National Novel Writing Month:

Can I Do Historical Fiction?

How to Research a Period in 30 Days or Less

This comes up from several people every October on the NaNoWriMo forums -- mainly because no one is much there the three months earlier that they should have started. Then some poor soul starts a thread asking for sources.

Now, you and I know that they want a couple of sites where, for a few hours of work, they can know everything they need to set a book "in the Middle Ages" or "in the Twenties" or "in the Civil War." (Um, which civil war, folks? British? French? Mexican? American? Roman?) After all, they seem to think, how much can there be to learn? At first, finding these, you laugh at their "instant fix" wishfulness. In a few years you just roll your eyes. Now, I just wish they'd give us some better criteria.

O ye historical newbie, all the answer people wish you would tell us ...

1) the country. The Middle Ages in France and England are notoriously different, as are Los Angeles and New York in "the Thirties." Face it: the USA is several times the size of Western Europe and, except for the use of English, can be very disparate. Its regions count like European countries. Make this as tight as possible: Yorkshire, not England, or even just York and its vicinity is your story isn't travelling much. Otherwise, you'll get a bunch of irrelevant stuff about London.

2) the class, age, and gender of your main character. A 25-year-old male farmer lives a different life than a wealthy merchant's 16-year-old daughter.

3) a year, not a decade or a century or era. It is better to say "around 1923" than "the Twenties," starting with "the Twenties" is not an integral period, except on a calendar, promoted by really lazy history writers (I won't even call them historians) or editors. Almost all decades are fake divisions. 1928 is rather different than 1923, and 1932 very different than 1938, but 1928 and 1932 aren't as different, though they are in different calendar decades, and on different sides of The Crash. In the 14th century, 1328 is way different than 1378, even in France. (There's a little pan-Eurasian trauma in there called the Black Death.)

4) what you want your character to do, that's important to you and the story. What the character does is called the plot, and if your plot requires going to the Holy Land on Crusade, that's a certain time window because those Crusades weren't happening all the time. If the character is going to be an early woman doctor or lawyer, there's a cut-off start date for different areas of the world. If the character is going to be a wife who owns property, it has to be after the Married Women's Property Act and such. Your plot may fit another country or era that you couldn't well pick, with your vague sketchy knowledge. Tell us what you need your character to do, and we can make better suggestions as to location and era. No, no one is going to "steal your plot" from this. Starting with there are no such things as new plots: it's all been done before. You're stealing someone else's already, even if you don't realize it.

If someone thinks the people who wasted, ah, spent their time answering the person's questions are just too picky about mere facts -- "This is historical fiction!" -- they should not be writing it with expectations of greatness (I mean, you can write anything, including about pet gerbils kidnapped by The Lost Socks).

Because, to the readers, it's historical fiction. You're supposed to be their time machine for a visit in the period. Sure you can have eccentric characters, but you can't have the whole society way off from what it ought to be.

The fiction only is in the characters you create and their adventures: you do not "fictionalize" a setting. It's just the wrong word. If you change the setting, it's called alternative history, and that's a form of specfi in which the changes have to be given a reason for existing that's important to the plot, and the rest of that can of worms. If you don't give your changes the althist treatment, then it's called lazy writer or ignorant author. No one wants that.

My favorite story about an author who thought facts and heavy research were optional took place at the Star Market on Beretania in Honolulu (since absorbed into the Times chain). I saw an obviously Hawai'ian woman pick a novel off the rack, read the back, and put it back with a look of disgust. When I got there, I saw it was about a fictional Princess Raiulani of the Hawai'ian royal line. I at least checked inside before putting it back. When I glanced back as I turned out of the aisle, I saw someone else putting it back.

The author was advertising that she had done extremely little research. I would guess she knew something about Maori, who are also Polynesians, and thought that was good enough though the languages as well as the cultures are quite distinct -- starting with the Maori never had a Europeanized monarchy. Maybe she researched Tahitians, instead. But not Hawai'ian language, in the least, so it was unlikely she knew anything about the culture.

How did we know this by a mere glance at the cover?

