How to Research Before Writing Historicals, part 1

I’m a history lover, an avid reader, and an experienced novelist, so writing fiction set far in the past should be as easy as plucking ripe berries. Or so I thought.

What I learned can give you a running start in researching your own historical:

● Including too few historical facts may allow for a clean, straight plot, but will leave a book barren of reader delights.

● Too many historical facts can smother the story.

● Errors in fact or chronology — failing to catch anachronisms — can cost you savvy readers.

● The bulk of your focus must be on the story.

Read a variety of historical sources. You’ll tend to gravitate toward historians and biographers who take the same views you do, but you may glean some of your most useful facts from those who don’t. When writing To Die For, I relied on Eric Ives, Anne Boleyn’s principal biographer. We both viewed Anne sympathetically.

But to get a well-rounded picture, as well as to maintain credibility with readers who don’t hold Anne in affection, I also read historians who viewed her in a different light.

I also relied on books long out of print, often available on or I found a 1964 biography on Thomas Wyatt, a key character in my story.

Local universities will often help you find academic articles through JSTOR (a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources). Google Books offers a wide variety of out of print works now in public domain.

Never has historical material been so readily available. But it is also allows readers to check your facts.

Highlight principal sources, then log the information.

I often have an office supply store chop the spines off my research books, then coil bind the pages to make them easier to turn and highlight.

I then transfer these notes onto one chronological outline so I have in order, in one document, all the events I deem important. This does more than help keep my facts straight. The facts themselves suggest plot story ideas.

● Organize your notes by topic. If you’re looking for wedding traditions in the Regency era, you won’t have to wade through pages of off-topic materials. Later, when you write promotional blogs, you’ll have these sources at hand.

Next: Enlisting help and visiting locations.

Bestselling author and Guild Craftsman mentor Sandra Byrd has published more than forty books. Her adult fiction debut, Let Them Eat Cake, was a Christy Award finalist, as was her first historical novel, To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. Library Journal named To Die For a Best Books Pick for 2011 and The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr a Best Books Pick for 2012. Her most recent book is Roses Have Thorns: A Novel of Elizabeth I.

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