The Art of Esoterica – or Historical Fiction Research

Paris Coat of ArmsYou may have read some of my blathering posts about the guts of historical fiction. So, now I’m putting my ‘money where my mouth is’ as I begin a new novel set in 19th century France. Researching an era must be both wide and deep — and I’ve written about it on this blog and over at While I’m not being as disciplined as I would like, let me share some of the esoterica (did you read that as erotica?) I’ve found and a few thoughts on the process.

Character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict and world building – seven ingredients every author must pay attention to and historical fiction authors must explore in depth in order to immerse readers in their chosen time and place.

Since I’m in the early stages – bare bones of the story sketched out – research has a random feeling to it but my intention is to develop a solid foundation for how my characters would have lived in that time and place.

Books Read

  • PARIS REBORN by Stephane Kirkland provides a detailed and fascinating look at the rebuilding of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III. Camille and Mariele, my main characters, are born in 1849 and 1851 respectively (at least, that’s my starting premise), they would have experienced the city’s upheaval as children, their parents as adults.
  • THE HOUSE I LOVED by Tatiana de Rosnay concerns a woman whose house is ultimately demolished to make way for one of the wide boulevards built at that time.
  • As a novel, PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd captures the culture and attitudes of French society. I’m particularly interested in the section focused on building the Eiffel Tower.
  • THE DIVINE SARAH by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale brings to life this famous actress along with the richness of theatre in the time period.
  • CLAUDE & CAMILLE by Stephanie Cowell and LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY by Susan Vreeland are helping me to appreciate the lives of Impressionist painters.

Books on order

  • Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France by Susan Hiner – gotta have a book on fashion
  • Paris: Les Boulevards by Pamela Golbin and Charles Franck offers illustrations of the most gorgeous Parisian boulevards – a picture is worth a thousand words
  • France Since 1870: Culture, Society and the Making of the Republic by Charles Sowerwine – who could resist that title?
  • Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman is recommended for a look at this aspect of French culture. Who knows what inspiration I’ll find?
  • Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau by Mary McAuliffe also looks promising.


Stories reflect the arc of history, hence understanding the main events that shaped French life, economy, attitudes, culture and world reputation is critical. I’ve found timelines with a political cast as well as those concerned with military activities, cultural events and even the world of art. I will investigate many of these events and the people involved further, of course, to understand the impact they might have had on my characters, their families and friends.

Topics I’ve explored

Using the Internet I’ve explored many topics. When I search I often jump to the fourth or fifth pages Google recommends as I find earlier pages full of simplistic stuff and sites that bombard you with ads. I also look for more academic articles. Check these titles out – compelling reading for sure 🙂

Reflections of Desire: Masculinity and Fantasy in the Fin-de-Siècle Luxury Brothel

Women’s Rights in France

Early Nineteenth Century French Family Law and Customs

Women Artists in Nineteenth Century France

The Siege of Paris During the Franco-Prussian War

Long Depression – a depression that began in 1873

Topics to explore

French industrialization and wealthy industrialists, the Third Republic, pretenders to the throne, cultural developments, etiquette, fairy tales, colonial expansion, education, demimonde, French Christmas traditions, lingerie, children’s clothing and many more.

Further activities

I also plan to read English translations of a few authors like Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert, examine paintings of famous artists of the time, and search out weather records, old cookbooks, and financial records. With some luck, there could even be a trip to Paris.

The plan is to begin writing in February. Better get busy.

PS – my desk is a mess

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Your Grandmother is Lying – Part 2

Wednesday’s post by Leah Klocek covered two important lessons on historical research. Today, Leah adds three more lessons. You can find out more about Leah and the work she does at Crossroads Historical Research.

Don’t neglect geography

Ah, geography: history and anthropology’s oft-neglected sibling. As an historian, I can tell you what happened, and sometimes, as a bonus, I can even throw in some theories as to why it happened. If you understand geography, though, you will understand why that very history could happen in the first place. A strong comfort level with geography will inform your characters and the decisions they make.

