Lesson No. 1: Researching a Historic Novel

Historic Fiction: A Possible Definition

Historic Fiction is fiction that is informed by the past. It can be based on a historic person, an event, an artifact, or an era. Whether you are writing a historic novel or short story, people, events, artifacts and place, collectively, are essential to your research.

There are plenty of variants in historic fiction. Some stories choose to focus on a historic figure, like a biography, and stick to the chronological history, to recreate the person’s life on the page. Other stories might throw a new angle on a person’s life, (based on new research) and create new scenarios and possibilities. A recent example of this is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Other stories recreate famous battles, and introduce readers to a variety of characters both actual and fictional, like Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, which recreates the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Other Boleyn Girl: “Spring 1521”

I could hear a roll of muffled drums. But I could see nothing but the lacing on the bodice of the lady standing in front of me, blocking my  view of the scaffold. I had been at this court for more than a year and attended hundreds of festivities; but never before one like this. 

By stepping to one side a little and craning my neck, I could see the condemned man, accompanied by his priest, walk slowly from the Tower toward the green where the wooden platform was waiting, the block of wood placed center stage, the executioner dressed al ready for work in his shirtsleeves with a black hood over his head. It looked ore like a masque than a real event, and I watched it as if it were a court entertainment. The king, seated on his throne, looked distracted, as if he was running through his speech of forgiveness in his head. Behind him stood my husband of one year, William Carey, my brother, George, and my father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, all looking grave. I wriggled my toes inside my silk slippers and wished the king would hurry up and grant clemency so that we could all go to breakfast. I was only thirteen years old, I was always hungry….

Another example, and less definable as historic fiction, is the contemporary novel that includes a historical character or other element of the past. The Red Violin film, for instance, deals with a single artifact, despite being a contemporary story, which gives it the feel of a historic one. A popular technique used by contemporary writers is to weave the past with the present, often alternating chapters. One character lives in present day, uncovering a mystery from the past, while the other character is in the past. Examples are Timeline by Michael Crichton and Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.

There is, however, a difference between a story that takes place in the past and historic fiction. Simply placing a story in the past doesn’t mean it will necessarily be infused with historic detail. It is the same with science fiction (or fiction that is informed with future scenarios and scientific knowledge), which often doesn’t contain any science, but gets lumped into the category by publishers. It’s a gray area. But there are differences.

For this course we’ll focus mostly on historic fiction that is informed with historical detail. Fiction that not only takes place in the past, but is well researched, and evokes the time period with impeccable detail.

One other point to consider, novels that were written in the past, don’t qualify as historic fiction, unless they are actually written about the past. An example would be Tolstoy’s War & Peace, which was written about the recent past, with concrete research and facts. While Charles Dickens’ Hard Time, although it now feels like a historic novel since it informs the present about the working industrial class, was written as a contemporary novel.

How to Research a Historic Novel

Research is the defining element in historic fiction. The more you can get at the history, the more you can inform your own work. But where do you start and what are the sources?

A historical fiction writer is much like a historian who is looking to bring out the truest form of a particular topic in history. A historical fiction writer is also like a detective. You need to delve into the past and sort out what is trustworthy, accurate, as well as informative.

Historical Evidence: Informing Your Fiction

In order to fictionalize the past, you have to know something about it. You need evidence and information. In historical study, there are two basic forms of historical evidence: primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources, are the most important evidence, and the first thing you want to find. Primary sources are considered the truest source, the actual words that someone may’ve used to witness an event. It is information unbiased or interpreted by someone else, the raw form. Examples of primary sources are diaries, notebooks, letters, newspapers, and interviews.

Other places to find primary sources are:

  • Royal decrees
  • Official records or statistics that records births, deaths, marriages, taxes, deeds, court records
  • Laws
  • Political party platforms
  • Church edicts
  • Photographs
  • Films
  • Artifacts (houses, tools, weapons, etc.)

