How to do research for your historical fiction novel

Historical fiction has a fantastic way of transporting the reader into the past. But how can you as the writer do the same?

When you’re writing historical fiction, you need to balance historical accuracy with a compelling story. No matter how realistic your setting is, it can’t make up for what your plot is lacking, so keep that in mind when you’re using this post to plan your setting.

Related reading: Quick tips for describing places

How to do research for historical fiction

Why choose a historical setting for your story?

You should never choose a setting at random because the right setting will always affect your story. When your story takes place in the past, you get numerous opportunities for different conflicts and characters that you might not get if you were writing about present day.

For example, how many problems can be solved with a single phone call or with a quick Google search? You don’t have that option if you’re writing about the 1950s of the Middle Ages. (Of course they had phones in the ’50s, but not every home had one, and you had to, indeed, be home to receive your calls.)

The past also gives you unique options for characters and their situations, even if you’re not writing about World War II. Think about all the wetnurses, governesses, blacksmiths and plague doctors you could write about if you wanted to.

Of course, you do have to make sure your story is right for the setting you choose and that they interact with each other. If you could write the exact same story in any era without anything changing, there’s still a lot more work for you to do. Setting, characters and plot always work together.

Understanding historical context when writing your novel

Why historical context matters to your novel

The words “historical context” might sound daunting, but what it only means is “what things were like and how it affects other stuff”. Simple, right?

For example, different eras have their own sets of social norms, values and attitudes. You need to consider how characters deal with and adhere to these norms, which might be different from modern times. Some things you simply would not do a century ago that can be perfectly normal in today’s society.

Historical context also includes things like cultural influences, the political landscape, social hierarchies and technological advancement. That’s why, when you’re researching these things, you need to understand how they affect your characters and how they might be different from today’s context.

And why does it matter? I assume you want to stay as authentic as possible while still letting yourself be creative, and you don’t want to distract your readers with blatant inaccuracies. You’re allowed to have creative freedom, but if your readers go “hmm, that simply wouldn’t happen” when they’re reading your novel, you risk losing them completely.

Remember that setting is both time AND place

So, you’re writing about the past. But where on Earth are you?

Even these days with the spread of the internet, people and conditions aren’t the same all over the world. Your friend across the world might have the same access to Tiktok as you do but that doesn’t mean the social conditions around them are the same. It’s the same when you’re thinking about the past: nor everyone in the world has the same living conditions or technological advancement, just to give you two examples.

When you’re doing research, double-check what applies to your chosen location. Even if you’re an American writing about the United States, there can still be big differences across the country.

Where to start when planning your historical setting

Where to start planning your historical novel

If you feel overwhelmed about planning and researching the setting of your historical novel, I’ve got two easy options for you: zoom in or zoom out.

When you zoom in, you start from the bigger stuff like world events or politics, and then you move on to smaller things like culture and everyday life, and finally to family units and what people did at home.

You can also do the same the other way round, so you start from the small stuff and then move on to bigger. Just remember that the bigger stuff will always have an effect on the smaller stuff, but the smaler stuff won’t necessarily have an effect on the bigger stuff.

Notable historical events taking place during your story

Should you include historical events in your story

If there were important historical events taking place during the time period you’re writing about, you might want to include them or mention them in your story. If your story takes place in England in 1912, it could be odd if no one mentioned Titanic, for example.

That said, you do have to take into account how news travelled at that time and if people would even care. JFK’s death might mean nothing to a farmer in Romania, and before radio, it could take weeks for news to travel between faraway countries.

Unusual weather events are another thing that could be fun to include in your story! If it was unusually cold that year or if there was a hurricane that destroyed multiple villages, that could bring something interesting to your story.

The easiest way to find these important events is to go on Wikipedia. If you were writing about, say, Britain in 1993, you could check out this Wikipedia article that lists all the notable events of that year. (Please don’t come at me for suggesting that 1993 is history, I was alive then too!) Just make sure the events you choose to include actually contribute to your story and don’t appear ham-fisted and random.

