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4 Tips for Historical Research in Fiction Writing

Writing fiction that is not set in the modern neighborhood next door requires extensive front-end work, using research tools and techniques beyond just reading other novels set in the same milieu. Published novels do get things wrong sometimes.


America’s two-hundred-odd years of history can be a lot of background information to cover for a writer bent on historical research,” says Travis Heermann, author of Heart of the Ronin, an historical fantasy novel set in medieval Japan. “And it’s even worse if your story is set in an ancient land like Japan or China. You have to become an ‘expert’ on your story’s time and place. If you don’t, you’ll lose credibility—and readers—fast.


Here are a few quick tips to get you started on becoming an ‘expert’:


1. Get a library card. Unless you’re prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on research materials, the library is your best source for historical and cultural information about your chosen time and place. The bigger the library, the better. Even if you live in a small town, you can get hard-to-find books from far-flung distant libraries on inter-library loan, and all you have to pay is the cost for them to ship the book to you.


2. If you want to set a story in a particular period, it is best to start with more easy-reading general books on that period’s history, rather than jumping neck-deep into a pile of dusty scholarly tomes, crammed with dry language. The general books make it easier to digest the waves of unfamiliar names and places, and provide a background knowledge that you can hone to a sharp point by delving into the more complex scholarly works later. The longer and deeper you conduct your research, the more you will absorb the little details that will give your story the sense of verisimilitude that it needs.


3. Go there. If you know where your story takes place and your budget permits, there is no substitute for taking your own eyeballs and perceptions to the places where Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, and Elliott Ness lived and breathed. You will get an instantly clearer feel for an astonishing number of small details, such as climate, vegetation, the lay of the land, the greater feeling of the place. And this knowledge will come through in your story.


4. Make the Oxford English Dictionary your new best friend. (If you think this is one single volume available in any bookstore, think again. With about five million entries, the omnibus O.E.D. is the definitive history of the English language, consisting of dozens of volumes containing the complete history of every word ever used in English. At this writing, you can only find it in larger libraries, but there are rumors that it will appear online in the future.) English usage changes astonishingly fast over the decades and centuries. Whether you are writing an homage to Jane Austen or an Elizabethan epic, the O.E.D. can be an invaluable resource to help you determine whether a particular word is anachronistic. For example, I would not recommend using any psychological terms in a story set prior to the 20th Century. Words like "paranoid," "depression," and "schizophrenic" simply did not exist, and there is no faster way to jolt your reader out of a story.