Writers in the Storm

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May 3, 2010

Researching the Historical Novel

Sharla Rae

 For the writer who enjoys history, researching is often the best part of writing a historical novel. Even so, deciding where to start can be mind-boggling.

 Why Research?

  1.  Lovers of historical fiction know their history. The facts cannot be faked.
  2.  Historical facts set the boundaries or limits within which the writer must work.
  3.  History can be used as external conflict to strengthen the plot while adding deep and rich layers to the story.
  4.  Throughout time, history has shaped people and vise versa. It “should” be the same with historical characters. Characters are defined by the times, government, social culture language, fashion, entertainments, etc.

So Where Does the Research Start?

To keep things simple, think of researching as the construction of a house from the ground up.

 The Foundation: General background research

Like building a new house, researching starts with the foundation. The foundation is the initial or general historical background, the historical facts leading up to and even slightly beyond the time the novel takes place. No culture can be understood without knowledge of its roots and development.

 Example: Character idiosyncrasies aside, if a writer wishes to characterize a young Irish immigrant, the Irish heritage and the immigrant experience must be understood. Hence, the writer studies the reasons behind the Irish leaving Ireland and their experiences once they arrived in America.

 The same holds true when setting a novel in an unfamiliar city, state or country. Example: Suppose the novel is set in 18th century England. A study of England’s general history tells the writer what motivated Englishmen of that period and why they reacted differently in a given situation than say an American might. An overly simplified example: An Englishman of the 18th century may not have liked a Frenchman. Why? The two countries had frequently been at war.  

 The Walls of the House: The Limiting Historical Facts – Who, Where, What, & Why

 Once the foundation of the general historical background is laid, it’s time to add walls to the foundation of the house. The walls consist of the factual boundaries that determine the specifics of a story -- the exact who, where, what and whys. Remember, a house usually has more than four basic exterior walls and that there will be interior walls, too. For the sake of simplicity I’ll discuss four basic exterior walls.

 Lets assume the author’s story is about two men who are feuding over a piece of ranch land in the Old West, a common scenario. General research informs the writer that there were many land conflicts in those days, white man verses Indian, cattlemen verses farmers or sheepherders, people verses the railroads, white man verses Mexican and Spaniards etc.

 First Exterior Wall:

During the foundation research an interesting fact turns up. Old Spanish land grants were often not recognized by the US government. Eureka! This is a piece of history that lends itself beautifully to the type of conflict the writer wants to develop. One character can be a gringo newly arrived on the scene, and one a Spaniard whose land has belonged to his family since the Spanish exploration land grant days. This is a “who” limitation.

 Second Exterior Wall:

Since the Spanish dwelled predominately in the Southwest and California, historical facts limit the setting of this story to those areas. This is a “where” limitation. Study general history of the Southwest and California and especially the Spanish settlers and their backgrounds. How did they come to receive their land grants. Where did most of these types of land disputes happen, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, or California? Deciding on a state narrows the location and this is another “where” limitation.

 Third Exterior Wall: Let’s say the author has chosen California as a setting for this story because the history supporting the scenario is especially notable in California. Laws were passed to benefit Americans and many Spanish families lost their land. Wait! Another Wall? Yes. The year those unfair laws were passed gives a time frame in which this sort of conflict would have taken place. Thus we have a “when” or time limitation.    

 Fourth Exterior Wall: A study of those laws and exactly how and why they were passed is needed. This study supports and strengthens the story’s conflict. It’s also limiting because the writer must work within the dictates of the law. In a way this a “what” and a “who” limitation depending on how you wish to look at it. The “what” is the law itself or the government. The “who” is represented by people the law affected and limits it put on them.

 Remember that there can be many exterior and interior walls. Perhaps facts show that many Spanish ranches were located around Los Angles. The writer may wish to locate the ranches near that city. Thus, another limit is set -- the specific city. Study old city maps, locate actual businesses and citizens during the time frame. Also, note other events that shaped the area.

 The Roof: Cultural Details Limited to a Specific Area and Period

Research local customs and culture of the time and place. Let’s say you learn there was also an Indian culture. While your story will not focus on this, some background is good for flavor. Since part of the focus is on the Spanish family, research how they lived, what they did for fun, who were their leaders, Spanish names of things as well as Spanish people names, customs, entertainments etc.

Now look at the gringo culture, there ranches, culture, entertainments, customs. How did the gringos in the area differ from the Spanish? What was the general emotional climate among the Spanish ranchers, the gringos? This cultural background is another limiting factor that helps the writer shape the personality of characters.

Making the House a Home or Interior Walls - Décor, Plumbing and Furnishings and Personal Needs, and Everyday life

 I’m calling this section the interior walls of the house because everyday life items of a particular era are limiting. An Old West rancher would not own a big screen television. Nor would his wife wear a mini skirt.

