Research & Historical Fiction

Author Helena P. Schrader appeared on the blog recently with insights on writing biographical historical fiction. Today, her topic is research and historical fiction.


There is probably no other genre of fiction which requires quite so much research as historical fiction. Indeed, many readers will be surprised to hear that the research required for writing good historical fiction is more comprehensive than that for writing straight history.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of historical research. I did academic research for my dissertation. I did research for non-fiction histories on women pilots, the Berlin Airlift and, most recently, the crusader states. Each research project was unique and each came with its own set of challenges and rewards. The availability of primary sources varies from era to era and topic to topic. Access to visual records — paintings and photographs — can be radically different and the ability to visit locations or experience modes of transport depend on a variety of factors. Yet, without question the research required for a work of non-fiction was more narrowly focused than for fiction. Academic research particularly is about putting forward a new thesis or uncovering new sources for what is inevitably a narrow, highly specialized topic.

A writer of historical fiction, on the other hand, has to understand — and be able to describe — the entire world in which the characters live. For example, my non-fiction comparison of women pilots in WWII looked in detail at the process for recruiting, training, and employing women pilots in the UK and the US. It catalogued their rates of pay, their accomplishments, the public and official recognition they received. But it did not — and did not need to — talk about contemporary fashion, food, film and music. There was no need to discuss rationing or politics or social mores. Yet a novel featuring women pilots would need to depict these “extraneous” things and all of them would need to be research.

In addition, when writing non-fiction, an author uses her own voice. This can be as contemporary, chatty and informal or as sophisticated and erudite as the author wants. The author can decide what tone to set and what vocabulary to use. In a novel, in contrast, the characters speak (at least some of the time) and they have to sound like men and women not of the present but the age in which the novel is set. This is more than a matter of avoiding anachronisms, it is about learning what the contemporary slang, jargon, swear-words etc. were. 

As a reader, I have repeatedly been irritated by historical novelists who don’t do their homework with regard to these atmospherics. Too many novice historical novelists stop doing research when they know the chronology of key events. Others get both the facts and the window-dressing right (i.e. fashions, technology), but they don’t take the time to learn about the “soft” or more amorphous features of the age and society in which their novel plays out. Yet an understanding of legal systems, religious beliefs, social customs and sexual mores, for example, are arguably far more important than getting the cut of the dresses right. 

Fortunately for me, I love doing historical research precisely because it opens so many doors and provides so many insights into the diversity and complexity of the human experience.

As an aside, in a post on why she writes historical fiction, Helena said: Historical fiction can go beyond the historical record. It can “connect the dots” and extrapolate beyond the point where credible historians dare to go. A novelist can offer an interpretation of historical events and characters that completes the imperfect image left by the remaining evidence. It can build upon the eroded remnants and restore a bright, vivid and vibrant image of the past. 

Thank you, Helena. I am particularly struck by this last bit “the diversity and complexity of the human experience.” As you say on your website “Understanding ourselves by understanding the past.” An excellent reminder for all writers, especially those writing historical fiction.

Helena is the author of 19 historical novels and 5 non-fiction titles. Her novels feature Aviation, the Second World War, Ancient Sparta, and the Crusader States. Check out her website.

For other posts on the importance of research to authors of historical fiction check out these posts:


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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One Response

  1. I agree with everything Helena mentions in this posts, particularly about “an understanding of legal systems, religious beliefs, social customs and sexual mores, for example, are arguably far more important than getting the cut of the dresses right. “

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