There is no R in the Hawai'ian language. The historical Princess Kaiulani could be fictionalized as Haiulani, Maiulani, Paiulani, but never Raiulani.

What should have been her best market for the book became her worst, because ...

by skipping research she was disrespecting her readers' intelligence and knowledge.

Since the later 1970s, every schoolchild in the state learns some Hawai'ian. She couldn't even get straight the common terms malahini and kama'aina. (Newcomer and non-Hawai'ian native-born.) You get that in the tourist literature on the flight in, so you don't try to demand the kama'aina specials. None of us wanted to spend the money to find how much else she got wrong.

So just as writers look dumb when they put a silencer on a revolver, they look dumb when they don't do or ignore other research -- especially in the most research-heavy genre, historical fiction.

Back to the big question: can you go from a vague movie-fed idea to ready for time-travel in thirty days?

My mother raised her children on the idea that we could do anything we wanted to, provided we were willing to put in the work necessary.

I would like to amend that with short people don't make pro basketball players, and starting after a certain age you will never be able to hit certain ballet poses for more than your own satisfaction. If you are a slooow reader, no, you can't do this in 30 days because you have to knock off a book every day or so.

If you can read that fast, or you have some background (like it's Near History so you've seen lots of movies of the period, not just about the period), yeah, you can do it. It'll make writing 1700 words a day look easier, by comparison, than reading 50-100,000 a day.

First, you need a guide. You can't trawl research sources to find relevant books and do the reading. Some of my guides for 50 Books will help. Whenever possible, I've put links in them. Books to download free -- easy. Books to buy, you need to find at the library or order them in the first week of October, if not earlier. Make sure they're shipped first class, rather than media mail, or you won't get them in time.

Also, as the last person in the original group with a surviving interest, I am now hosting Historical Novelist's Center, whose unsorted lists may give you specialty books you need. I add and update links as I can.

Now, the 50 Books concept is based on the idea that you have the time to read and be thorough. We're talking a NaNoWriMo zero draft here. Spelling and punctuation are optional! So don't worry about authentic period voice, huh? It's not about style. It's about figuring what will work for the plot and where the characters are coming from mentally, socially, and legally when they make their decisions. December for polishing, November for story-telling.

For NNWM, I have found it works perfectly well to type <<describe street>> or <<describe opera house and audience>> and then get on with the dramatic interactions. What I needed to know is that there was an opera house in that town, or whether restaurants, rather than chophouses or taverns, were where they would eat, not what kind of chandeliers they had. Unless I needed them accidentally to set fire to the place, in which case I'd better know if the lighting is flame or bulb.

Ask people on the forum what they consider the one book you must have to write in the period well. That's given as a special at the top of each of the guides I put up, if I have one you can use.

Let's see if I can cut the core 30 down to a bare bones of 20 or less. Remember, you will have special areas you will need to research for your particular story. From December, do the regular 50 Books and correct or fill in as you need. The ones you don't need so much I'll shove to the right. If you happen to have one or find one, great.

 1). A general history of the time, not over 200 pages.
I would count crawling links all over Wikipedia your first day. Do remember wikis can have unproven statements, but usually in contemporary controversial subjects. But so can printed encyclopedias! I'll never forget a 1990s Britannica that claimed the ancient Egyptians had iron wheels on their chariots, when no one ever used metal wheels on chariots. Remember, opinions on some interpretations change, though the facts like dates rarely do. Use Wikipedia's Create a Book function to save all the good pages, then organize it and download it as a PDF on your machine for fast reference.

Remember the principle that your earliest, lowest-level research is the most likely to be corrected by later research.

2.) An "everyday life" book of the period.
You don't have time to flail around with all ages. Most of these cover "the Middle Ages" or "the Victorian Age" and that's quite loose enough -- really, too loose. Look in the YA section of the library, not the children's, and check adult, too. If it's Near History, you can also crawl Retronaut, for a couple of hours, which has more humor than not. They do have a chunk of 1800s and earlier, mostly odd objects like artificial hands of the 1500s.

