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.

Plotting with Passion

by Dawn Crandall, @dawnwritesfirst

Hello, my name is Dawn, and I am a Plotter. Of the first degree.

Even before I started to write my very first novel, which also became my award winning debut novel, The Hesitant Heiress, I’d tried out many plots in my “before writing” writings. It’s just something I love to do, and as I’ve learned over writing my four published novels, it makes things easier in the long run. It might be partly because I write my historical romances from deep first person point of view from only the heroine’s side. Because of this, I need to figure out all of the other associating characters just as well, and also make it so the reader will be able to get to know them as well as the heroine does as the book unfolds.
Since all of my characters so far have been a part of a four book series, there is oftentimes a continuation of one of the main character’s arc throughout at least one other book. I’ve been thinking about them often as I’ve been writing the first books, but not enough to really get into what makes them tick. And that’s what my extensive outline is for.

Outlines come in all shapes and sizes, but mine are written over a few months time (because I’m doing this author thing at the same as being a stay-at-home mom of two very young children… which is a bit nuts). They end up being about ten pages single-spaced and written in third person—I basically tell the story in generic form to myself and describe what’s happening from both the hero and heroine’s perspectives. This especially worked out well last year since I got pregnant with my second son a few weeks after my publisher had received the proposal for The Cautious Maiden, and then a few weeks later when I was about 12 to 28 weeks pregnant (the entire second trimester, fortunately!) as I wrote out the novel.

First of all, I start with a page numbered 1 to 30, because that’s usually about how many chapters I’ll end up with. Then I name the chapters. And then I brainstorm, piecing together things I see happening, moving those pieces around and trying to get everything to flow just right for “twists and turns” that lead to a highly satisfying ending. And because the love story and the spiritual arcs of both the hero and heroine are a huge part of my novels, I very carefully decide when momentous happenings (like some really great kissing!) and self-discoveries come up.

Over the years my outlining process has evolved. It wasn’t nearly as organized as all this when I was figuring out The Hesitant Heiress, but it definitely came to this point while discovering the story in my latest release, The Cautious Maiden. It had to be! I’d written my first two books before getting pregnant for the first time; wrote the third a little before, a little during and little after my first pregnancy; and then wrote the fourth on my iPhone 6 Plus while very pregnant AND with a two year old running circles around me.

It’s definitely time consuming, but it gets my story to a place where I don’t have to think much about it as I’m writing it—I can strictly be in character. Which is a really difficult thing for me now that I have children, especially since I have ADD. I’m seriously the worst person at organizing almost anything… except this organizing a novel thing!


Plotting with Passion by Dawn Crandall (Click to Tweet)

I am a Plotter. Of the first degree. ~ Dawn Crandall (Click to Tweet)

I’d tried out many plots in my “before writing” writings.~ Dawn Crandall (Click to Tweet)

Whitaker House, October 2016

Violet Hawthorne is beyond mortified when her brother Ezra turns their deceased parents’ New England country inn into a brothel to accommodate the nearby lumberjacks—but when Violet’s own reputation is compromised, the inn becomes the least of her worries.
In an effort to salvage her good name, Violet is forced into an engagement with a taciturn acquaintance—Vance Everstone.
As she prepares for a society wedding, Violet learns that her brother had staked her hand in marriage in a heated poker game with the unsavory Rowen Steele, and Ezra had lost. Now Rowen is determined to cash in on his IOU.
With danger stalking her and a new fiancé who hides both his emotion and his past, Violet must decide who to trust—and who to leave behind.

Dawn Crandall is an ACFW Carol Award-nominated author of the award winning series The Everstone Chronicles, which consists of four books: The Hesitant Heiress, The Bound Heart, The Captive Imposter and The Cautious Maiden.

A graduate of Taylor University with a degree in Christian Education and a former bookseller at Barnes & Noble, Dawn Crandall didn’t begin writing until 2010 when her husband found out about her long-buried dream. It didn’t take her long to realize that writing books was what she was made to do.

Apart from writing, Dawn is also a mom of two tiny little boys and spends a lot of time slowly renovating an old brick farmhouse in northeastern Indiana.

Dawn is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and is represented by Joyce Hart of Hartline Literary Agency.

