Researching the Historical Novel
“Never write on a subject without having first read yourself full on it; and never read on a subject ’till you have thought yourself hungry on it.”
— Jean Paul Richter
Be warned, ye who enter here. The historical novel can be dangerous territory. If you love history, it’s easy to get happily lost in research—and never be heard from again.
The more fascinated you are by the time period you’ve chosen, the more careful you need to be. Why? Because you’re writing a novel. Your reader is not looking for a history textbook. She knows where those are shelved in the bookstore and if she wanted one, she would buy one. She doesn’t want a lengthy treatise about jousting, feasting, armor, herbs, the Crusades, or the king’s problems with his vassals. She’s buying your novel because she wants to read a compelling story about fascinating people.
Think of your research as a frame that surrounds and enhances your story. The people in the frame are where you need to focus most of your time, energy and pages. Don’t make the frame so pretty and elaborate that it detracts from the people.
Here are a few tips to make your research time as productive—and fast—as possible, so you can get on to the main event: writing your book.
Seven Steps to Successful Research
- Begin with the big picture. Spend your first couple of weeks reading encyclopedia articles, general history texts and children’s books to get an overview. If you’re brand-new to the period, I can’t say enough about the benefits of using children’s books. They offer basic explanations and they’re loaded with pictures—perfect for when you’re writing a scene and need to visualize the interior of a stagecoach, the dungeon of a castle, or the deck of an 18th-century ship. Also look for books about what life was like for boys and girls growing up in this time period. They’ll offer insight into what your characters’ childhoods would have been like.
- If you’re not sure exactly when to set your story, skim through a book called The Timelines of History by Bernard Grun and Werner Stein. It’s a year-by year listing of scientific, social, and political events that can help you pinpoint the best year for your novel to take place.
- Next, focus on social histories. Every time you see a book with a title like “Everyday life in…” or “A Social History of…” buy it! Seek out the nitty-gritty details of everyday life that will make your reader feel as if she’s there, walking down a street in 17th-century Florence or living in a log cabin on the frontier. As Editor Eliza Shallcross once said, “Women love these books because [they] are history as women have lived it, not as men have written it. This is social history, not the history of wars and politics.”
- Organize your research material. I like to create a three-ring binder for each time period I write about, with tab dividers for various topics. Your topics will be different, depending on the specific needs of your story, but these will get you started:
- Clothing & Hairstyles
- Crime & Law Enforcement
- History (politics, wars, kings and queens, etc.)
- Shops & Towns
- Travel & Inns
- Women and Marriage
- Words and Names (list of commonly used terms and names from the period, helpful for naming characters and creating authentic dialogue)
- Sources (list of every source used, in case you need to go back and check something—or justify some point of fact to your copy-editor)
- Include plenty of pictures under every topic in your binder. Pictures really are worth a thousand words when you’re trying to imagine a gown or a gun or a feast or a farm for the scene you’re working on.
- Make a list of specific things you need to know to write this manuscript. By now you’ve found enough material to fuel half a dozen wonderful novels. It’s time to start narrowing your focus or you’ll never finish your current manuscript-in-progress. What do you need to know right now to start writing the first few chapters of your book? When I was researching my RITA Finalist After Sundown, my list included stagecoach travel, women’s clothing, 19th-century criminal prosecutions, and life in silver-mining towns. Keep your list short and focused. Remember, your goal is to start writing ASAP.
- Highlight the most important items on your list. Take your highlighted list and a pile of Post-It notes and skim through all the research material you’ve collected. Flag the chapters, articles or pages that relate to your top-priority topics.
- Assign yourself one topic per day. Read through all the material on that subject, making notes as you go. The next day, move on to your next assigned topic. If you come across fascinating stuff you don’t need for your current novel, force yourself to skip it. Just make a note in your binder: “For more on the Pony Express, see p. 204 in Story of the West.” This way, you can easily find that information if you need it for a future novel—but you won’t spend precious time now wandering off-track and getting lost in some subject that has nothing to do with your manuscript-in-progress.
How do you know when you’ve done enough research? When your characters, setting and plot become so vivid and real to you that you feel ready to capture them on paper. That’s when it’s time to start chapter one. As you write, make a running list of research questions that pop up along the way. Look up the answers later, after you’ve finished your first draft.
Favorite Research Books
- Eyewitness series of children’s books published by Dorling Kindersley: Money, Knight, Costume, etc.
- Food in History by Reay Tannahill
- History of Men’s Costume and History of Women’s Costume by Marion Sichel
- The Melting Pot Book of Baby Names by Connie Ellefson (lists names by country of origin)
- Oxford English Dictionary (cites the year a word entered the language)
- Slang and Euphemism by Richard Spears
- Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (cites the year a word entered the language)
- Women’s Headdress & Hairstyles in England from AD600 to the Present Day by Georgine de Courtais
- The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon (lists names by country of origin)
Favorite Online Resources
- Marie’s Time Capsule Headlines and pop culture for any date in American history from 1800 through 2002
- HistoryBuff.com Where American History Begins
- The History Net Where History Lives on the Web
- Pages of Time Info on pop culture for any year in American history
USA Today bestselling author Shelly Thacker has earned lavish praise from Publishers Weekly, Locus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Detroit Free Press and booksellers who have called her “a virtuoso beyond compare.” A two-time RWA RITA Finalist, she has won numerous other honors for her fiction, including a National Readers’ Choice Award and many Romantic Times Certificates of Excellence. There are more than one million copies of her novels in print.
Copyright © 2004 by Shelly Thacker. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for individual writers to print one copy of this article for personal use. Any other reproduction by any means, print or electronic, is strictly prohibited without written permission of the author.