3.) General transportation
Find out how people get around town, then worry about long distance only if someone has to sail the Channel or fly the Atlantic or take a train overnight. There are sources in the 50 Books guides. You may need long-range travel times to co-ordinate events. If you can't find them in October, swear, write on, and revise it in December.

4.) General costume
12.) Specific dress styles, for your decade.

   You need about 20 minutes on general costume, just to see if your guessed-at year is something you can't deal with. Costumers Manifesto is a free online resource for this. Wikipedia is poor on costume.
   When you have a year, you want the main outline of clothes, so you know if ladies have lots of petticoats or one of those hardware underskirts like hoop skirts, bustles, or panniers. Search for your year and place: again, French and English fashions can be rather different, let alone Norman and Anglo-Saxon.
   In Near History, dress changes fast: anything five years old is out of fashion and next year's is only barely imaginable. If you're setting in 1976, you don't care what they wore in 1969 or 1978. (And please remember, by 1970 "Mod" = "out of fashion": I'm hearing people call Disco shag carpet "Mod.")
   Also free: A History of Costume by Carl Köhler, edited and augmented by Emma von Sichart, and translated by Alexander K. Dallas (1930; New York, G. Howard Watt).
   That gets you into Near History. Then you look for copies of Photoplay Magazine and other fashion sources at Internet Archive. You can get a general idea of your specific costume just in an hour or two, just so you know where the hems are and whether men wear trousers or tights. Don't get married to any descriptions of "sexy clothes" you invent without research: you probably have them wrong for the era. Just insert <<describe how sexy he/she is>> and go on. I still remember, like a vivid nightmare, a romance where the heroine wound up dressed from the latest Frederick's of Hollywood catalog though it was something like 1830 and there were no lace stockings, suspender garter belts, or the like. Another had a Cavalier wearing a black satin shirt and skin-tight breeches (white linen, always, and really baggy breeches). Descriptions make words, but they don't make story -- if you want to finish the draft with the important stuff, skip the sunsets and ballgowns anyway and get on with the interactions.

 5.) Specific transportation
The later in time you are, the more this matters, as you have more choices. For now, just say the person drives a carriage, and worry later whether it's a curricle or a dogcart. Especially December for which colour, year, and model of sedan or roadster. Me, I just ask my husband for Near History automobiles: he carries it in his head. Ask on the Historical Fiction forum and get back to writing without waiting for the answer. With luck, I'll spot your question and ask him.

6.) Etiquette, and I don't mean morals for maidens.
I still consider this crucial because these are the books about how the upper classes spend their days, and what the middle classes imitate. You can learn so much about the world through these. When I was in high school, my best friend got a 1914 etiquette book. The world it revealed, of calling cards and paying visits, precise parameters for dress by time of day, event, and season, was a stunning revelation. I've been collecting old etiquette books ever since as one of the best portals to the past. However, before 1830 or so, it's Lord Chesterfield from the 1780s; from there back to the Renaissance, it's Castiglione, then The Babees' Book, for English Renaissance, then for the Middle Ages it's the Knight of La Tour Landry. In earlier periods, you can learn as much if not more about etiquette reading the fiction of the day, like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Check the Library of Congress's American Memory site for their Dance Manuals, of all things. It isn't all American, in fact none is until the early 1800s, and foreign books continue strong after that.

7.) Spectator entertainments, a general overview.
8.) Self-entertainments
Let's lump these together. Don't devote 2000 words to a theatrical entertainment's description if you haven't studied theatre of the time: put down <<description of play>> and pass on to what's discussed in the box or on the benches. Presentation was all extremely different before electric lighting. Equally, don't put too much wordage into the description of card play when you may find out they didn't have cards yet, or only the wealthy did. For example, Texas Hold 'Em is a relatively new form of poker and would look way out of place in the Disco Era, let alone earlier. If your story is set in the theatre, you do need to know the styles and limits of their time. My suggestion is to go to Amazon or Alibris and get a textbook for Theatre History. Also, don't rely on everything before 1960 being "ballroom dancing" position: your cavalier is not closely holding the lady he dances with, but only touching her hand.