Culture in historical fiction and what it means

Don't forget culture from your historical fiction novel

Sometimes people think culture only means stuff like theatre and literature, but actually everyting we do is “culture”. You might not realise what counts as culture because you’re like a fish swimming in the ocean who doesn’t understand what “water” is.

There are endless things you could think of and research for the culture in your historical fiction novel, so instead of overwhelming yourself and getting stuck in the research phase, it’s better to stick to the things that would have an effect on your story and anything directly relevant. If your story takes place in a big city, it might not be relevant to research what people did on their free time in the countryside.

Thinking about culture is easy: Just imagine yourself dropped into a scene of your novel in the era that you’re writing about. How are people acting? Who talks to whom? What do they eat? What do they wear? Think about both public and private spaces.

Those were, of course, very concrete details that you’re able to observe. But what’s behind them? That’s culture, too. Why do all the women walk in groups? Why are there only men in the restaurants? Why are they dressed like that and not in some other way? Why do they address each other like that? Norms and values affect how people behave and present themselves, even if those things on their own are invisible.

Here’s a list of a few more things you can consider when researching culture for your historical fiction novel: what people ate, what languages did they speak, who did they admire, how and what they celebrated, what people did on their spare time and on vacation, did people travel, how did they visit friends and family, what did people do for fun and entertainment and what kinds of things you simply did NOT do.

More than likely there will be different social classes (more on that soon) in your story world, so do remember that wealthy people wouldn’t be doing the same things and going to the same places and poor or working class people.

How people spoke

How people spoke and what kind of words they used can be a part of culture as well, but you don’t want to overwhelm your reader.

Your dialogue doesn’t have to be 100% authentic, especially if it’s vastly different from the way modern people speak, because that can be distracting rather than immersing for your reader. The occasional change in sentence structure and vocabulary is enough to clue your reader in what era your characters belong in.

Also, do your best to remember not to use modern words and expressions – a character in Victorian England probably wouldn’t say the vibes are off. Do what you gotta do when you’re writing your first draft, but weed out incorrect word usage when you’re editing.

Researching politics for historical fiction

Do politics affect the story of your historical fiction novel?

I admit: I don’t have a big interest in politics and I don’t care to read about it. Still, the fact is that political decisions and the poitical climate will affect the everyday life of your characters.

Wars and conflicts are a very obvious example of how politics can affect life. If there’s a war taking place during the time period of your story – it’s World War II, isn’t it? – you would need to think of how your characters are affected by the war directly and indirectly. For example, would they have to be enlisted and could they potentially get killed? That’s pretty direct. Or do they only struggle with rationing and trying to get food on the table?

Even if there isn’t a war going on, political decisions can still affect your plot and your characters. Take some time to research what kind of big changes there were during that era and if people weren’t allowed to do things that they can do now. Also take note on who’s in power, who upholds the law and what are the consequences of breaking laws or for resisting the people in power.

Some other things to research: What were the reasons and the consequences of wars and other conflicts, what kind of power imbalances were there and how could people take action if they didn’t like what people in power were doing.

What is economy and why does it matter to your novel?

Economy doesn’t initially sound like something that would have anything to do with writing fiction, but much like with politics, it has an effect on your characters’ everyday lives.

What did people use as currency? Was there a lot of money going around and how was wealth distributed? That’s economy for you. In the very least, you’d need to know what people paid with and how easy was money to come by and spend.

Other things for you to research: Items and materials that people valued, what industries and tradespeople were there and how different countries and areas traded with each other.

Don’t forget economical classes

Wealth distribution and what jobs people do put people into economical classes. Are there working class, middle class and upper class people in your story? Or just poor people and rich people? You need to find out.

You might be focusing on just one group of people and so it might seem like you don’t need to know about the others, but class is going to give you important context. The foods they eat and the clothes they wear can be vastly different from other classes, and you shouldn’t forget this when you’re researching any other aspects of your novel.

Technology in historical fiction

How to research historical technology for your story

The level of technological advancement can have a massive effect on your plot. Think about it. What if your protagonist had to deliver a message to his brother? Would he use a phone or telegram? If he sent a letter, how long would it take to arrive? If he had to deliver the message himself, would he take a train, ride a stagecoach or go on foot?

