7 Easy Ways to Research a Historical Novel (What I Learned Writing Storming)

7 Easy Ways to Research a Historical Novel (What I Learned Writing Storming)

This week’s video offers seven can’t-ignore tips for streamlining your process in figuring out how to research a historical novel–or any type of novel.

Video Transcript:

Storming K.M. WeilandI hope you’ve enjoyed this series of lessons I learned while writing my historical/dieselpunk novel Storming—which releases in one week on Dec. 4th! This is the series’ fourth and last video.

As you may know, I write historical and speculative fiction, and Storming was special since it combined both by taking a historical setting—barnstorming in 1920s Nebraska—and adding some ’punk elements. And for those who don’t know, “dieselpunk” is just “steampunk” that’s set somewhere in between the World Wars.

Even though this isn’t a strictly realistic story, it still required lots of research, into time and place and particularly early aviation. Because this is something I’m often asked about, today I’m going to share my top seven tips for researching a historical novel–or really any kind of novel.

1. Start Researching Now

Whenever I happen to stumble upon an interesting fact that pertains to any story idea, I make a note and save it.

2. Write Your Outline Before Your Official Research

Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. WeilandThis allows you to learn the specific questions that need answering during research.

3. List All the Topics You Need to Learn About.

Then search your libraries and Amazon to find your resources.

4. Limit Your Research

Either simply read all the way through your initial list of resources, depending how big it is, or set yourself a time limit. Three months is standard for me.

5. Use Your Highlighter

Both physically and the highlighter tool in your e-reader.

6. Type Up Your Notes Every Day

This is biggest tip I have. Notes are useless if you can’t access them, and you cannot beat the accessibility of the “Search” function. It’s worth the outlay of time to transcribe notes in the beginning. The great thing about e-readers is you don’t have to transcribe them. You can email yourself your highlights, then paste them into your research.

7. Organize Notes Into Subheadings

For example, Storming’s research was divided into such headings as “barnstorming,” “anecdotes,” and “wrecks.”

And there you have it! A complete plan for how to research a historical novel or anything else you can dream up!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are your methods for how to research a historical novel–or any other type of novel? Tell me in the comments!

7 Easy Ways to Research a Historical Novel (What I Learned Writing Storming)

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. You asked “What are your methods for researching a historical novel…”
    Read – read – read – read – read.
    The notes become embedded in my head.
    The books are on my shelf.
    For quick reference…
    Wikipedia distills specific facts and leads to further historical sources.
    Google maps show me where it happened.

  2. I usually get a few books on the subject, and take from them what I need. Sometimes that’s enough—for the Battle of the Little Bighorn, biographies were all I really needed, but for my Victorian England stories, I had a hard time finding period-specific details in the books I had, so I did online research for what I wanted, and I found a lot there. That’s for my historical fiction; for my fantasy books, I pretty much wing it. If I need some information on survival or something like that, I look for it, but otherwise it’s pretty loose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Books are my go-to for research, but I agree: the Internet is hard to beat for finding answers to uber-specific questions.

  3. Write Your Outline First.
    Type Notes Daily.

    Great insights and reminders. Thank you, the Great Waldo Pepper.

  4. I read, take notes, gather photos, and put them all into a notebook so I can flip through them. The limiting of time spent researching is great advice, as one can easily get lost in the research. 🙂

    While writing, I don’t do any more research. If I end up with something I missed, I make a note of it and move on. <-That last bit is crucial and I didn't realize that at first.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That last is extremely important advice. I prefer to shut the Internet off when writing, just to remove myself from the temptation of “oh, I’ll just pop on and research this one little question real fast.”

  5. All very good points but let me share another point which I mentioned awhile back. With my first novel, I was so engrossed with historical accuracy, that parts of the story suffered. I’m not saying be like Hollywood and be totally oblivious to historical accuracy. Just don’t let it hijack your writing.

  6. I use the Internet as a starting point, especially tools like Google Maps and Wiki, glean the salient points then look up source documents to validate content I need. I think that historical novels like any other genre requires as much knowledge about culture as places and events.

    Again, I’ve read enough of your work to feel these are elements you’ve covered.

  7. Curtis Manges says

    This may be going overboard, but I’ve gone as far as taking classes. On an earlier project, one of my characters got a mild concussion and another got a bone fracture, and they were otherwise alone in a remote location. I couldn’t recall enough of my Boy Scout first-aid, so I took a weekend class in Wilderness Medicine.