9.) Public Hospitality, including food and dining, including what sort of public dining was available, as well as where a stranger in town stays.
Restaurants are modern. This topic includes table manners, as in some times and places men and women do not dine at the same table, or the rigors of seating by rank mean you don't get to choose whom you sit with. An etiquette book may cover it, or in earlier times you will need a book or site on dining out or public hospitality. It's naturally important to know whether your characters will go to a hotel, a hummums, an inn, a caravanserai run by the government, or put up in the back rooms of the big temple.

 10.) Recipes for period food.
Just type <<describe the sumptuous/vulgar/piteous meal served>> and go on. December for what that entails.

11.) Marriage and family.
Modern marriage laws and attitudes are generally more or less wrong before 1970. The farther back you get, the less married women are human. Kitchin, S. B. , B.A., LL.B.; A History of Divorce ; 1912; London : Chapman & Hall, Ltd., covers all but Near History. Frankly, unless you watch 1930s movies, you've probably never heard of a breach of promise suit, but I pivoted my 2012 NaNo on it.

13.) Religion for the time and place.
Only if you're going in religious places. If your plot is very oriented to religious subjects, you may have this down well enough from whatever got you interested. But if you haven't done your reading, it's not wise to pivot your plot on an uneducated guess.
14.) A fat history book of the area and century as an introduction
15.) A history of the most influential country at the time (country A).
16.) A history of its rival (country B).
17.) A biography of the leader of country A
18.) A biography of the leader of country B
19.) A history of the country you are setting in, general.

20.) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
A large encyclopedia article may do. You don't want to lose a war or misplace a Crusade. If you refer to a famous event of the past, make sure you have the date right.

 21.) A biography of the leader of the country of your setting.

22.) An everyday life for the commoner/lower classes of your time and place.
This is both the peasant farmer and the outlaw.

23.) An everyday life for the upper classes of your time and place.

24.) An everyday life for the middle class of your time and place.

25.) An everyday life for women of your time and place.
Because the other books will often ignore how women spend their day, or give an inaccurate stereotype.

Once you know your city or country, and year, these four are the most important books you can get. This is life, and how your characters think and believe, and what shocks or soothes them, what they fight for or against. That is, if they're good everyday life books. An "Everyday Life in the Middle Ages," claiming to cover life for 1000 years, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean, and from the Atlantic to the Danube, is obviously giving you very sketchy information, with bits from all over or having the practices of one time and place stand for all -- which is just wrong. Especially, England rarely represents common Continental practices, whether in 50 BC or 1860.

26.) An auto/biography of someone like your protagonist, or a book as much as possible focused on people like that. Mainly because these are so hard to run down in some cases. If you can find one, or are inspired by one, it often gives you a great relevant chunk of the everyday life.

27.) A book on houses and furnishings of the period, if possible.
Because you may make the house or furniture integral to the plot. You can't hide in the closet when the houses don't have closets, or sneak down the hall past closed doors when there aren't halls, just rooms opening into rooms. What's the heating? How much privacy do you have? Illustrated History of Furniture from the Earliest to the Present Time by Frederick Litchfield (1903; London: Truslove & Hanson Limited; New York; illustrated by John Lane 1892-1903) will get you through some of the basics for free. In Near History, you can find pre-fab house catalogs and decorating books at Internet Archive. In the later 1800s Godey's Lady's Book had a house plan every month.

28.) A book about courting, romance, and sex of the time.
You need it if you can find it. If you can't find it, fake it, though that's asking a lot of faking in a romance novel. Which may explain why many histfi writers say histrom is only fancy-dress romance, not usually historical enough to mention. With occasional exceptions of wonderul care that let me immerse myself -- yeah, most histrom ranges from the cliche to the hideously ignorant and confused, unless it's Western histrom. (Harlequin Historicals, I'm looking at you.)

 29.) A book for naming historical characters properly.
Baby name books are so wrong. They are all modern names, including that what is male or female may have changed. But for November you can use anything! Just don't get married to it. Ashley may have to become Helena or Maude to not sound stupidly modern. There may be sites for you: check the 50 Books guides for your period.

