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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack, a former moderator of a critique group with Coffeehouseforwriters, has published articles and short stories for various magazines. She is creating a set of novels placed in Bronze Age Greece with her frequent collaborator, Alice Underwood. Visit Tapestry of Bronze, and read about Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, under contract for publication, as well as their work in progress.


Digging into the Past: Doing Research for Historical Fiction Part I: What to Dig Up
Victoria Grossack

If youíre writing or planning to write historical fiction, you want to set your novel or story in the past. This means that you will have to do research to make the setting authentic. What should you research, how much of it should you do, and how do you actually go about doing it?

What should you research?

First, you should research whatever is central to your story. If you are writing about battles, you should have details on the weaponry of the period at your fingertips. If your plot is all about Mississippi steam boats, you need to know about Mississippi steam boats.

Second, you should have enough information about the general setting so that you can make your background believable. You should know what people were eating and drinking Ė and be aware of what they were not eating and drinking. If you are writing about Europe in the 800ís, none of your characters should be eating potatoes, because potatoes are native to the Americas which had not yet been Ďdiscoveredí by Europeans in the 800ís. Other everyday setting information that is useful to know:

  • What sort of social structure was there?
  • What sort of clothes did they wear? And how much clothing would a person have?
  • What sort of transportation did they have?
  • Did they have money? If so, what kind of money?
  • How did they spend their days? The women as well as the men?
  • How big were the cities?
  • Where did they get their water?
  • What did they do about plumbing? How often did they bathe?
  • What sort of dishes did they eat from? And what didnít they use? For example, table forks only came into use gradually in England in the 1600ís, before that, fingers were in style.
  • What sort of houses did people live in? What sort of furniture did they have?
  • What sort of animals were around? As pets? Out in the wild? - What sort of plants were around?
  • What did people do when they became ill?
  • What sort of religious services did they attend?

If the list seems daunting, realize that you may not need all of the information for the story. And you can certainly start work on your novel without it and work some of the answers in later. Editing with computers is easy! On the other hand, if the list of questions seems insufficient, by all means, add more questions.

How much research should you do? What level of detail do you need?

The short answer: you need to do enough research to make your story / novel good. That answer isnít sufficient for your purposes, though. So, letís examine the situation in more detail and determine how much research you need to give your audience the satisfied-reader experience.

The amount of required research varies by genre, audience, and time period. So, the first step is to know your genre, audience and time period. For example, if you are planning to write Regency Romances, your readers, who may have read umpteen books in the sub-genre already, will expect you to know that a baronet is a hereditary title whereas a knight is not. However, those readers may be less interested in the politics concerning the slave trade.

Different levels of readership require different levels of research. For example, if you are writing for children (and I believe very much in making these books for children accurate) you may want to go into less detail than if you are writing literary fiction for an adult audience. Some readers actually choose historical fiction because they expect to learn while being entertained. Noah Gordonís The Physician had plenty of interesting information. On the other hand, it is possible to overwhelm your readers with extraneous detail. Remember, you are writing fiction, not a textbook!

Different levels of authenticity are expected, depending on the story you are telling. Are you writing about a time in the past where all the characters and the events are fiction, as in Jean Auelís prehistoric Clan of the Cave Bear series? In this case you need to understand how people lived but you donít have to worry about specific events or particular individuals. Are you writing about characters and their experiences during the Civil War? Do these characters interact with actual historical personages? If the latter, do your best to make your characters as accurate as possible, because readers may actually depend on your novel as their source of history. Herman Wouk, in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, describes his charactersí interactions with many famous and infamous personages: Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Eisenhower and Rommel. Although the conversations never happened, Wouk did his best to make sure the time and place were right Ė no one interacts with Churchill in a place and time when Churchill was obviously somewhere else Ė and Wouk shows the actual traits of these personages as well. For example, we see Roosevelt with his dog and his wheelchair.

How far back youíre going in time also influences the amount of research you can do. The more recent past has more information available. If you are writing about World War II, there are many more details to get right (and to get wrong). Plenty of eye-witnesses are still available.

The amount of research you need to do also depends on what is available. For example, although Pre-Classic Mayan civilization and the time of the Caesars are about equally far back in history (although the Pre-Classic Mayan civilization refers to a period of more than 2000 years), far more is known about ancient Rome. Therefore, to be accepted by readers of that genre, you will need to know more as well.

Note: Many readers will want to know which parts of your story are factual, which are fictional, and where your information is murky. So tell them! Create a foreword or an appendix and give them this information.

Next time: Where to dig!

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