Want to know how to research for historical fiction?
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If you are reading this, chances are that you are interested in writing a historical fiction novel. Historical fiction is a unique genre, which can be educational yet quite interesting and exciting. Research is one of the main parts of writing historical fiction.
In this article, we will tell you all you need to know about how to research for historical fiction. However, before we move on to that, let’s first find out what historical fiction actually is.
What is Historical Fiction?
Historical fiction, as the name suggests, is a literary genre that is based in a setting of the past. It pays attention to the social condition, manners and other minute details of the era that it is based on. Historical fiction is one of the most popular genres of fiction.
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World-building is as important in historical fiction as it is in writing fantasy or science fiction. However, for fantasies, you have to do everything from scratch, and creating a world can be really time-consuming and tiring.
On the other hand, creating a world in historical fiction is not much of a problem as most of the work has already been done for you. History holds answers to all your questions. All you need to do is research as much as you can so that you can unearth the answers and create the world for your historical fiction.
Research Is Important in Historical Fiction
Historical fiction is a tricky genre to handle and master. You must do your homework if you want your writing to look and feel authentic. However, maintaining a balance between fiction and reality is the key here. No one wants to read a history lesson in your historical fiction.
If you want to be a good writer of historical fiction, then you must seek to learn as much as you can about the setting, time and period that you want to portray. This will help you present the story in a believable manner.
All fiction writers understand that the success of their story not only depends on the techniques of the writer but also how credibly and authoritatively they convey their story. Your credibility will be ruined if you place the French Revolution in the 16th century. Therefore, you must conduct extensive research when writing a historical fiction book.
Writing Historical Fiction
People love reading historical fiction because it transports them to a world that has a realistic setting but is as lush as a fantasy. It can only be possible if you have conducted your fair bit of research before writing.
They say, the more fascinated you are by a time period, the more careful you will be when you are carrying out research.
Because readers don’t want to read a history textbook. They want to read a compelling story based on a particular period of history. Therefore, you must be careful about including lengthy treatise about the era.
The research you conduct before writing a historical fiction should surround and enhance your story. Rather than spending all your energy on making the frame elaborate and pretty, focus your attention on the people in the frame. Your readers should not be distracted from the main story and the main characters.
Source Materials for Historical Fiction
Here are some important source materials that you can use when you are researching for your historical fiction.
1. Children’s Books
If you want to base your story in a period that you are new to, then children’s books are a great starting point. Children’s books offer detailed basic explanations and also have pictures. This is perfect if you want to visualize something. For example, the dungeon of a castle, the interior of a house or the deck of a ship in the 17th century.
2. Read Historical Books
If you are looking for a comprehensive history of an era, then you must read historical books based on that era. Textbooks can come in handy as well as historical books. Look up websites like Goodreads to see if you can find an online book about the period you want for your historical fiction.
Also, don’t hesitate to visit libraries. They have a wide collection of historical books and you will definitely find something that will help you write better historical fiction.
Don’t just look for historical narratives when researching for historical fiction. Books on housekeeping and cookery can help you gain insight into the period you are aiming for. In short, don’t limit yourself to any one type of book. Take everything you can find about that particular era and use the information that you think suits your plot.
3. Search Engine
Thanks to the Internet, researching has become easier. All it takes is a click, and you are given hundreds of thousands of results to choose from.
If you want to base your story in the 18th century, simply type “18th century” in the search bar and hit go. You will get numerous results and then you can make use of the ones that seem appropriate. Similarly, you can also search for specific things from that period and you will get results.
The good thing is that you will get all sorts of results, from books to magazines, newspapers to letters, etc. You just have to use the ones that you think seem appropriate and helpful in understanding the era.
4. Libraries & Historical Societies
As mentioned before, you will find a lot of historical books in libraries. Libraries are particularly good if you are looking for general histories to get an overall understanding of a particular period of history. You can get these books and extract as much information as you can from these.
Historical societies are also an excellent platform when you are researching for your historical fiction. You can also get help from the history department of a school, college or university. You can send courteous written requests asking for information, which are mostly accommodated.
5. Face to Face Interviews
Another way to get information about a particular period in history is to talk to an expert face to face. You can find out if they are knowledgeable about that era and arrange for an interview with them. However, you must be prepared beforehand so that their time isn’t wasted, and you also don’t miss out on any crucial information.
Therefore, it is suggested that you create questions and make points about all the things that you want to discuss with them. Be organized and you will be able to get the best information from them. Don’t ask them questions that you will find answers of easily in books or from other sources. Use this opportunity to get information about the things that you are unable to find from other sources.
Thanks to the Internet, you can look up many archive collections online. If you don’t find something, you can always refer to a library and you will get the resources.
Archives have information in the form of journals, photographs, letters and maps. They give a true account of the period you want information about. Newspaper archives can also come in handy if you are looking for information.
In addition to pictures, you will also find quotes from important people of that era. This can help you understand the setting and the environment of that era.
Visiting museums is also a great way of carrying out research for your historical fiction. Living history museums are especially great if you want to know about the everyday life of a particular period in history. Observing household items from a previous era tells us a lot about that time. And, you can use this in describing your characters and the setting vividly.