If you’d like to learn more about Dawn and her inspirational historical romances, links are below:

Facebook – www.facebook.com/dawncrandallwritesfirst

Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/bilhmv

Author Website: www.dawncrandall.blogspot.com

My Book Review Blog: www.APassionforPages.blogspot.com

Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/dawnwritesfirst

Twitter: @dawnwritesfirst / www.twitter.com/dawnwritesfirst

Hook ‘em Tight: One Technique for Writing a Book They Can’t Put Down by Author Janine Mendenhall

So you’d like to write a novel, huh? I can appreciate that. I want to write another one too. In fact, like you, I’d like to keep writing them from now on—a book a year, or maybe even two. But the thing is neither one of us wants to produce an ordinary piece. 
We both want to please our readers so much that they won’t want to put our books down, right?
That means we need to hook our respective audiences not only with an excellent story full of conflict-based tension, but most especially, where people normally think it’s time to stop reading.
So when do readers reach for their bookmark? (I’ll give you one guess.)
That’s it, at the end of a chapter!
Before I go any further, I need to give credit where it is due because, the truth of the matter is, I learned to write (and still am, by the way) by following Steven James’s directions in Story Trumps Structure and from other great Craft books written by James Scott Bell, Jack M. Bickham, and Jordan E. Rosenfeld—to name a few.
Now that that’s settled, let me share three ways to keep your readers reading. 
3 Ways to Hook Readers at the End of a Chapter 
(My examples come from my debut inspirational historical fiction/romance novel. Preview Starving Hearts at http://www.janinemendenhall.com/preview-starving-hearts/.) 
  1. Modify Your Thinking. The close of a chapter is NOT the end. It’s the beginning of your next scene, or one that will follow soon enough. Instead of tying things up in a nice little bow and losing the tension you’ve built up, create some suspense by leaving a string untied. 
Add an extra dose of tension in the language too.
These are the last three sentences of Chapter 2–Savior in Starving Hearts.
        At the far end of the gallery, she entered the deserted renovation area. Honestly, at the moment, she could not care less that it was off limits. 
       Opening the door of the first room she reached, Annette stepped in and lurched to a halt.
Did you see and feel that? 
The door opened, but we couldn’t see what Annette saw. The shocking word lurched created a touch of suspense, and the reader turned the page. 
Once the page is turned, we’re safe, as long as there’s a good hook waiting to catch the reader at the beginning of the next chapter.
  1. Create Nagging Doubt. Our readers have very quick minds. If we offer just enough information to create a slight imbalance, they will get the subtle hint and ask themselves “But did she?” (or a similar contrary question), and that will be enough to make them move on and find the answer.  
Here’s what I mean.
Read the last three sentences of the Prologue of Starving Hearts. See if you feel enough doubt to cause you to ask what I call a contrary question.
         Annette was too overwhelmed to care. All she wanted was Mother’s assurance that she would never see or hear of the fiend again. Mrs. Chetwynd agreed that was best, and she would personally see him immediately dispatched from the estate. And that was precisely what Annette believed Mother would do.  
Of course, readers don’t necessarily realize they are constantly scrutinizing stories as they read them. But did you recognize the subtle “But did she?” that came at the end of that sentence? 
My heroine, Annette, believed her mother would do what she said, but the fact that I wrote it this way caused you to doubt that her mother did what she said.
That nagging doubt is enough to keep the reader going, of course, it also makes a promise, and as Steven James always says, we need to be very careful to keep our promises to our readers. 
If we don’t, they will close our books and never read any of them again. (If you haven’t read Story Trumps Structure, please know, it is well worth your time, and Steven James isn’t even paying me to say this. ☺)
  1. Play Opposites Attract.  I cannot emphasize it enough. Our readers are very intelligent, and they often automatically predict what will happen next. We can take advantage of this brilliance by giving them something negative or scary to worry them without even putting it on paper.
Notice the end of Chapter 4—The Plan. 
You will automatically predict that the opposite of what I’m telling you is really what will happen next. And because that opposite is attractive in a negative way, it’s likely you’ll want to find out how bad things get for my hero, Peter.
Try it, and see what happens.
         Adjusting his evening coat again, Peter willed himself to move to the door. He had made his decision. He would propose tonight, and she would accept him. Then his life would begin, and all would be well.
It did happen, didn’t it? You predicted she would not accept his proposal and that things would not end well, right? That’s because you’re smart, just like our readers.
On that note, it’s time to say goodbye, at least for now. I hope you enjoyed this little lesson on 3 Ways to Hook Readers at the End of a Chapter so they can’t put your book down. Visit me and preview Starving Hearts http://www.janinemendenhall.com/preview-starving-hearts/ to see if I’m successful at keeping your attention. 
If I do, remember, the credit for Craft goes to those I mentioned above, but the real glory belongs to God.   “Whoever abides in (Him) . . . bears much fruit, for apart from (Him) you can do nothing.” John 15:5
Janine Mendenhall teaches teens English, of all things! Sometimes she sleeps, but most nights she reads, writes, or watches movies like “Pride and Prejudice” and claims she’s researching her next book. “Splickety Love” and “Splickety Prime” have published her flash fiction. She and her husband, Tom, live in North Carolina where they and their two golden retrievers help gratify the needs of their five children and two cats.


