10 Tips for Researching Historical Novels

By Elizabeth Ludwig, @ELudwig_Author

Today we’re addressing the issue of researching for historical fiction—everything from what our characters eat and think, to what they wear and where they live. I have written historical fiction for both Guideposts and Bethany House, and the one thing I can tell you with complete certainty is that readers of historical fiction typically love history. They can absolutely tell the difference between a hastily written story and one that has been carefully researched and will be turned off quickly if they think an author hasn’t done their homework. That’s understandable, right? After all, nobody wants to read a contemporary novel dressed up in period costume.

Personally, I think most authors give some thought to the setting of their story. Therefore, those historical details tend to be accurate. But what about those other historical tidbits that give a story substance? As a reader, one of my biggest pet peeves in historical fiction is contemporary thinking, speaking or actions from the characters. You’ve probably come across a bit of this yourself—women who gallivant all over the countryside completely unaccompanied, or men who allow themselves to be caught in comprising situations (or positions) with a lady. GASP!

How do you avoid this? I’ve found one of the best ways is to get your hands on copies of old etiquette books.  Some good examples are American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness by Walter R. Houghton, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, or George Washington’s Rules of Good Behavior, ca. 1746. And of course, there are plenty more books to be found online.

Of course, not everyone adhered to the rules of those books, but being aware of the restrictions will help you when determining if an action by your character was accepted. If not, it will at least prompt you to provide a compelling reason for why something would be taking place.  For instance, as I mentioned above, women generally didn’t walk about town unaccompanied.  If they did, they were often thought to be women of ill repute.  So, what driving force could you use to make it absolutely necessary for something like this to occur?

Now, obviously, it is possible to have a character who doesn’t always follow the rules, but when you choose to go this route, be sure that you’ve given a compelling reason for their actions. For example, if your heroine is going to wear men’s clothing and later in the story be found out – give thought to those repercussions.  Remember, the repercussions do not necessarily have to be a bad thing because they add CONFLICT. Think about how you can you use this to put your heroine in even greater peril.

Another problem to avoid in historical fiction is the language the characters use.Nothing can jerk a reader out of the story faster than having a historical novel with contemporary language so be sure to check websites for the etymology of a word or phrase you intend to use. A good website for this is http://www.etymonline.com/. Also be sure to take a character’s social status and education into account.Consider where they live, for example, regions of the country (southern accent, etc.). Dialogue does so much for a historical book and gives a real flavor of the times.

But now really…how important are the mannerisms, customs, and language used by the characters in your book? The truth is, we don’t worry nearly as much about social customs in this day and age, but they are still important for our books if we want to give them substance and flavor.  I watched a movie recently where a common citizen was introduced to a reigning monarch. It was a casual setting, but still, the introduction was no different than two people meeting at the grocery store! This was a missed opportunity to add flavor to the scene—not to mention that it made the story seem false and a bit contrived.

Now, aside from books on etiquette, what are some other tools an author has at their disposal?

  • If at all possible, visit the location for the setting of your book. My husband and I were able to visit the mining town used as the setting for Finding Love in Calico, California. I spoke with one of the local historians and she became a valuable resource by providing pamphlets and other historical maps and tidbits.
  • When you can’t visit, call or contact the local historical societies and museums of the area you want to write about. This is a fantastic source for diaries and firsthand accounts. For example – I am setting a new series on Martha’s Vineyard. I needed information about one of the local churches but I couldn’t find it online. I called another church and discovered the one I was looking for had been renamed and moved from its previous location!
  • The state historical archives are also a great place to contact.  They have libraries and if you talk to the historian there you can get wonderful information.  Often they will even photocopy things (at a price) and mail to you.
  • For information on the weather (IE: temps and rainfall amounts for a specific location and year), check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). They have a lot of historical data regarding weather conditions. Here is a link to data for St. Louis going back to 1874, and Columbia from 1890. http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lsx/?n=cli_archiveHere is a link for other states info, TX included (not all states included):
    http://www.history.noaa.gov/morehistory.html. Another site that might be helpful is the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary. It’s available at http://www.1828-dictionary.com/ .
  • For ancestry information, check out the Ellis Island Foundation at https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/. I found even more information on Ellis Island just be visiting the National Park Service website at https://www.nationalparks.org/explore-parks/ellis-island-national-monument
  • Colleges and universities are a wonderful resource for checking historical facts and information. And don’t forget to make friends with the librarians on campus. They can be very helpful and are often very willing!
  • Last but not least, browse tourist sites when you’re on the road or on vacation.  I have found some of my very best material at tourist shops, and I had a bit of fun while I was collecting them.

What about you? What resources have you found to be especially helpful?

In The Fullness of Time

With each passing season in their first year of married life, Cheryl and Levi Miller find a fresh set of challenges and adjustments to be made as the Englisher and her Amish farmer husband learn to live together. But by observing their friends and loved ones in the Sugarcreek community, the newlyweds see firsthand how God uses each new phase of life to reveal inspiring insights, spiritual truths, and future surprises…all while they harvest a whole new crop of mysteries as well!

Elizabeth Ludwig is an accomplished speaker and teacher, often attending conferences where she lectures on crafting effective novel proposals and conducting successful editor/agent interviews. Her latest releases include Home Sweet Sugarcreek and A Tempting Taste of Mystery, part of the SUGARCREEK AMISH MYSTERIES series from Guideposts. Along with her husband, she makes her home in the great state of Texas. To learn more, visit ElizabethLudwig.com.