You will also get to see various tools and weapons that the people of that era used. It can be used in the setting of your historical fiction and will give it a credible and authentic feel.
8. Study Old Pictures
As mentioned before, you can get many old photographs from various archives. Many of them are now also available online. Examining old paintings and photographs will help inspire your imagination and you can use the details in your setting description.
You will also be able to see how people used to dress back then, what they wore and how they carried themselves. You can then use these details when designing your characters.
If you want to get deeper into research, you can also visit a particular location. It will give you a firsthand account of the setting. Of course, it is only possible if your historical fiction is set in the near past. However, while buildings and people may have changed, the landscape is usually centuries old. You can use that when you create the setting of your historical fiction.
10. Read Old Books
Reading history books is one thing, and reading old books is another. If you can, you must read books from the period you are writing about. You will get a sense of the language and attitude of the people of that era.
Notice any unusual phrases or words? Use them in your writing and you will be able to take your readers back in time with your writing.
11. Make Educated Guesses
While you will find information about most of the past eras, there will be times when you won’t be able to find something. If you don’t find a piece of historical information about a particular era, then make educated guesses.
Base the guesses on the information you already have about the era. However, there is no need to include this information if it is not relevant to your story. If it is relevant, then you should study and research intently to find this information. However, if you still can’t find it, then go with the most educated and logical guess that you can make.
However, it is important not to assume the information that is of central and critical importance to your story. That’s why it is advised to research about your critical plot as extensively as you can. This will tell you if you have enough information about a particular period to construct a story around it properly.
12. Dig Deeper with Works Cited
If you are reading a book about a period in history and you want to dig deeper, check the works cited section. These are the sources where these books got their information from. Check out these books and see if you can find any more information than you already have.
However, make sure that you don’t just rely on a historian’s research. Dig into a variety of reputable sources and books to get your information.
13. Read Historical Non-Fiction
You will find a number of historical non-fiction books that tell stories about the period that you have chosen for your historical fiction. These books are thoroughly researched since they are non-fiction. You will find plenty of information in these books and you can use that in your own writing.
14. Read Historical Fiction
You may also go through other historical fiction books to get an idea about how others have tackled this genre. You can take inspiration from them, but make sure not to follow them blindly. After all, novelists don’t always get everything right. Furthermore, it is fiction, and things change with everyone’s perception and creativity.
15. Jot Down Any Key Language
When you read historical books set in a particular period, you will notice that the language used is slightly different. The language will entail certain slang terms that are not common today. Note down these things. By the time you are done with your research, you will have many such terms, words and phrases that you can use in your historical fiction.
Tips on Writing Historical Fiction
Now that you have done your research, it is time to start writing. However, before you begin with the writing process, go through these tips. These will help you write a better and more successful historical fiction.
1. Write What You Love
Historical fiction experts tell writers to write what they love and not what they know. When you have chosen a particular period for your writing, you will be spending a lot of time researching it. From its strange habits to its way of dressing and speaking, you will know everything by the end. Hence, you must be excited about it, or you will not be able to fully immerse yourself in the entire process.
Your passion and excitement should reflect in your writing as well. Therefore, once you have chosen a particular period, fall in love with it and be as excited and interested in writing about it as you can. Only then will you be able to keep your readers interested in your book.
2. Don’t Know It All
As mentioned before, you don’t have to research every bit about the period. If there is some irrelevant information, let it go. Some historical fiction writers also use the reverse approach here. They establish their narrative and characters first and then research as they write. This way, they only have to research about the things that they need in their story.
If you think that you are better off this way, you can try it. However, it will increase your writing time and you may also have to do a lot of back and forth if you are not really accustomed to this sort of writing.
3. Less Is More
There is no need to include every bit of detail that you have found in your research in your writing. As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, readers don’t want a history lesson. They are looking for fiction based in a historical setting. Therefore, don’t try to show that you have done enough research and homework.
Most of the readers today have a broad idea about what different historical periods and eras looked like, thanks to movies. Thus, you should only include those historical details in your story that are important to build and advance your narrative.
The rest of the research that you’ve done will help you live in that period and write with confidence.
4. Be Careful About the Small Stuff
Credibility and accuracy are important when you are writing historical fiction. It is especially crucial when you are writing about a period that people remember first-hand. Factual inaccuracies in these will only steer your readers away.
If you want the story to look and feel authentic, then you should care about minute details. However, it is also important not to overdo it. Remember, you are writing fiction, not a historical account of a particular event. Therefore, don’t fret too much about chasing accuracies.
It is also better to leave the minute accuracy details for the last part of your book creating process, i.e., editing. You will not be able to finish the book if you worry too much about it while writing.
5. Stop Researching and Start Writing
When you think that you have enough research and information at hand, just stop researching and start writing. Don’t get too lost in the researching phase; otherwise, you won’t have any energy and excitement left for writing.
While researching will give you the inspiration to write, it will not create the book itself. It is you who has to decide when you have done enough research and when it’s time to start writing your historical fiction.
Now that you know how to research for historical fiction, follow these tips and techniques and you will be able to write successful historical fiction.
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