Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Researching Historical Fiction

by Liza Perrat

I am only on my third historical fiction novel, so I’m far from an expert on researching historical fiction, but this is what I’ve gleaned so far.

It seems that very few historical fiction writers have university degrees in history. Authors of historical fiction are, first and foremost, novelists who must master the craft of fiction in the same way as any other novelist. Learning how to write a good story that hooks readers and keeps them turning the pages is as vital as getting the historical details right.

Yet those period customs and technological details must be nailed. Historical fiction falls flat on its face when the characters jump off the page as modern-day people disguised in period garb. But these days, with all the historical resources available, not to mention the internet, authors can usually unearth those nuggets that will breathe life into their story.

However, public archives, the web, old letters, postcards and diaries aside, there’s nothing more inspiring than spending time in the place in which your story is set, trying to imagine how it might have looked, felt and smelled, in the past. Even if your story takes place centuries ago, sensing the spirit of a place –– the trees and flowers, the seasonal light, the scents –– pulls a reader into a story. People are quickly bored with history lessons though, so the historical fiction author also has the task of knitting this detail into the narration, so it doesn’t come across as a textbook.

A walk around the rural village in which I live gave me the idea for Spirit of Lost Angels, the first novel in my historical series, published under the Triskele Books label in June, 2012. On the banks of the Garon River sits a stone cross named croix à gros ventre (cross with a big belly). Engraved with a heart shape, it is dated 1717 and commemorates two children who drowned in the river. Who were they? How did they drown, and where are they buried? I felt the urge to write the story of these lost children –– to give them a family, a village, an identity.

Historical monuments and structures also evoke the past and I like to study them as closely as possible, taking photographs from all angles (preferably minus the tourists!). For Wolfsangel, the second in my series, I visited the haunting memorial of Oradour-sur-Glane, site of a tragic WWII massacre.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a historical place, local fairs, festivals and events also provide great sources of inspiration for the historical fiction novelist. A local one I know well is the annual Bush Peach Festival. But what’s so historical about this succulent fruit with flesh the colour of blood? Well, the bush peach has long been grown alongside grape vines. Susceptible to the same diseases as the vines but quicker to develop the signs, vine growers plant peach trees next to their vineyards to warn them of potential problems. The bush peach has thus been part of the arboricultural patrimony of this region since the seventeenth century so, despite its questionable history as martyr, even the humble peach is firmly anchored in the village history.

Local people can also provide insight into past professions. One of the characters in Spirit of Lost Angels is a rémouleur –– an itinerant knife-grinder, and local resident, Georges, is a vestige of this profession that dates back to 1300. Lugging his odd-looking bicycle along to the marketplace every Saturday morning, Georges sits amidst the convivial banter, punnets of raspberries and strawberries, the boudins and saucissons, cycling in earnest to sharpen our knives and scissors.

Historical fiction has become a hot genre in recent years, with many historical novels featuring on bestseller lists, but many more contemporary novels appear. So, it seems that to interest a publisher, or to gain a readership for self-publishers, a historical novel must encompass those same qualities as a contemporary novel –– well written and highly polished –– coupled with historical accuracy.

Some resources I have found useful for writing historical fiction:


Historical Novel Society

Historical Novelists Center

Reading the Past

History and Women

Historical Tapestry

Passages to the Past

Novel PASTimes

Historically Obsessed


Writing the Renaissance


How to Write Historical Novels by Michael Legat

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom

Writing Historical Fiction by Marina Oliver

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