Home » Writing Advice » Historic Settings: Researching Your Novel

Historic Settings: Researching Your Novel

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Novel research falls into two types in my experience.  There’s the voracious, grab-all-you-can-find research before the draft, and there’s the I-need-specific-detail research after the draft.  Both serve a purpose, but the methods are different.

First, let me state up front that I do not believe research should be happening while you are in draft.  Use a trick passed on from more experienced authors:  type the word ELEPHANT any time you need a bit of information you don’t have and move on.  Unless you are writing about big gray beasts with trunks, you now have a searchable word that will take you to any spot in your draft that needs a fact or flavor element.

So what do you look for in the front end “before” research?  This is what works for me:

  • Archeology on digs of the time period
  • Architecture for the various classes of society
  • Art the people saw or had access to
  • Religion – this is a big one as it dominated daily life through much of history, including times of day
  • Literature – what were they reading if they were literate and in what languages?
  • Politics of the times both locally, nationally, and internationally
  • Daily Life by class
  • Clothing by class
  • Diet by class
  • Household expenses, routine, and tasks for nobles, merchants, workers
  • Class differences & Distinctions
  • World events
  • Wars, weapons, armor, defenses
  • Pestilence, medical practices, mortality rates
  • Opinions of historians on how people of the time would have viewed all these things.

Initially, I might not have a specific story idea, so my research is general, but I do follow the bits that interest me, fascinating side-shoots, and tangential material I find intriguing. Because I am a visual person, I spend around 20-50 hours watching documentaries as well so I can see the art, the architecture, and the rest.  Other research information comes from books, encyclopedias, and the web (be careful, check that your source is reputable).

When I feel “full” or glutted on research, I bundle all my notes into a binder and put it all away.  I’ve been doing this long enough to trust that the seeds will sprout in their own time.

And here’s the interesting thing.  Even small details you don’t consciously remember will make it into your story without effort.  That part of our brain that writes is quite adept at adding the richness of detail it has learned from our research without our effort.

“After,” or “back end” research is specific. What colors of cloth were rare enough to cause remark?  Which were the most popular radio broadcasts that summer? How would he have said this?  What brands of soda would be in the nickel vendor?  These are the concrete details that you add for specificity and dimension, important tidbits to give your reader a sense of time and location.

Generally, this research is quick as you know exactly what you are looking for.  Your notes come in handy here, and anything not in notes is usually available in books or on the web.

Research can get as detailed as you want it to be.  I enjoy research so I go overboard.  If you don’t, that’s okay.  Just be aware that, at some point, your story will start to tap at the back of your skull.  When it does, put away your notes and just write.

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10 thoughts on “Historic Settings: Researching Your Novel

  1. History major here. I research history to help with my science fiction. I’m currently basing my society on a tweaked version of Caesar Augustus’ marriage laws. Also, if you want to read up on some Florida history I write a Florida history blog. http://beyondtourism.wordpress.com.

    If me putting my blog in here is a no-no for you feel free to edit it out but I hope you don’t mind that I added it.

    • We don’t mind at all. 🙂 I have always been interested in creating societies out of bits of history. So glad I’m not alone! I’ve researched from pre-history Scotland to the Gold Rush and never get bored. 🙂

  2. The current novels I’m working on ended up being much more research than I expected, but I should have known haha. I too kind of switch back and forth between writing and researching and it makes it more bearable for me too 🙂 I start with looking at events in the time frame, as that obviously impacts plot, do some kind of rough writing, then go back through and research setting and dialogue. I don’t have a set process because these two novels are the first that I’ve written requiring it, but this seems to be working well for me 😛 Thanks for the advice and happy writing, or researching, or both simultaneously!

    • Pomodoro is great, isn’t it? I can’t allow myself to look stuff up while writing the draft, though, because I get sucked in to research and spend that time not writing. 🙂

      • I like using pomodoro in order to replicate the word sprints like they have on Twitter. Once in a while, though, I have to research something because the answer could affect the plot of the story. I hate breaking up a good writing session with interruptions.

  3. Wonderful, Robyn. I don’t write historical fiction; I’m more of a contemporary girl. However, EVERY novel needs research. ELEPHANT is fun and I’m all about that. Thanks for your post.

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