Don’t believe me? Here’s an example. Let’s talk about Japan (what can I say? Japan is in my wheelhouse). Picture the Japanese islands in your head, or better yet, look at some maps of Japan, like this:


Using this map – which only covers one small aspect of geography – what’s obvious right off the bat is that, in comparison with even the nearest countries, Japan is incredibly prone to natural disasters. Much of this is due to its placement on the Ring of Fire, some is a result of Japan’s geologic history, and some is just, “Well, that’s the climate in this area.” A rundown of the natural disasters Japan faces is nightmare material: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and storm surges, typhoons, floods, mudslides, and (I assume) giant, fire-breathing lizards.

As a result of the constant and uncontrollable barrage by nature, the Japanese display a driving urge to control all the parts of nature that they can. Many Japanese beaches are seas of concrete, as are riverbanks, while the people flock to artificial beaches like the now-closed Seagaia Ocean Dome. Every leaf that has the chutzpah to fall from its tree will be swiftly terminated with extreme prejudice. As a whole, the Japanese are far less interested in the preservation of nature and wildlife than many other countries (a visit to a Japanese aquarium is an intensely uncomfortable experience, as your fellow patrons will openly discuss how delicious all these fish would be).

So, yes, you can write a novel set in mid-1900s Japan, but if you decide to make your main character a nature-loving conservationist, then you should understand the cultural context that will influence her actions and the actions of those around her, which have been shaped by a lifetime of interaction with their homeland’s geography.

Make use of the resources at your fingertips

There are essentially two types of resources today: those that are online, and those that are not. The ones that are not online still require good, old-fashioned, “wipe the dust off of the book” research. But much documentation and information is readily available through websites, which don’t require you to travel across the world. Here are a few general websites that have been especially useful to me in my research:

Eyewitness to History is exactly what it sounds like. A rather plain and ad-filled website hides a valuable collection of excerpts from first-hand accounts from all throughout history. It’ll give you some great ideas and at least one cited source per page for you to follow.

Best of History Websites is definitely strongly tilted towards teachers, but it’s still quite helpful to the rest of us. It’s an index of websites organized by time and place in history. Each website listed within the larger index includes a description of what it holds and a review of the website for usability and accuracy – and there are some amazing websites in there. It also has a section specifically aimed at researchers containing advice and tools to assist both beginners and experts.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project contains collections of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts. Here you will find an index of a wide variety of primary source documents from just about everywhere and everywhen. The page is old and not often updated, but don’t let this stop you.

And finally, The Avalon Project is a digital library of historical documents related to law and diplomacy dating back to the beginning of written history. It’s a veritable cornucopia of documents ranging from Roman Republican agrarian laws to the 9/11 Commission Report. As many, if not most, historical plots intersect with conflict, law, or diplomacy, bookmarking The Avalon Project will not be a decision you regret.

Accept that sometimes the precise information you want is unavailable 

When faced with an obstacle to finding the information he seeks, an experienced researcher will keep going and will inevitably find a new source to examine, a new expert to email, a new depth to plumb. That indefatigability is part of what makes us great. It can also be a weakness, however, because sometimes – especially when we’ve been on a roll – we don’t know when to stop looking. Unfortunately, the very nature of history means that, in the course of both human and natural events, sources will disappear and be lost forever, while some information may never have been set down in the first place.

When writing historical fiction, we use great swaths of information to populate and flavor the stories we create, and it does not do to get hung up on one or two pieces of elusive data. If you’ve used all of the resources at your disposal, if you’ve asked every expert you can find, if you simply cannot turn up that magic source that will tell you what you want to know… Take a step back. Consider that, just because you’ve already spent several hours of your time searching for definitive evidence on whether Charlotte Corday’s severed head actually blushed when slapped by the executioner doesn’t mean that it will be worth your time and energy to continue with that line of inquiry (look up the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”).

Once your head has cleared and you’ve gained a little perspective, think about how you can work around this lacuna in your story. How important is that detail, really? Can you change it to something else? Can you leave it out? Or, if that moment is really the sine qua non of your story, are you comfortable taking a small artistic liberty in order to maintain your plot and characters intact? Most of the time, you’ll find that your missing piece of information really isn’t as important as you had built it up to be in your head.

Many thanks for being so generous, Leah. You’ve given me, and I suspect many others, some great ideas for their research activities.


FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.