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Just the (Necessary) Facts: Researching historical fiction

Historical fiction requires the same command of writing craft as is found in any genre. In addition, writers of historical fiction must conduct intense research into the people, objects and locations of the time being written about. Authors must become immersed in the subject while building stories and characters that create unique books.

Research can take many forms; books, newspapers and magazines from the period, lectures, museums, videos, archival films, interviews, search engines and physical journeys to the places where the book takes place. I used all of these in researching a historical novel. Traveling to the actual location and visiting museums gave me the feel of the place and provided context to period exhibits. Travelogue lectures and videos were like guided tours. Archival films documented specifics about clothing, transportation and current affairs. The Internet gave me details about temperature, population, landscape, customs and festivals. Original and microfilmed copies of period magazines and newspapers filed in gaps concerning everyday life, anxieties and hopes. The advertisements were very interesting because they highlighted desires and morals of the time.

If done thoroughly, research will produce volumes of notes. Yet, authors will only want to use a fraction of the facts they gather. Some might question this after making such an investment in research and think that they need to include everything they have discovered because it is so interesting. This is a mistake. A historical novel is not a text book. It must contain just enough details to set the novel in the time period without overwhelming the reader. Too many facts distract the reader from the plot and character development. It’s important to reach a balance.

Consider a paragraph that uses extensive historical facts, such as, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. It had C pillar styling that was not offered in the 4-door hardtop. The engine was a 409 cubic-incher that only came with a standard transmission. It was a true legacy to Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet (1879 – 1941) and his partner William C. Durant (1861-1947) who started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3, 1911. Aaron knew this car would win the race and save the orphanage.”

All of these fact are real, and may be of interest to car enthusiasts, but it is far too much information for the majority of readers. That Aaron has found a fast car that will win a race to save the orphanage is lost in the words. It would be far better to write, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. Surly, the big 409 cubic-inch engine would win the race and save the orphanage.”

That is not to say you should leave out all the facts you discover. One of the things readers seek in historical fiction is a sense of the time and place. Descriptions of houses, rooms, clothing, transportation and implements create the feeling of a time gone by, but you should be selective in what you include. I wrote a historical novel in which I needed to get some lye that would be used in a future scene into a character’s pocket. This was both setting and foreshadowing, so it needed it to be memorable but subtle. I choose to have another character make soap while the main character helped. I researched soap making and learned many details. I used very few of those facts in the scene. The description of soap making consists of a general overview that gives the sense of making soap in the time period while leaving out detailed specifics, except for one. The character making the soap uses one type of lye over another, explaining that it makes softer soap but has a more violent reaction when exposed to water. The main character ties some left over lye in a handkerchief and puts it in a pocket. The fact that the lye was more active was very important to the plot a few chapters later.

When writing about actual historical figures, you cannot change known, historical facts. Marie Curie discovered radium and died from radiation poisoning at the age of 66, but an author can’t have her stop experimenting and live to be 100. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist who was a former slave. She organized the underground railway to help other escaped slaves, but a historical novel cannot have her become president of the United States. Whatever documented actions a historical person took cannot be changed in a book. However, the author has complete leeway to explore the private moments in their lives when there is no known record of what they did or did not do, say or think. These unknown emotions, dreams, desires, etc. are fair game. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica is a passionate condemnation of the Spanish civil war. The intent and result are evident, yet, who has crawled inside the mind on Picasso to know exactly what he was feeling and thinking at the time? Authors of a historical novel can do this.

Historical fiction can be entertaining, informative and thought provoking. It can also shed light on our contemporary world by showing us what has changed and what has not, thus giving us the opportunity to grow as societies and individuals. Authors can do this by choosing the right details, creating memorable characters and telling great stories within the chosen time period. thin the chosen time period.

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