Communication and transportation are probably some of the most important things to consider when you’re researching technology for your historical fiction novel, but there are other inventions and innovations that could be relevant. Some of them might not even be used anymore but they could still be very commonplace in the time period that you’re writing about.

Think about people’s homes. Are there electric lights or gas lights? Candles or lanterns? What did people prepare their food with? Those are things that you might only mention in passing but they’re still important for authenticity.

You also need to remember that many things weren’t always called the same and people didn’t talk about them the same way. For example, asking “Are you on the telephone?” might not have meant you wanted to know if someone was currently talking on the phone because it actually meant “Is your home connected to a telephone line?” Likewise, household appliances like the washing machine could be called something different, like a twin tub.

The daily life of your historical fiction characters

What do your historical novel's characters do every day?

The topics that we’ve already discussed touch the daily life as well, but it’s still an aspect you need to do research on specifically. Daily life is pretty hard to escape, no matter what you write about.

Now, you don’t need to include everything in your story. Your reader doesn’t need to see your character’s full daily routine but it’s important for you to know it. If they need to get water from the well and feed the animals first thing in the morning, then you know there would be consequences if they went on an adventure instead when they woke up.

Knowing details about your character’s daily life also helps you “show” rather than “tell”. If your character lives in a castle with maids, you don’t need to mention she’s rich. If she needs to milk the cows each day, it’s pretty obvious she lives in the countryside. And once again, remember social class, because that’s going to heavily affect what people spend their time on.

Other things to research when thinking about the daily life of your characters: common jobs, a typical family unit and family dynamics and typical housing, what normal dishes were like and what foods were hard to come by.

Health and medicine in your historical fiction world

Medical history might not interest you as much as it interests me, but it can still be an important for your story. Who did people go to when they were ill? Who dealt with childbirth? Where did people get medicine from? These things can bring interesting conflicts to your story as well as inspire new characters.

Common health problems might also be something that your characters could have to deal with. Maybe there’s an epidemic, whether it’s the plague or diptheria, or maybe people commonly suffer from malnutrition.

Should you research religion and beliefs?

Religion and beliefs in your historical novel

Even if your characters aren’t actively involved in religion, the church and beliefs could still affect their lives. You don’t need to be a practising Christian to celebrate Christmas, and if the stores are closed on Sundays… the stores are closed on Sundays.

You would need to know what’s the dominant religion in the time and place that you’re writing about and probably what other religions you might likely ecounter. Notable religious people could have had more power back then and they would have likely been more removed from the regular folk than in modern days. (Not saying that the Pope shops at Lidl even in 2023.)

If your characters are religious, how does this show up in their daily lives? Do they adhere to specific religious practices or are they even persecuted? And where do people worship – is it at a home altar, a lavish church or at a school that also works as a church? These things would most likely show up in your story.

Other things regarding religion that you might need to think about: common beliefs, what happened if you went against religion, what deities people worshipped or believed in, what religious holidays there were and how religion was present at important occasions like funerals and weddings.

Get the historical fiction planner and make researching your novel easy

You could bookmark this blog post and keep coming back to it, or you could go the easy route and get my historical fiction planner from my Etsy shop.

This planner gives you all the different things you need to research and you can easily keep your notes organised. You can fill it out digitally, or if you’re like me and you prefer pen and paper, you can also print it out. It keeps you focused while you’re doing research and it’s easy to refer to when you need to find information.

Final notes on doing research for historical fiction

When you make it your mission to craft authentic and captivating historical fiction, remember that it’s not just about dressing your characters in period attire – it’s about immersing them in their era.

Whether your characters find solace in the church bells tolling on a Sunday morning or navigate the social hierarchies of the French court, historical context breathes life into your story. You don’t need to be a time traveler to experience the past.

But as your characters walk on cobblestone streets and whisper secrets in grand cathedrals, remember that it’s still always about the story. You can write the most realistic and intricate setting there is, but your reader will never be taken there unless your story grabs them by the hand and pulls them in. To learn more about writing irresistible stories, you might want to start from learning about story structure.


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