Research: Historical Fiction - article

To understand what research is required for a work of historical fiction, it’s necessary to define just what constitutes the genre. The general consensus is that historical fiction is based on a story that is set in a real historical situation that the reader will recognize. It doesn’t require that the people or events in the story be real, it’s the historical setting that drives the books in this genre, giving the story context. However, the characters should be portrayed in away that is accurate for the time in which they ‘live’. You don’t want to have a Victorian era story in which the character employs technology that isn’t available until 30 years after he dies. Additionally, historical fiction must be set in an era that the author didn’t personally live in but for which he or she can provide well researched information, which helps the reader to feel they are experiencing that era in time. Historical fiction includes a great deal of detail about the history of the time and place, which helps it feel real to the reader. In fact, the setting and historical facts are a significant part of the story and are the framework for the plot.

To write good historical fiction an author must be extremely familiar with, perhaps even an authority on, the period in which the story takes place. The reader has to actually feel that he or she has been transported to that time. So, how does an author accomplish this? Research, research and more research. This may involve reading history books, talking to experts on the period in question, reading other historical novels set in the same period, and a very healthy dose of Internet research.

Reading novels written contemporaneously in the historical period is also a good idea. It also might be helpful to take a class or two on the period at hand. And, depending on the topic, there very well might be a local or online community of enthusiasts with whom you can share and grow. Remember, unlike an academic work, which will be judged on its meticulously-documented accuracy, the standard for the historical novelist is much lower because it’s fiction. However, this does not mean that the author has the license to completely disregard what we know to be true. You can take some liberties with events and people but not with facts from that era or with accurately representing the time, people, environment, and culture.

Probably the biggest mistake you can make is to attempt to write a historical novel without doing your homework. Instead of a great romance set in Napoleonic France, you’re liable to end up with an unintentional laugh riot. And, no matter how good your story is, it should be interwoven with the events of the time, otherwise the historical context that you’ve created will become irrelevant. Writing historical fiction is among the most difficult literary challenges, but if approached correctly, it can be both rewarding and enlightening.

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  • R. J., I am currently working on (struggling with) my first book. Your article addressed one of the main issues that posed a problem for me when I decided to begin writing. But now, after reading this article, I believe I will get back to work and with a better sense of confidence in the final product. Thank you.

  • Thank you R.J. for this lesson in how to write historical fiction correctly. This answered many questions I have. I am currently finishing my first historical fiction book for younger teens. Thankfully, I have done much of the research you have suggested and I do live in the area that I used for my setting. It is fascinating to develop characters that come alive as they interact with the facts surrounding a historical time period! I continue to imagine what life felt like, smelled like, and looked like for my main character in the late 1800's in southern Oregon.
  • Concise and sensible advise. Thank You.