Hit and Run Emotions by DiAnn Mills

by DiAnn Mills @DiAnnMills

While driving back from the grocery store, I was hit by a truck and the driver took off. The emotions I experienced were shock, anger, and a twinge of fear. The latter one was probably because I write suspense, and my mind always goes into story mode. But the truth is, fear often results from the unpredictable and suspicions from those who harm us.

Are you guilty of hit and run emotions?

The same applies to the characters in our stories. What happens when a writer has a character encounter a traumatic incident and there’s no reaction? Or what happens when a character responds to a minor incident with drama-queen emotion?

Both scenarios can destroy a reader’s reality check and toss the reader out of the story. Future purchases from that writer are nil. Sad, but true. Not much opportunity for a second chance when there are so many writers competing for our attention.

To avoid hit and run emotion in our stories, we can take steps to ensure our characters’ reactions to events are met with responses that are in character, realistic, and slide into genre.

In Character
For credible emotion, we writers must thoroughly understand our POV characters. This means taking time to develop their personality, unique traits, and backstory. A character who handles anger by stuffing it may logically end up with an ulcer. A character who deals with anger by breaking noses may need anger management classes. The first key to overcoming inappropriate reactions lies in characterization.


Many writers keep a journal of the happenings in their lives and how they reacted. It’s been said that if a writer is unwilling to seek resolution to life’s explosions, then the writer will never be able to write about those same emotions effectively.

Dramatic reactions to small incidents initiates skepticism in the reader, unless the writer is gifted in humor. Even those stories must be crafted with care. When a hero or heroine appears callused to tragedy, displays an absence of wit or logic, or is over-the-top in dialogue, readers no longer care about the character or the story.

Don’t hit the reader with a drama queen!

The many genres provide us an opportunity to show our stories through a variety of techniques. The criterion dictates the story world’s dialogue, culture, goals, setting, and symbolism. The seven universal emotions stated in Tonya Reiman’s,The Power of Body Language are surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, happiness, and contempt. Every POV character experiences these emotions according to genre guidelines. Here are a few examples:

Contemporary: Today’s world is filled with instant information from various communication devices. Problems arise from dealing in a world where change is the norm. A character is continuously assaulted with situations that involve coping devices according to traits and backstory. Contemporary characters filter a whirl of happenings through their personal data bank of their past.

Historical: The past is known for its slower pace of living. Communication from local,
national, and worldwide events shape the future many times before the character learns about them. Culture and gender often dictate how a character receives and processes emotion.

Romance: Romance is an emotional adventure. This aspect of novel writing can be woven into any genre. A thread of romance invites a reader into a dreamlike world of fresh and breathless love.

Create emotions for your fantasy world.

Speculative:This genre has a broad range of categories from fantasy to sci-fi. Here the setting and culture blends with character to show how emotion is received and processed. Because the story world is unusual, how a character views emotion is according to the writer’s discretion.

Suspense: Suspense can be written into any genre, much like romance, but the character’s reaction to a state of anxiousness or uncertainty with a blanket of fear leads the character down a path of uneasiness and often apprehension. Heroes and heroines walking through suspense are survivors who have learned to manage and compartmentalize their emotions in a way that is healthy and believable.

Hit and run emotions. We writers don’t have to be labeled with this criticism because we understand the power of character, reality, and genre.

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure.
She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels.

Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Library Journal presented her with a Best Books 2014: Genre Fiction award in the Christian Fiction category for Firewall.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers; the 2015 president of the Romance Writers of America’s Faith, Hope, & Love chapter; a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, and International Thriller Writers. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas.

DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on any of the social media platforms listed at www.diannmills.com.