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Historical Fiction Tips: Getting Started with Research

As a reader, I love historical fiction. When executed well, a work of historical fiction has the power to transport the reader to a world as lush as fantasy but grounded in a realistic setting that was very real and in some ways informs our world today. But pulling this off is a difficult feat for any first-time author, and if you haven’t already done a wealth of research in the era you are trying to portray, you may need a few pointers on how to proceed.

1. Check the works cited!

If you’ve picked a period for your novel, you’ve probably started to read some of the books written about that time. A good way to dig deeper is to see where those books got their information. Sources are usually listed in the back of the book in a Works Cited or Works Consulted page. (Most history books will have these and some historical novels will too.) Just make sure you pick sources from a variety of reputable books, so you’re not just relying on one historian’s research.

2. Read books or papers by historical consultants.

If you were inspired by a historical television show or movie, fast-forward to the credits to see if there are any “Consultants” listed. Some documentaries might interview well-known historians and will include their name on the screen when they appear. These people are often experts in a specific topic and have published articles and books about it. Use their work to get a better understanding of your novel’s setting.

3. Keep a notebook just for research.

Although the two things will—and should—overlap, it may be helpful to keep your historical research separate from your plotting, character notes, and other story-specific planning. Keep a separate notebook for making notes on the historical context of your story. This should also help you remember from which sources your information came, in case you need to credit a source in endnotes or a Works Consulted. (Remember that while historical fiction doesn’t require citations, copying a historian’s words without giving credit is still plagiarism.)

4. Wear your research lightly.

A good historical novel will be accurate in feeling more than in fact. This doesn’t mean your facts shouldn’t be in order—but you should avoid the need to sprinkle them throughout each chapter. Because you did the research, you will know which historical facts are informing your characters’ actions and environment. Your setting will feel authentic to the reader without you showing all your research on the page. Any information not immediately relevant to the characters or plot can go into an author’s note later on.

Still not sure where to begin? Leave any questions in the comment section below!

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