Britain or the US in the 20th century, I highly recommend Getty Images’ book “Decades of Fashion” for its comprehensive look at high fashion, street fashion, and occasion wear).
      1. Paintings and photographs of daily life – domestic interiors were becoming popular in the mid-19th
        (animated stereo) Edwardian era reading, 1906

        Imagining this guy singing “Baby Got Back” is the highlight of my day so far.

        century, as art was revolutionised to portray ordinary life and not just heroic epics or royal portraits.  This gives me information on ordinary people’s clothing, hairstyles and living arrangements.

      2. Street photography from the time period I’m writing in – shopfronts, modes of transport, the types of people you would see in a particular area, the architecture of bridges and churches, etc.
      3. Portraits of any real historical figures who appear as characters.
      4. Portraits of the uniforms of any officials who appear, e.g. National Guard.

Not Helpful:

  1. Buying more than one or two books about my time period all at once.  It gets overwhelming.
  2. Telling myself I have to do all the research before I’m allowed to begin. 
    Elizabethan Queen Barbie

    “Get thee to a nunnery!”
    Yeah, I have no idea what’s going on here.

    If you get something wrong – even something fairly major –it’s probably fixable.  For example, I once read a YA novel in which the writer made the egregious mistake of having a convent operating in Elizabethan England.  It was a fairly major plot point.  However, it wouldn’t have sunk the book; if she or her editor had realisedthat Henry VIII had abolished all the convents and monasteries fifty years previous, then they could have phoned up a Tudor/Stuart historian and said, “hey, I have an orphaned child who needs to go somewhere in Elizabethan England.  With convents abolished, where would they go?”  It was an error, and a big one, but it wasn’t fatal to the book.

  3. Trying to include Every. Single. Aspect. of a particular time period into one novel.  So you’re researching a book about suffragettes in Edwardian England and you stumble across a mention of spiritualism and the occult, which you find fascinating. You add a subplot about spiritualism.  Then you’re reading a book set in your time period which has a character who’s a union activist and you find it really moving, so you add a union element to your book.  Then, because you’ve had to add a factory into your book to accommodate the union element, you do some basic research on the mechanics of cloth manufacturing in Edwardian England and you find some fascinating information about the connection between cloth, the opium trade, and relations with India in the late British Empire, and before you know it, your book about suffragettes is now crawling with subplots on spiritualism, union activities, and opium-smuggling.  It’s too much.  What you have there are three books, not one.  Finish the one you’re on, then write the one about the opium-smuggling spiritualist and her forbidden love affair with a local union leader.

Actually, you know, you SHOULD write that book.  It sounds AWESOME.  I’d totally read it.  Just as long as you check your facts before you throw your heroine into a convent.