Secondary sources, on the other hand, are findings that someone did not witness, but who may’ve done research and interpreted the events. Most history books are second-hand accounts of the actual events. The Midwives Tale by L. T. Ulrich is an example. Ulrich studied a particular town and the goings-on of the midwife to piece together a historical account of her life. She used primary research in her findings, but the assimilation of the information makes it a secondary source.

As a historical writer, secondary sources can save you a lot of time in researching information; however, it’s not a substitute. Because the information is interpreted or explained for you, often by someone with a particular thesis in mind, you may miss valuable information, not included.

Which To Start With?

If you have a topic you want to write about, but don’t know much about it, then a secondary source might be the place to start. You gain by the experience of the author, who used primary research, to give you an overview of the time period/event/person. You can also use the bibliography to look up further sources, especially primary evidence.

At some point, however, it will be a value to your work to review primary sources. Let’s say you’re writing about the antebellum south. While secondary sources will give you an overview of events, going to actual narratives will allow you a better window into the real people that lived.

Both have a purpose. Often, with primary sources, you find pieces of research that others may not have discovered. You can find historical details (food, dress) or the culture of ideas (philosophy, beliefs). Primary sources will also allow you a window into dialect, slang, popular phrases, and so forth.

Over the course of your fiction writing you will most likely encounter and use both.

Where To Find Primary and Secondary Sources for Writing Your Historic Novel?

  • Historical societies
  • Newspapers
  • Library
  • Museums
  • Lectures, classroom
  • Oral history projects
  • Government organizations
  • Journal articles
  • Atlases
  • Historical Statistics
  • Archives
  • Artwork, photos
  • Archaeological sites
  • Genealogy records
  • Colleges
  • Research centers
  • Local people

Online sources

While Wikipedia offers a snapshot and perhaps a place to get a general idea of a particular subject, it shouldn’t be used as the sole source for your work. When writing fiction, (any fiction) you want to be original and unique. Accessing information that is readily accessible may not give you an edge on the next historical writer.

Check the validity of online sources. There are plenty of historical databases and primary sources online and available. Often, colleges will host collections, along with museums. See list for examples.

Online sources for research:

Organizing research

Depending on the scope of your fiction (short story, novel) will depend on how much research you wish to procure. For a short story, it might be enough to use a spreadsheet to organize information. For a novel, however, since the research will take place over many months, it is best to devise a system of organization that works for you at the beginning. You might start a notebook (on the computer) with tabs. Some people put up maps, and use visual boards to collect information or both.

I use a variety of methods. I use pictures, maps, photos for visual research, and I also organize both a paper notebook and a computer file of research, categorized by the essentials. The research can grow rapidly or slowly, but either way, you want to have enough room to store it. Folders are important, and keeping a notepad to take notes on the go is also essential. You never know when you encounter a detail worth remembering.

Some categories that I think are essential to researching are as follows:

  • Traditions/customs (What did they celebrate? What were their traditions?)
  • Dress and appearance (What did they wear?)
  • Food and drink (What did they eat, drink, and how was it prepared?)
  • Landscape (What did the area look like?)
  • Nature (Wildlife, trees, plants)
  • Money
  • Government
  • Daily life (very general, but anything that lends to the average day lived.)
  • Weapons, law enforcement, wars, prison, etc.
  • Transportation (How did they get around?)
  • Mercantile (What businesses existed?)
  • Light sources (how is the room being lit)

You may wish to set up a filing system with these headers, or similar ones that work for you. As you begin to acquire research, you can easily split up the information into the sections. To begin, I think it’s most important to have an idea of the dress and daily life. It will help define the character from the beginning, and allow you details to inform the first few scenes.

Cautions with research

Is there ever an end to research? Probably not. All it takes is to send your character into a place that you have no knowledge about, and you’re right back at it again. I have a character that needed to take a boat and then needed to find out something about sailing.

