Setting – Research Sources

Two weeks ago, in Setting is Like an Iceberg, I included a grouped list of the ingredients that constitute setting – one of the seven elements essential to transporting readers in time and place. Where, you might ask, does an author find information about those ingredients?

Primary sources are foundational. They include: first-hand accounts, letters, diaries offer insights on period dialogue and attitudes, memoirs, maps, legal documents including wills, deeds, court rolls, treaties etc., which can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time. Then there are judicial reports, school log books, ships’ logs, local newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, journals, advertisements, photographs, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, dictionaries of the time. Civil and military records.

Museums contain a wealth of primary material carefully collected and curated to reflect a particular time and place. I remember being in Stockholm where a 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage is on display –  mammoth, majestic, intricately carved, it gives ample evidence of shipbuilding practices of the time and could fuel the imagination with what it must have been like to sail such a beauty.

Site visits can be considered primary source material, although never assume that things look exactly the same today as they did in the past. Site visits allow an author to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same. Is the earth rich and dark or red and dusty? Are the streets narrow and windy or wide open? Do people speak with a lilt? What building materials were used in Haussmann’s Paris? Where does the sun set and the shadows fall in late September?

Secondary sources include academic writing, non-fiction books, archaeological reports, reference books, biographies, academic lectures, subject-matter experts. Paintings and contemporary portraiture  from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, the shop fronts and advertisements. They also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time. Re-enactment groups work faithfully to demonstrate life the way it was, wars the way they were fought. Books on historical slang and foreign phrases. Books on furniture, costume and houses.

Internet trawling is a favourite pastime of authors. Be very wary though of sources and it’s best to corroborate ‘facts’ with multiple sources. Nonetheless, you can find amazing articles, reports, historical timelines, sites dedicated to the fashion of a particular time period or to a specific regiment’s experience during one of the world wars.

Project Gutenberg and Google feee books offer out of print novels, diaries, journals and more. I’ve found fascinating accounts of World War One and the siege of Paris using Project Gutenberg.

Where else can you look? I’ve assembled a list based on my own work as well as suggestions from other writers.

  • Period novels (novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then and not how a contemporary author thinks about them through the lens of today
  • Poetry of the time period
  • Government collections
  • Talking to locals
  • Bibliographies are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • Dictionaries of quotations from the time period.
  • Books of names can offer popular names of the time. Or you can search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers of the time for suitable names that were popular in the period.
  • Copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • Hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • Google maps; Google earth
  • Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments
  • Broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • Recordings conducted at the time.
  • Interviews conducted during the time period.
  • Pinterest boards – it’s fascinating the material collected by others!
  • Town histories
  • Farm journals
  • Listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • TV and film adaptations
  • Check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers
  • Newspaper archives
  • Museum websites
  • Historical societies,
  • Educational sites like PBS
  • Children’s books

The possibilities are endless! So I’ll leave you with a quote from Helen Bryan author of War Brides and The Sisterhood.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy.

Of course, it’s also possible to write lengthy articles for your blog instead of actually writing the next chapter of your novel  🙂

See you next time.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction … with Kate Quinn

I’m launching a new series today and delighted to have Kate Quinn here to kick things off. The series? I’ve asked a number of well known authors to reflect on their years of writing historical fiction. Some of these authors have been writing successfully for more than thirty years. Some are based in the US, others in the UK. And they all have wonderfully successful novels.

Today, Kate Quinn discusses several topics and offers an in-depth look at what it’s been like to switch time periods.

Changing Horses Mid-Stream: An Ancient World Author Jumps To The 20th Century

“What’s a girl like you doing in a time like this?”

It’s a question I’ve grown familiar with, as a historical novelist who has made a recent, monumental jump in time periods. My first love was the ancient world, and that was where I gravitated when penning my first novels, eventually writing four set in early Imperial Rome. I made a two-book jump after that to the Italian Renaissance and the delicious cesspit that was the rule of the Borgia pope, yet it was still Italy, still Rome, still comfortably pre-modern. But my latest books “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress” pole-vault all the way into the 20th century, telling respective stories of a World War I spy ring and the World War II all-female bomber pilot regiment known as the Night Witches—and a jump that big will give you whiplash, believe me. Why, readers asked, did I make such a big change in subject and research matter?

