Researching History: Daunting, Challenging, and Fun

By Patricia Marcantonio

Unless you have a working time machine hidden away in your office, then you’re going to have to research if you’re writing historical fiction. Be it hitting the books, the Internet, interviewing historians or all of the above, researching the past can be daunting and challenging, but also a lot of fun. 

Researching history will be the topic of my presentation June 26 at the 2021 Historical Novel Society Conference. I’ll cover how to effectively research, where to look for out-of-the-box sources, how much research to include in your writing, and when to stop opening the books and get down to writing. 

If your story takes place in any time other than the now, it will take research. Even ten years ago is history. Say your story is set in 2011, did you know that was the year that a tsunami hit Japan resulting in the death of almost 16,000 people? Or that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured photographic evidence of potential liquid water on Mars? Did you remember that was also the year Prince William married Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey in London and that the United States declared an end to the Iraq War?  

That’s a whole lot going on in history–and to research, which is where the daunting part comes in. The challenge is focusing on what you need to research and learning to spend your time wisely.  

The historical time and place we choose in which to set our story can in itself also add conflict to our novel. For example, setting any story during a war is going to increase the conflict since war is the definition of conflict. Image Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain set in a time other than the Civil War? 

Though research is a challenge and intimidating, your hard work will pay off. Good research can make a reader feel as if your story actually was a part of history. That’s because with the facts you’ve discovered the readers will experience what your characters experience. The most popular dance in the 1920s. The daily life of Roman slaves. The music played during a ball in Victorian England. The costume worn by Aztec warriors. The details you uncover bring your story to life. They draw in the readers and keep them turning pages.  

Of course, looking up those facts is work, but here’s where the fun comes in. You’ll learn how times past compare to times now, or how the past may have influenced the present. While that may not be as fun as a time machine in your office, it will be a close second. 


Sign up for the 2021 Historical Novel Society Conference to attend this exciting presentation and more!

Saturday, June 26, 2:45-3:45PM (CT)

RESEARCHING HISTORY: DAUNTING, CHALLENGING AND FUN

Patricia Marcantonio

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