 Once a house is built, the people who move in make it into a home by surrounding themselves with everyday things that suit their lifestyle, needs, and personal tastes. What a characters surround themselves with tells the reader what kind of people they are and what’s important to them. Of course you must always be conscious of the time period when describing your characters’ living environment. The following is a list of just a few things that should be considered.

  1. Size and number of rooms, interior furnishing, kitchen hardware, sleeping accommodations and etc. should reflect the period, social class, location of their homes, personal tastes etc.
  2. Foods must be appropriate to the time and culture. For example, what drinks and foods did the Spanish serve? The Americans?
  3. Fashion must fit the period, place, professions etc.
  4. Modes of transportation available to them
  5. Entertainments
  6. Names of professions in and around the city and ranch
  7. What newspaper did they read? Was it biased? Would it matter to your story?
  8. What did the homes actually look like? Spanish? Americans? Materials used?
  9. Ranch equipment and animals on the ranches
  10. Etiquette of the Spanish and American at the time
  11. Standard education of the two groups
  12. Languages spoken, dialects that might be used for atmosphere
  13. Religious differences between the two cultures, specific practices, etc.
  14. Anything that pertains to some aspect of everyday life.

 Research Can Swallow Precious Writing Time. Don’t let it.

Start a 3-ring Help Note Book for each new Novel. Title it with Novel’s title and then Help Note Book. The notebook serves as the author’s quick reference. It is the novel’s book of limitations, or the structure upon which it is built. Use dividers by topic. In the case of the above example, some topic headings might include character description, dialects, ranch glossary, Spanish terms, maps, terms of the law, town history, etc. Below, I discuss ways to save time on research. Specific items that need to be in the help notebook are noted with a star.

Don’t take a lot of hand-written or typed notes. In the library, make use of a copy machine then highlight important facts on your copies. Remember copyright limits the number of pages you can copy, so copy just the facts you need. Be sure to write down the reference titles. Editors do sometimes question references. In the same manner, information can be printed from the Internet. A word of caution here. Anybody can post almost anything on the Internet. Verify the information with least two other sources. If using your own book for a reference, use small post-a-notes like tabs on the pages, writing down one or two words to indicate what important information can be found there. This makes for a quick reference and if you don’t mind marking your books, use a highlighter too.

  *Use historical time lines. They keep you honest. Historical timelines are often included in the back of history books. Sometimes you may want to combine timelines found in several references. If a time line isn’t available, note prime dates as you research and make your own. 

* Keep a list of terms and definitions that will be useful in your story. Using the earlier example, if researching Spanish and American ranchers, list ranching terms from both cultures. List names of tools and what they were used for, slang, special clothing items etc.

* Keep historical area maps handy, lists of important businesses and names of actual people who might have an influence in the novel. Note: If using an imaginary town, it should resemble other towns of the time and place. It also helps to draw a blueprint of the imaginary town so that you don’t describe a business on A Street one time and then mention that same business on C Street later. The same applies to houses, barns, stores, etc. 

* Keep a list of indigenous plants and animals. Take into consideration that animals and birds that are now extinct may have inhabited the area at the time of your story.  

* Although not a part of the actual research, put character outlines and descriptions in the Help Note Book. Giving a character brown hair on one page and red on another is embarrassing.



Public libraries are the logical place to start researching especially for general history. The Internet works too but often tiny details are deleted for space reasons. Sometimes it’s those minute details that a make huge and wonderful difference in the story. Check out children’s books. Their simplicity makes them great for “basic” facts without the superfluous information found in adult books.

Specialized, nit-picky information

 Often, libraries do not carry the specialized information needed. Consequently, historical writers start their own resource libraries. Museum bookstores are goldmines for specialized information. Many of their books are authored by local historians and by people who run the museums. Often theses books are not available anywhere else. I have found that curators and museum bookstore owners are usually very willing to help writers.

Since I write stories set in America, most of my personal library pertains to American History. The following four books are personal favorites with basic but important facts.

     Domestic Technology, by Nell Du Vall (A must have for knowledge pertaining to  invention dates of certain foods and canned goods, utensils, furnaces, lighting, plumbing, etc.

      I Hear America Talking, and Listening To America, both by Stuart Berg Flexner (Great for dated Americanisms in speech/euphemisms, commercial usages and inventions.

      Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States And Canada, by The American Association for State and Local History Nashville, Tennessee. (Very expensive but most libraries have them.)  It lists most of the historical museums in the US and is extremely useful in finding specialized books dealing with towns, cities, and states. It even lists museums specializing in things like the logging industry, Indian heritage, railroads etc. The biggest plus, is the phone numbers. Most museums have gift shops/bookstores. You can call and tell them what you’re looking for. I’ve found most of these stores allow you to give them your credit card number and order the books over the phone. New additions of this book of historical organizations are published periodically.

