Researching the Historical Novel: Advice For Next Semester’s Novel Writers

by Maye Ralston

I’ve been researching for the historical novel I’m writing. This has created several issues. First, I encountered more information than I expected and found my story actually covers a much larger period of time, necessitating three books rather than the original one. Naturally my original idea was shot, sank, and I started over under the deep blue sea in a rusty, barnacle encrusted, shell of a ship.

KEY: Stay open when researching. If you find a lead that takes you someplace you hadn’t intended to go, follow it anyway. It could lead to a wealth of information that may cause you to rethink your novel, but your novel may be better for it.
Second, in researching via the internet and historical records, I encountered (for one particular historical character) four different names. I have found several other historical events or characters that have similar problems. Which begs the question, how do you vet sources if you wish to remain consistent with history? In particular, when your monetary and time resources preclude traveling, and when you are under the constraints of acquiring and using this information within a university semester?
This is how I did it.
I searched for the oldest historical records and scoured them for the information I was seeking. For now, I am using these names and event versions for my story. Later I will attempt to vet that information by finding and comparing other reliable sources with the information I have now.
KEY: Discern which sources are likely to be the most reliable and understand that all sources (with the exception of factual data) have agendas and that makes them all suspect. Enter creative license.
Unless you are writing a history book, few of your readers will be interested in being bombarded with facts. Those are for you to create your story ambiance.Readers just want to get lost in your story. When you feel you have a basic sense of what was going on in your chosen time period (how people dressed, spoke, what was happening in their world at the time, etc.), put your research on the back-do occasionally-burner and start writing your novel.
Third, I am reading at least three other versions of the story I chose to write—something I do not recommend doing because your own story idea gets mixed up with the stories already out there.
KEY: If you feel you must read other novels about your story characters, time period, or historical events, read them early in the summer and let them percolate while you ground yourself in the facts of your story, then take the novel writing class in the fall semester.
I am also reading several historical novels by other authors (set in other time periods or cultures than the one you are writing about). In addition to some old favorites, I found a few that were new to me, through my local library, and my novel writing professor (Cathy Day)suggested several. This I highly recommend doing as it provides a sense of how other, usually more experienced writers, have blended story with history.
KEY: You have to weigh writing time against reading time. Some reading is helpful, the rest will only interfere with your writing time, especially if you are taking a full load of courses (and especially if those are mostly writing courses). Read a couple, even three, then save the rest for the summer and semester breaks, when you have more time to do research, analysis, and rewriting.
      Some of the books I am currently reading (or putting off until semester break) are: Dune by Frank Herbert, A civil war series by Michael Shaara, The Other Boleyn Girl: A Novel by Philippa Gregory, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: A Novel by Stella Duffy (I finished this one).
      Fourth, my novel has a lot of characters or place names that are difficult to pronounce. It is difficult to keep the names of all the non-main characters straight and correctly spelled. Ditto with the place names. So?
I devised a cheat sheet.
KEY: Create a character sheet or location sheet for each of your characters and locations. List the name (correctly spelled), descriptions, local happenings there, character flaws and strengths, personality type, a few notes about how this person or place fits in the story, who this person interacts with and in what manner (enemies, lovers, etc.). You get the idea. Later you can use it to include a genealogy, or list, of characters to aid your readers.You will want to summarize your information for that. Here’s another free character sheet.
Last, I sometimes find it hard to remember all the historical event timelines, when this or that character enters and leaves the scene, etc. Add to that the events and characters I have created from my imagination and I could end up spending most of my time trying to remember instead of writing. This is especially important because I am working on a trilogy and I want to track my characters ages as they come and go in the story so I don’t make a stupid mistake later.
KEY: Create a timeline of events from the beginning to the end of your storyline. You can do this on paper, but I found free software to use. Here’s one for the Mac called Aeon Timeline. Here’s a list of free multi-platform timeline software.
I hope you find this helpful. Good luck next semester. In the words of Red Green, “I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”
[Editor’s Note:  For advice on handling personal history in writing, check out Ashley Ford’s blog post on writing memoir.  Tune in tomorrow to read Spencer McNelly’s post on queer literature! – Lauren Burch]
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One Comment on “Researching the Historical Novel: Advice For Next Semester’s Novel Writers”

  1. Lauren Burch says:

    First of all, thanks for including all of those links! That's sure to be of help to readers.Also thanks for taking the time to break down your research process. I've always felt overwhelmed at the idea of writing historical fiction, but as you've outlined it, it seems a simpler process than I'd imagined (not to say that it doesn't take lots of time and effort). Historical fiction has never really been my passion, but I'm sure all the information you've put here will be of help to those interested in the genre.


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