Elements of Writing: Research For Writing Historical Fiction

Most writing coaches are quick to say, “Write what you know”.  This isn’t necessarily the advice you want to hear if you’re writing a Civil War-era romance.  How in the world can you write that if you didn’t live in that time?

Here are a few tips that can help you out if you’re writing about a time period you never lived in:

Visit restaurants that serve the same food your characters would eat in their location.

If you have the funds, travel to the location where your characters live.

Visit museum exhibits to discover more information about different locations and subjects.

Visit the library and find reference books on the subject.

Read novels that are in the same genre as the novel you’re writing (especially bestsellers).

Read magazines and journals on the subject.

Look up videos on YouTube. Often a visual image will spark ideas you can include in your book.

Look up documentaries on the subject.

Look around on Pinterest for ideas, inspiration, and information.

Call people who live in the location your novel takes place (even if it’s at random from the phone book!).

Interview people who have experience with the subjects you touch on in your novel.

Email or call experts in the field you need to learn more about, asking them just a few specific questions about the topic that you wouldn’t be able to easily find answers to elsewhere.

Watch others who are similar to your characters to see how they think, feel, and talk.

Write down everything you discover and learn. You don’t need to use all the information you find—in fact, you absolutely won’t used it all—but it’s better to collect more than you’ll use than to have too little. Until you finish the actual writing, you never know what tidbit you might need to pull in.

Don’t go so overboard when you research your novel that you start procrastinating the writing. If it’s helpful, set a time limit for your research.

After you begin your book, if you run into something minor you need to know (like the name or description of an object), you can always type XXXX as a placeholder and do the research for it later so you don’t bog down the writing at a moment when the writing is flowing.

Leave some of the things you researched out when you write. It’s extremely jarring to the reader when an author stops the flow of the story to explain how something works or what something means. If it isn’t pertinent to the story and doesn’t introduce confusion by its omission, leave it out!

With your research, you can make sure your characters are using the correct terms and reacting appropriately, but you don’t have to include every detail of what you researched. A little authentic flavor goes a long way.

Hope these help!

Elements of WritingWriting Craft

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