There is a point, however, when too much research can become overwhelming, or that the research takes the place of writing. I often split my day up with writing in the morning and researching at night. This way, the writing doesn’t get lost. Sometimes, I have to stop in the middle of a scene to work out something, but I stay focused, find what I need and get back to work.

Another caution is to not feel you have to use everything. Most of the research is for your benefit. Most won’t even be used. But the more you know, the more you can inform the work. As an example, I have a huge list of ancient Greek foods, for all occasions, like during battle, festivals, and daily life. Most I will never use. But I have more control when I’m writing to offer variations when it comes to mealtime. Sometimes it’s not even important to mention what is being eaten.

Too much detail can kill a piece. As you begin to build your own catalog, you’ll start to see what details you feel excited about and which ones aren’t so important. Is it important to know that a queen’s dress was stitched in gold? Maybe, if you want to show her regal nature, or to elevate her above the common people. But do we need to know the actual stitching pattern? Probably not. Not unless the main character is a seamstress.  

Research Discovery

One of the most exciting moments in writing historic fiction is when the research and your imagination come together to inform the plot. You might find a detail no one has ever considered, and it sends you in an unpredictable way. Sometimes the history forces the story down a path you didn’t see. These are the ah-ha moments. Be prepared.

Another Caution

Sometimes it is hard to stay too close to the research. We are writing fiction. You want to stay as close to the actual as possible. But at times, it’s just not feasible. You’ll need to keep a balance. Obvious errors would be having your character riding on a train when the train wasn’t invented yet. Or if your character is munching on peanuts, and they weren’t available in that era.

The research should help you, not restrict you. If you get stuck, go with your instinct in telling the story. The key is that as you assimilate the research into the fiction, you essentially create your own world.

Getting Started

For the first week, you’ll be asked to start your research catalog on a historical era/person of interest. (Personally, this is the fun part!) You should select at least one primary document, and from it begin to make a historic “catalog.” These might include personal traits and details, information about setting and time period–anything that you can then use in your fiction. (Use list above for examples).

Once you have a little bit to go on, you should attempt to write some fiction incorporating the research. It need not be a full on story with a plot. It can be short and focused on one item or place.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing about Ben Franklin. You might choose to read his autobiography (primary source). In it you see he started a philosophy club. It sparks your interest. You make a list of details about the club, (when it meets, who attends, where, how often, what the building looks like). From there you should be able to write a short piece about the club and meeting. You might need to fill in the blanks on setting. But at the least, you can reconstruct the place and Franklin’s presence as the organizer. Further, (since Franklin’s autobiography is filled with an array of characters) you might also be able to show the street outside, the different people in town that might stop by, his wife, and so on.

From there, as you write, your imagination takes over. You never know where it will lead. Don’t be afraid of discovery.

Place Holders

Place holders are just that. You may not know every detail as you’re writing. So you put something in and go back to it. I often use the word BLANK throughout the document and search it to find where I left them, and replace them with new information as I glean it. Whatever you don’t know, leave it for another time. Just keep writing.

Writing Exercise

  1. Create a mini catalog of historic details (bulleted or in a spreadsheet is fine). It doesn’t need to be a complete sentence. It can simply be “notes,” like, “offering, olive branches cut, then fire started, oxen killed.”
  2. A short fiction piece (500-1500 words and up) incorporating historic details.


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Colleen Morrissey is an author, scholar, and teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. She achieved her B.A. in English at the University of Iowa and her M.A. in English literature at the University of Kansas. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in English Literature at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Her dissertation, which she will defend in spring 2018, explores 19th-century British literature and culture. She was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 2014 and has been a Best American Short Stories Notable. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Cincinnati Review, Monkeybicycle (print and audio), and others; her creative nonfiction has appeared in Confrontation; her scholarly writing is forthcoming in the Iowa Journal for Cultural Studies and an edited volume on British women writers; her poetry has appeared in Parcel and Blue Island Review.