Part passion, and part practicality. I have always been a writer with far more story ideas teeming in my head than I can ever get round to writing, and there were always some 20th century notions lurking among the plots about Roman empresses and Renaissance courtesans. I started giving those fledgling ideas some serious consideration when I looked at the market and saw the recent boom in 20th century historical fiction. 

Now, I can’t write what I don’t love—I don’t think any author can—but the question here wasn’t “Can you write in an era you don’t love?” It was “Can you learn to love a new era?” The answer turned out to be “yes.” I like the 20thcentury a lot, and once “The Alice Network” bloomed into a full-fledged story in my mind, it positively begged to be written. “The Huntress” followed right on its heels.

Making a jump this big does have its scary moments, though. After writing four books in ancient Rome and two in the Renaissance, I was very comfortable in those worlds. I know the courtship customs, the vocabulary, the period-appropriate coinage and clothes and food, and I have it all at my fingertips without needing to look much of anything up. Writing in a historical era you know well is like lounging around in your favorite Pjs, or dog-paddling through the shallow side of the swimming pool. Taking on an entirely new historical era feels like being tossed head-first into the deep end: I was researching everything in a frantic effort to acquire the kind of familiarity with the era that novel-writing requires. Because it isn’t getting a battle’s date wrong that will sink your story; concrete dates and bare-bones facts are for the most part easy to look up—it’s the tiny details like not knowing if a zipper would be on the back or the side of a woman’s dress in 1947, or how much afternoon tea would cost with rationing laws in place. Those are the things that are hard to dig up, and I sweated bullets researching “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress.”

But it was worth it. I’m proud of my 20th century novels, and I hugely enjoyed writing both. I still love ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, and I plan to pen more -stories set there . . . but for the time being, I’m enjoying my jump to the 20th century, and have no plans to leave just yet!

What aspects do you love about writing historical fiction? It’s a way to examine universal human issues through a lens of the past–and a way to make people realize that humanity has not changed, even if it dresses in different clothes and uses different language than we do in the modern era!

What advice do you have for new authors? Embrace the suck–i.e., give yourself permission to be bad! Because all first drafts are bad, and that’s ok, but I see many new writers get so paralyzed by the inner voice that says “This is so terrible, I can never show it to anyone” that they never really get off the ground. It’s ok if your first draft is bad; it will get better. And you don’t have to show your work to anyone until you’re ready, so just write without fear of what anyone will say–especially that critical inner voice.

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction? I want to see more diverse hist-fic, not just European history. I want to see stories out of Asian history and African history, Native American history and South American history. There’s so much out there waiting to be told.

What are you working on now? My next book is titled THE ROSE CODE, about the female codebreakers of Bletchley Park. It should release early 2021. 

Many thanks, Kate. I love your perspective on changing time periods. I should mention that my book club had a lively discussion of Kate’s The Alice Network on Monday – everyone loved it! You can also read an earlier post featuring Kate Quinn and The Alice Network.



M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


3 Challenges to writing historical fiction – by Margaret Skea

Margaret Skea  has written several historical novels – her most recent being Katharina: Fortitude, a sequel to Katharina: Deliverance, both based on the life of Martin Luther’s wife. She grew up in Ulster at the height of the ‘Troubles’, but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders. Thanks for being on the blog, Margaret.


The Katharina books have been the most challenging of any I have written to date, on several counts.

Firstly, my passion is for historical authenticity – providing a ‘you are there’ experience for the reader.  Now, of course, they aren’t there and neither am I, but I want readers to be so immersed in the period and the story that for a time they forget the 21stcentury and feel as if they are. One of the keys to that is extensive and rigorous research. Along with lively and cinematic writing.

(Note: I use the term authenticity because I don’t believe historical fiction can ever claim to be accurate, except in terms of names and dates and so on, and even they can sometimes be a matter of debate.)

