Research for Writers of Historical Fiction, #2

When giving my spiel on Historical Research, after listing out my credentials, I then proceed to the most important question. How much research do I need?

Below there’s a screen shot of the slide I use, but I’ll put it at the bottom because I usually address these points one at a time. So I’ll start with my very first consideration:

#1) I am not Isabelle Allende…

I pull this point from an interview I heard with her on NPR several years ago where she talked about taking 4 years off writing to research her next novel.

Most writers do not make nearly the amount of money that Allende does. We don’t have the option of taking 4 years off. In fact, when I was writing for Penguin, I produced a book roughly once every 9 months.

9 months. That includes all the time I had to research.

Most writers have to work at a very fast pace, so we have to learn to research efficiently. We can’t spend time learning everything about a topic. We have to learn just enough to write the book. Because every moment we spend researching is time we spend not writing.

So how does a writer know how much to do?

#2) Estimate how much time you have.

This is much tougher than it sounds. Until you have a few novels under your belt, you probably don’t know how long it takes you to write one. But after a couple, you’ve got a better understanding of that.

For me, I always gave myself one month to research and plan the book. I admit, I generally fudged on that number, and started writing before the month was up. But I had a limit set, and that was the important part. I knew when I had to set aside the full-on research and move on.

#3) Be familiar with your genre’s demands.

Readers of some genres are famously picky.

Here’s an example I usually use:


Here are partial covers for two Romances: A Regency Romance (Georgian, actually, but…) on the left, and a Historical Romance on the right.

The readers of Regency Romance novels (L) are notoriously picky about the day to day period details included in the book: The clothing, the social events, the mores. If you get a character or dinner or historical event wrong, they’ll skewer you for not having done your homework. Don’t have your characters go to Almacks on Thursday for the ample dinner buffet.

The readers of Historical Romance (R), are far less picky. They’re more concerned about the romance than the period history.  In fact, although the book on the right is set in the same time period (Georgian Era) you honestly can’t tell. There are a few mentions of the hero not having powdered hair and one or two about the clothing, but otherwise, it’s fairly indistinguishable from other HR books set in the Regency period or the Victorian period. When I looked at a few of the 1-star reviews on that book, none of them remarked on the book’s historical accuracy or lack of it. That wasn’t why they were reading it.

(BTW, I thought the book was charming, so don’t think I’m bashing the author. I read all of her books.)

Basically, the two genres, although set in the same time period, simply have different demands. So you need to know that when you start working in your genre.

How do you find that out?

  1. READ YOUR GENRE to see what other authors are doing as far as accuracy and research.
  2. JOIN A GROUP that specializes in that genre, so you’ll have someone to be your sounding board. If you’re not sure whether or not you need to research, they can tell you what’s important.

#4) Different eras/items require different levels of research. 

Where, when, and what you have in your story can affect how much research you need to do.  So I’ll put in some examples here.


What does your character travel in? I did a google search to see how many times two travel options come up on Google. The results gave me an ‘ballpark’ idea on how many experts there are on either topic.

Buckboard: About 62,900 results

Pullman Train: About 10,500,000 results

For every webpage that mentions buckboards, there are 166 times as many pages that talk about Pullman Train Cars. You can extrapolate this as meaning that if you have your characters cross the state in a buckboard, any mistake you make is far less likely to be noticed than if they travel in a train–far fewer buckboard experts than train experts.

vecror-page-decor-and-text-deviders_08[1]Some time periods/events are far more richly studied. If you set your story during the American Civil War in Georgia, you will find there are a gazillion people who’ve studied that period and setting extensively, and therefore can poke holes in your work.

If you set your story during the Spanish-American War in Guam, you’ll find far fewer people who can contest your setting details.

(Having set things in 1902 Portugal, I find there are very few American readers who can argue about anything I wrote. While Americans might know about 1902 America–and possibly 1902 England–they generally don’t have a clue about Portugal at that time. I could have said almost anything and gotten away with it, I suspect.)


Finally, what about your time period? Are there still people alive who remember that period? If so, you risk running afoul of them. Be choosy about when you set your stuff.

I discussed with another author my idea of setting a short story on 12/29/1940 in London, the height of the Blitz. The other author told me that the British are very touchy about American writers writing about Their War (as she called it). She is American (but lives in Scotland) and has written a couple of award-winning books set in WW2 England, so she has experience with how much work it takes to get every detail right. For a short story, the amount of research I probably would have had to do so as to cover the topic properly…would not have been worthwhile.


#5) Have a Beta Reader who’s familiar with your setting/genre.

This isn’t always possible. I currently am without a beta reader, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend having one if possible. They can save your bacon (and therefore cut down on the amount of research you’ll have to do.)

Why? Because you can’t count on your editor to catch mistakes.

With my first editor, I had the eye-opening experience of her pointing out a sentence in the text and asking…“You say she’s wearing a suit. Do you mean a suit with a skirt? Or a pantsuit?

I was flabbergasted. My book was set in 1902 Europe. Gentlewomen in Europe didn’t wear pantsuits, nor did their maids.

Clearly, my editor didn’t know that, which told me she knew little about the time period in which I was writing. If there was a mistake in the setting, she was not going to catch it. That wasn’t her job. Editors aren’t there to fact-check.

So if you can get someone other than yourself and your editor to double-check you, that’s extremely helpful and will save you research time.




 Chose carefully, and you can get away with doing far less research.


Sorry this one was so long! But if you want to start researching, you need to have some idea of how much you’ll have to do!

Next Week: Getting Started!




RRH Confession #2

When I started working on novels set in Portugal, I realized that most of my characters would be Catholic. (Portugal at that time would have been 95% Catholic). So I bought a copy of Catholicism for Dummies and read it pretty-much cover to cover.

Yes, there really is a book called that. It’s well-written and was very helpful.


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