30.) Medicine of the time and place.
For general use, try the freebie, A History of Medicine, 1945 Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd;. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, New York; it covers around 500 BC to 1940 CE. There's a nice history of the treatment of bone fractures up to the 1500s from 1936: it includes information on the Winnebago and Dakota tribes, along with the expected European.

31.) Climate, weather, and seasons.
This may be one book on climate history that you use for many periods. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 by Brian M. Fagan (2001, Basic Books) is an example, as it covers what are often considered the most popular centuries for histfi, 900-1900. In Near History, newspaper archives will tell you when the big blizzard shut down the city.

Dang! I got it down to 18!

Of course, you need to go to the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection site for historical maps and links to other map sites.

That doesn't mean you have only 18 days of reading. This is your basics of everyday life. After this you have things particular to your story.

Now consider your plot plans. This is where you have to ask for help, early in the month, so there's time to do the reading after you locate the book.

If there's even the threat of violence, you need to look into weapons and combat. To my astonishment, my research for 1937 showed that karate was pretty non-existent until the 1950s, except in Okinawa, and then it was covert -- except they were teaching it at the Honolulu YMCA. For the 1930s, the martial art for your bully-trap to have is jiu-jitsu (not jujitsu, not judo). What guns are available? Are guns available? Modern research has shown gonnes in the Hundred Years War, not just the Renaissance.

If it's a war story, do not do not do not! assume that the old armies worked anything like ours before 1910. European and Near-Eastern armies sending out scouts to locate the enemy is a behavior of no earlier than the 1700s from what I can find, heavily influenced by the North American wars. I have read too many first-person medieval accounts of armies just tripping over each other unexpectedly, and they send out light skirmishers to harass each other while the heavy troops armour up. It seems scouting is, at best, post-Renaissance. After the Renaissance, who's in charge of a unit is whoever raised it or whoever bought a commission, until Near History. Our concept of the professional military with training from the bottom up and people assigned to different units at will just hadn't been imagined yet. The Western military was still heavily influenced by the idea of the feudal lord bringing his knights and their men at arms, and they weren't going to be broken up to work in a bunch of strangers.

Also, remember our modern ideas of "fair chase" hunting date back only to Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900s. Before then, your Old World hunters will use dogs, and noble hunters make a deer hunt an army-like procedure with dozens or scores of dogs and huntsmen. Of course, then they may face stags with a short sword, or spear a wild boar from horseback (so dangerous a feat it was considered a worthy knightly deed).

For watercraft powered by wind or muscle, I already ran up A Little List for Lubbers to speed up your searches.

If you have an orphan, you need to find out how orphans were handled back then. Foster homes are largely 1960s forward. Look up "orphan asylums" and "state homes," as well as "orphanages." Before Near History, the wealthy will have guardians, and the poor, if over 14, usually get booted out to work in the world. Certainly 16 year-olds. You have to remember that these weren't "children" in the working classes through most of history. In many times and places, they may be ignored by the state, or sent to work in the mines.

... and so on.

As Retronaut used to say, "The past is a foreign country. This is your passport." Now you get to build the time machine, or at least time-viewer, in your head. But remember, it's foreign and they do things differently.

Good luck and happy (research) hunting!


 50 Books for:

The Peloponnese, 396 BC 

 Early Viking, c. 850

The First Crusade, Outre-Mer 1098 

 The Hundred Years War, France1352

Richelieuan France, 1630

Pirate Caribbean, 1670 

 Napoleonic London Highlife 1803

Regency London Highlife 1817

Los Angeles, 1817

Mexico, 1846-8

 London Low-Life 1870

 Gilded Age New York 1898


Return to introduction.

Near History Lists 

1926 New York

1931 New York

1934 New York

1937+ Los Angeles

1937+ Europe

1943 New York

1940+ Europe


 1940+ London

There's more available to read, but mostly lighter stuff, as well as lots more in video. A few appropriate movies from a year are much easier to get through than a detail biography of a president and will tell you more about ordinary life.

Return to introduction.