So what should we do when sources disagree, or even worse don’t say anything at all? Which was exactly the case when I started researching Katharina von Bora, the subject of the two books set in the heart of the Reformation in Saxony, Germany.

She was clearly an influential character – she is the only reformer’s wife of whom we have a portrait, in fact a famous painter of the day, Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted her numerous times and many museums across Europe still hold portraits of her to this day.

And yet there is debate over her parentage and place of birth, and no concrete evidence of the reason why she was placed in a convent at the age of 5, nor why she was moved again at around 10.  There is no verified information, although it is possible to make an educated guess, but no more than that, of how Luther’s writings were smuggled into the convent, triggering her desire to escape, along with eleven others, in the first mass break-out following his teaching.

Even after her marriage, when we have lots of information on what she did, we have no direct information as to why. So how did I go about the task of writing a credible account of Katharina, in the face of such shadowy and insubstantial evidence?

As regards her character, I had to work backwards, both from comments that are made about her by others, and via thinking through what kind of person she must have been to act as she did.  Fairly early on in my research into the Luther marriage, I began to make connections between the interaction of Martin and Katharina, as evidenced in the one-sided correspondence that has survived – we have many of `Martin’s letters, but very few of Katharina’s – and what I remember of the relationship between my maternal grandparents. That felt like a break-through – I now had a model for Katharina that gave me a basis from which to work.

The second, critically important challenge, was how to develop a ‘voice’ for her, that would be both distinctive and in keeping with the little we did know. Normally I write in 3rd person past tense and I started out with that intention here too. But in an attempt to ‘find’ her voice I started to write random snippets in 1stperson present, fully intending to discard them once I felt she was comfortably lodged in my head. Instead, I found that once started, it seemed appropriate to continue.

1st person present is a difficult pov and tense to sustain over the course of a novel, it is very easy to make mistakes and so one entire edit was devoted to checking for pov slippage and any lapses into the past tense. But it gave an immediacy and a vibrancy to the text that helped to breathe life into Katharina and a sense that the novel is her story.

As a result, I now think of it almost as Fictionalised Autobiography, if there can be such a category, though, of course, what readers experience can never be anything other than my version of her. I hope I have done her justice.

And finally, because of the scant and fragmentary nature of the evidence that did exist in relation to her early life, I knew I needed to find a structure for the first novel that would hold it all together. And so, again in a first for me, I wrote a dual time-frame novel introducing key points in her life through flash-forwards to her last three months. That worked easily in Katharina Deliverance when large periods of time required to be bridged, but became much harder to sustain in Fortitude, not least in the decisions of where and when to break up the more coherent narrative.

So, three main challenges and each of them a steep learning curve. I hope I am a better writer as a result.

In honour of the release of Katharina Fortitude, it is on offer at 99p / 99c Now’s the time to grab a copy – or if you’re in KU you can read it for free, but please, please can you do so before the end of August as I’ve entered it in the Kindle Storyteller competition and would love to make the shortlist and get it on Mariella Frostrup’s desk (BBC Radio 4 presenter of book programmes). You would all help to make me a very happy camper if I could get there.

At the moment I am at #11 in Christian Historical Fiction and 12 / 15 in 2 other sub-genres. I think I need to get into single figures in the rankings, so any purchases or pages read will be immensely valuable, as will reviews – also an important part of the algorithm.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea ~~ Eagerly-awaited conclusion to Katharina Deliverance – Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’

Wittenberg 1525. The unexpected marriage of Martin Luther to Katharina von Bora has no fairytale ending. A sign of apostasy to their enemies, and a source of consternation to their friends, it sends shock waves throughout Europe. Yet, as they face persecution, poverty, war, plague and family tragedy, Katharina’s resilience and strength of character shines through.

While this book can be read as a standalone, it is also the powerful conclusion to her story, begun in Katharina: Deliverance.

‘Beautifully written and meticulously researched – historical fiction at its best.’ BooksPlease

If you like your historical Fiction to be authentic, immersive and packed with drama, this book is for you. Grab a copy today at the introductory price of 0.99


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website