Research in Historical Fiction

Research is a very significant aspect of my writing life. I’ve spent hours chasing down facts, and I know I’m not alone. (Which is comforting, actually). I’d like to share some of my favourite tips for historical research. I’ve written about time periods ranging from the French Revolution, the Golden Age of Piracy, and Belle Époque, and the reign of Mary Tudor, so research has taken over large sections of my life many times. I’m interested to hear your research tips, too, if you’d like to share.

Read A Lot. Read Widely.

When I first start researching a project, I never quite know what I’m looking for. At the beginning of my research for the novel that ended up being The Wardrobe Mistress, I had a vague idea that my character was going to work in the kitchens at Versailles, maybe making fancy pastries and soft white bread. She’d be the kind of girl with rosy cheeks from the heat of the ovens, and flour or sugar dusted through her hair. She’d probably be too generous sharing the fruits (or baked goods) of her labours.

Instead, I discovered the significance of tricolour rosettes to demonstrate revolutionary support – or not. I learned how fashion played a prevalent role in the French Revolution. My sweet kitchen maid turned into a cool-headed girl who could assess someone based on their outfit, could fix your hem in thirty seconds, and had an appreciation for beauty and occasionally a tongue as sharp as her sewing needle.


Go to the Library

It might sound obvious, but I’m a huge fan of my library’s system to put items on hold, so they deliver them to the branch closest to my house. I just have to go grab them off the hold shelf, conveniently located near the door, and I’m often out of there in two minutes. Not that I don’t like being at the library, but I have a full time job and a hefty writing workload, so efficiencies are precious. I rely on the holds system more than I probably should.

However, when I’m starting out a new project, I search the library catalogue for one book on the topic, preferably with a broad take on the subject matter. To start, I’m not looking for something like “French Fashion and What it Meant in Front of the Guillotine” (Hm. I should write that, with that title). Just “The French Revolution.” Don’t get into specifics yet. Then, go to that section of the library and find it on the shelf. It will be surrounded by at least ten other books that you’ve never heard of, most of which will prove invaluable to your research. It’s like the best treasure hunt ever. Let the Dewey Decimal System help you.

dewey decimal

I never thought I’d tell anyone the Dewey Decimal system is cool, but it is. The 900 section has been a good friend to me.

I’ve heard some advice from other avid-researchers and writers that they like to start with the kids section. Apparently it’s a great way to get down to the basics of what you want to research. I have not tried this yet, but I intend to.

Get Visual

If you can, travel to some of the sites you’re researching. This isn’t always possible, of course. I didn’t manage to visit Versailles during my research for The Wardrobe Mistress. Fortunately, we have the internet, and that is the next best thing. Use Google Street View to explore the area, if you can. Even if the landscape is modernized, the general layout might still give you an idea of how it would have looked. Look at photographs of the area for the same reason. If your time period is far before the invention of cameras, check out paintings from the time period. Read travel books or talk to someone who has been able to visit the area.

It's not a photograph, but this depiction of the view of Versailles as it would have looked in 1793 was still helpful to me.

It’s not a photograph, but this depiction of the view of Versailles as it would have looked in 1793 was still helpful to me.

Look for Primary Sources

Reading source material written during the same time period that you’re researching is extremely valuable. It will give you an idea of the way people spoke, what they found important, and what kind of values they had. Depending on the time period, you also might get a glimpse at an alternate view. History is written by the victors, so they say, and you might get a peek at the ‘losing’ side through primary sources.

Also Seek out New Research

Scientific journals grow outdated much faster than historical books, but in both cases, it does happen. When new books or articles are published, new theories and viewpoints are built upon existing research. It happens with history, too. If you’re researching Anne Boleyn, even though she’s been dead for almost five hundred years, you’ll find different interpretations of her life in books published in the 1970s compared to something more recent.

Look for the Little Things

The little things are both the joy and the bane of writing historical fiction. One minute, you’re happily writing along, nearing the end of a scene. “He sipped his coffee,” you might write. Wait – did they have coffee yet? Time to hit the books (or internet) to confirm!

An English coffeehouse from the 17th century.

An English coffeehouse from the 17th century.

The little things are always a surprise. You never know when or what you’re going to need to know until it comes up as a gaping maw in your manuscript. The little things are proof that research never really ends.

Small, specific items of information can also be the toughest to track down. It makes the reward all that much more exciting when you do find them.

Have Fun

Research can drag at times, but not for long. Researching a topic you chose, that you are passionate about, is a lot closer to the fascinating end than the dull end of the spectrum. Chasing down facts can have its challenges, but on the whole, it should be an enjoyable one.

By the time your manuscript is complete, you might be sick of the time period altogether. It’ll come back around though – trust me. By the time I finished The Wardrobe Mistress, the last thing I wanted to do was read another word about the French Revolution. But when the editorial revisions came around, even though I was supposed to be cutting out a whole bunch of my word count, but I still managed to work in a new tidbit about Marie Antoinette’s perfumer I’d discovered in the meantime, because my exhaustion with the time period didn’t last long. It just needed a recovery.


What are your favourite research tips? I’d love to here them! Same goes for anecdotes of research triumphs or trials.


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