 A dictionary with dated Etymologies such as Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. Do you want a character to use a certain word but you’re not sure if it’s too modern? Look up the etymology of that word.

Other resources:

Catalog of Catalogs: The next time you receive a catalog of catalogs in the mail, that is a catalog listing specialty catalogs that can be ordered, glance through it very carefully. Many of the catalogs listed sell historic renovation items or facsimiles. The pictures in these catalogs are often dated, thus making a two or three dollar catalog a cheap and valuable resource. One catalog I found in a catalog of catalogs was Lark In The Morning Musical Catalog  It pictures historical instruments from all over the world, including medieval. In the back there is a listing by country. They now have a website: http://www.larkinam.net/ Another catalog I found is The Antique Hardware Store. It shows Victorian bathtubs, sinks, fixtures, hardware, lighting fixtures, weathervanes and more. Many catalogs have gone digital but sometimes you can still order catalogs from them for just a few dollars.  

 Antique and Collector’s Magazines:  Subscribing to this type of magazine often supplies the writer with more information than they’d ever find in any one book. One of my Favorites is Collector’s Eye. This color magazine always includes lots of history about the items being shown. It shows everything from teapots to toys. There are Internet sites called Collector's Eye but I did not find the magazine. I did find a similar magazine on line called Collector News at http://collectors-news.com/ Another such magazine is Victoriana. It features articles about beautiful historic homes, Victorian holiday celebrations, how to serve a real Victorian tea, Old Victorian fashions for adults and children etc. Note-this magazine went out of business but it is now on the Internet at http://www.victoriana.com/  Unfortunately, these types of periodicals often change names or stop publishing. 

3. Antique shops: Antique shops often carry free newspaper-like newsletters with pictures and articles of extreme interest. Also, if you need to see first hand how something was constructed and how it worked, many antique shop owners are glad to demonstrate. Take a camera and notebook.

Antique shops are also great sources for antiquarian books at a reasonable price. (Antiquarian bookstores are usually cost prohibitive, but antique shops are not) The firsthand knowledge in these books is priceless.

Living History Farms/Ranches, and Medieval Fairs, Civil War Reenactments: These places are great for viewing firsthand how things were done in the old days. They also have wonderful bookstores with specialty books that can’t be purchased anywhere else.

Rock shops: Find books on historical mining sites at rock shops. Sometimes they even have old maps available. Who knew?!

 The Internet: There are lots of historical research sites. There are also some interesting list serves where a writer can post questions and receive answers. This is especially useful when time is an important factor. One such list that I’ve found extremely helpful is Carmel’s Research Group at carmelsloop@yahoogroups.com/ Send email here and they will tell you how to join this list. Another impressive yahoo group that deals with weapons and warfare, police tactics etc. is weapons info. A more recent discovery is a website called HighBeam Research at www.highbeam.com. It’s a subscription service that offers archived periodical articles, newspapers, and more.

 Caution: I said this before but it bears repeating. Anybody can post anything on the Internet. Always verify the information. If three sources say the same thing, it’s usually safe to use it.

Magazines:  State magazines like Arizona Highways and Texas Highways give excellent descriptions of different parts of the state, flora and fauna, and often offer historical information too. National Geographic Magazine offers descriptions of rain forests, mountains and peoples and places all around the world. It also describes national disasters, animals etc. There are magazines about foreign countries available for subscription like British Heritage which can be found in large bookstores. There are also specialty periodicals whose stories offer great historical plot ideas and historical facts. Many offer an interesting history book selection. Examples: Wild West, Old West, True West, American History Illustrated, and Historic Traveler. There are also magazines dedicated to the Civil War.

I hope this article has helped you better understand how to start a research project.


0 comments on “Researching the Historical Novel”

  1. Shar, your researching advice is terrific, but I already knew that, having critiqued and brainstormed with you for years. Your books are rich in texture and characterization, reflecting your meticulous historical research. Keep it up, my friend! Lynda

  2. I am very glad to have found this post since I am writing on a historical novel at the moment. While I knew the event I wanted to build my story around, I didn't know where exactly to start the research. What I did was using Wikipedia first. Wiki led me to the era my story is taking place. Next it led me to people like clergymen, knights, kings etc. having lived in that timeframe, which made it a lot easier to outline my own characters, since I got to know about their daily life, habits, political relationships and so on. Also I bumped into other, new things during my research, which added new ideas to the story. Meanwhile I'm also using our local library for researching. It's a lot of extra work, but it's also fun!
    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Andrea,
      You'll find that the history surrounding your story really adds to the plot and sometimes to the external conflict. I love the research so much I have to be careful not to get carried away and let it slow my writing. 🙂
      Sharla Rae

  3. Hi Sharla

    I really appreciated reading your advice, which certainly has helped me get my mind around the concept of research. Thanks for the effort put in.

    Grant Griffiths

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