    I’m always taking MOOCs, and not a few of them are specifically targeted at topics in my story.

    For one scene, I wanted to know exactly what was where in the night sky at a specific day and hour in the year 2133 from 1000 km above the Canada-Alaska border. Google wasn’t helpful, but some playing with Stellarium gave me exactly what I needed.

    Some of my second chapter deals with horses and horse-drawn carts. I found an online enthusiast group (The Horse Forum) and simply told them what I was doing and what I needed. One thing that surprised me was the enthusiastic response I received there for wanting to get the details correct, even in a SciFi novel. Many of those people said how much they hated it when writers were sloppy about horse facts. Word to the wise: sticklers for authenticity might be anywhere within your audience.

    Otherwise, I just sit in front of the screen and search for what I need. A lot of times I don’t even wind up using much of it (and sometimes none at all, as in the Stellarium example). Luckily, for me, the research is its own reward.

    If you can find an expert in a field, open a dialog with them. Many people love to share their knowledge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t think that’s going overboard at all. As soon as you said you asked horse people for advice, I was like, “Yeah!” I grew up around horses, so I’m one of those people who get irked when the little details are wrong.

    • Andrea Rhyner says

      I like that you asked people (experts or power users or horse people) for the details. A book can give you facts, but a real user can give you the ‘tips and tricks.’ There’s nothing worse than reading a book and having incorrect details! I was reading a novel the other day by a favorite author, and while he obviously researched Alaska (my home), there were some strange details that were just not right. It didn’t ruin the novel, but it certainly interrupted my “in the book world” enjoyment for a few minutes. Great job!

  8. Andrea Rhyner says

    This is all great advice. I’ve been pasting my research (and noting the associated website or book) into a Word document. This was more for lack of another method more than anything, since this is my first novel and I’m finding my methods and what works for me. I like your comment about the search function, as inevitably the research will get very long and it will be easier to find that one line I need with the search function.

    I highlight special details and color code a lot. I love color coding things. I’m color coding different character arcs or subplots in the novel so if I am about to delete something when I revise or edit, I’ll know what effect it will have on the corresponding plot/arc.

    Thanks for sharing your methods. Every tip helps me !

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Something else I do that I didn’t mention here is re-read through my notes regularly. Every day before writing, I’ll read either a page or a heading section, just to refresh my memory.

  9. Andrea Rhyner says

    That makes a lot of sense! I’m glad you mentioned it. thank you 🙂

  10. Research is what sold me on Scrivener: I could import documents, notes, maps, photos, etc. right into the file. It paid for itself with that feature alone.

    I wish number 3 on your list had been simple for me 🙂

    My trilogy is set in an analogue to the Greco-Roman era. I researched Roman Britain, Roman North Africa, Sassanid Persia, and sea voyages to China. I found a website from Stanford that would tell you how long it took to travel from Londinium to Tarsus (by boat, foot, or carriage) just so I don’t have characters traveling too fast or slow with my made-up cities/countries.

    I read translations of Columella et al to find out who would be living in a character’s estate and how the grapevines would have been arranged and how much wine per acre she’d get and what it would earn. I mostly just needed her to run through the vineyard while monsters were chasing her.

    I wrote to a silversmith to find out what one character’s workshop would smell like (pitch and beeswax). I watched YouTube videos on the lost-wax process, water clocks, and underground houses in Tunisia just to write either a single sentence or a quick description.

    Stray sentences I picked up in articles would send me on further digs: “We know which rooms in houses in Pompeii would have had bookcases …” We would? Was there something unusual about these rooms? It turned out they had alcoves set into walls that the bookcases would have fit into. Good to know when I have characters meeting in libraries.

    I made heavy use of museums, in person and online, as well as the library at my alma mater. I was tickled pink to discover a respected historian referring to the same historical re-enactment site that I had used as a reference (he licensed their photos for his book).

    I did all of this *partly* to avoid the wrath of experts/armchair hobbyists. However, I mainly wanted to flesh out the world and include sensory details. I wanted a character to know she was surrounded by spellbooks because of the scent of myrrh in the air; spells were written with myrrh ink. Knowing that Romans cut their wine with sea water was useful for another character’s spell, because the sea is her domain. At least I could play Pliny the Elder and Herodotus straight when they wrote of fantastic people and creatures. There’s a such thing as a catoblepas? It lives where? Ok then, Mr. Scientist / Historian 🙂

    I wish I could have taken a class! I started this when I was working the night shift so I had to fit it in over time. I am lucky that my chosen time period is so popular. Further lucky that I’m writing a fantasy so I don’t have to be a stickler about details. It would be terrifying to write straight-up historical fiction. The revelation with the bookcases told me that there are questions I never thought of asking.

  11. I’m planning to write an alternate history series after I finish my current project (a science fiction trilogy), so this is really helpful. Especially the bit about getting an outline FIRST so you know what to research. I’ve only recently started outlining and I’ll definitely keep that in mind next year, when I (hopefully) start researching my new series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The conception of a historical idea always starts because I have had least a vague notion of the period already, so I can use that to help me write the outline. I’m not starting *totally* blind, but, as I said in the post, I find it much more time effective to wait and see what information the plot is going to require in the outline.

  12. Kinza Sheikh says

    I have a lot of historical, to-write projects. These tips will be invaluable at that point.
    Though that is not the case with my current WIP, an attempt of epic fantasy. 😉
    A question though, how would you narrow down your research. I mean, any tips on looking and finding books from your library and Amazon from your specific topics?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Often, the things I research are obscure enough that I have the opposite problem: not enough resources. But, for example, my Regency-period WIP Wayfarer offered a wealth of information. Basically, I tried to make sure I had my bases covered on all my specific, obscure questions, then figured out how much time I would have left to read more general, more easily accessible information–and filled out my bibliography with whatever looked meatiest.

      • Kinza Sheikh says

        Hmm, nice tip.
        I am planning on starting soon a historical set in Imperial Japan. So maybe, what I should do is follow the first tip. Start research now, and then begin to actually narrowing down my questions and start the real research once I am done with my other works.
        By then, I will also have much better idea what sort of books to read, and more importantly, what questions to ask.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Sounds like a plan. Since you’re interested in the period anyway, it’s just fun to read about it generally–and you can collect useful tidbits as you go.

  13. Did you received my post? If not, I just lost it, and it was excellent… I’ll have to reform it.
    Mary Ellen Latela @LatelaMary

  14. I usually do preliminary reading before my first draft by reading articles online, and I do more in depth research in-between finishing the first draft and my first two major edits. So far it works for me, even if I once needed to almost completely remove a subplot because it didn’t match up with the lunar cycle at all. The changes actually made the book work out better in the end.

  15. This makes me want to write a historical novel just to get to do the research. I’m playing with an idea now…

  16. Ann Edgeington says

    I’ve been a lurker on your blog for several months, soaking up all the terrific advice. Thanks!
    This particular topic is close to my heart since I am writing my first historical novel. It’s inspired by my grandmother who lived in 1920s France (Burgundy and Paris). I’ve visited the village where she lived and done extensive library, Internet, and Amazon research. But I find I’m missing some pieces and am hampered by the fact that no earlier generations of the family are still alive, so any further family interviews are out. Also, my French language skills are sketchy so even if I were able to find journals and diaries, I would not be sufficiently skilled to read them.
    I feel that there must be some experts out there on these topics, but I’m hitting some dead ends. Any advice to share?

  17. So many good ideas and advices to be found here 🙂

    At first I search for childrens book at the library on the subject. It sparks my curiosity and I can ease into it.

    I am trying to use the bullet journal as well. It is a good way to organize the highlights, facts and ideas. For my current project I have a little bullet journal for setting and places.

  18. I was taking notes during the entire video! … Before I realized the notes were already here in this post. Whoops. This really helped me, and just in time for doing my novel’s research. Thank you so much!

    My outline and structure is complete (thanks to your workbooks!), and I wanted to start writing my scene outline by the weekend, but my resources I’ve requested at the library aren’t ready yet. Is it okay to research during the scene outline, or should you definitely wait until your research is finished?

    I purchased the e-book version of the Structuring Your Novel Workbook, and in the scene part, I found sixty questions listed per Scene. I plan to write fifty Scenes, resulting in three thousand questions before my scene outline is finished…? Am I going about that wrong, or are the questions definitely a necessity for every scene?

    Madi

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually like to do my scene outline before I do my major research, so that I’ll know what questions I need to be asking. Then after the research, I’ll write the first draft.

      As for the questions in the workbook, you need to be aware of the answers to all of them for every scene. But that doesn’t mean you actually need to literally answer them for every scene. Instead, just use the questions as checkpoints to make sure you’re on the right track.

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