7 Research Lifesavers for Historical Fiction Writers

As a fiction writer, you often find yourself walking a tightrope between fact and creativity. On one hand, you want your stories to be rooted in reality, grounded in the details that make your worlds believable. On the other hand, you crave the freedom to let your imagination soar, crafting narratives that transport readers to new and exciting places. 

This becomes even more complicated when you wish to write a historical novel. So, how can you find the perfect balance between research and creativity? This was my dilemma when I wrote my historical novel “Full Circle” which takes place in Prague in 1968 during the Prague Spring

Here are some tips to help you navigate this delicate dance, accompanied by examples from books that have mastered this balance with finesse.

7 Tips for Writing Historical Novels Without Drowning in Research.

#1 – Target Your Research.

Resist the urge to become a time period expert! Identify specific aspects crucial to your plot or characters. Are you writing about a naval battle? Focus on ship types and warfare tactics, not 18th-century wig trends. 

For example, If you’re writing a story that takes place in Roman times in an army, researching the daily life of a Roman soldier would be more relevant than the political machinations of the Senate.

In “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Charles Nordhoff and James Hall meticulously detail the intricacies of 18th-century sailing manoeuvres and shipboard hierarchy, which directly impact the mutiny plot.

#2 – Fiction First, Facts Later.

Don’t let research stall your writing. Get your core plot and characters established first. Then, pinpoint areas needing historical grounding. This keeps the creative flow going and ensures research serves the story. 

Write the story you’re passionate about, then refine the historical details later in the revision process.

In my book “Full Circle”, I first outlined the story and then identified what topics I needed to research. These topics included what typical food they had in communist Czechoslovakia, what the political prison looked like, the map of Prague in the 1960s, what newspapers they would read, etc.

Ken Follett, known for his meticulously researched historical thrillers like “Pillars of the Earth, likely drafted the core narrative of the medieval monastery construction project before delving into specific architectural details.

#3 – Befriend Secondary Sources.

While primary sources like diaries offer rich flavour, consider the power of good historical overviews and academic journals. These provide a solid foundation without a deep dive.

Consider using online resources like historical encyclopedias or reputable websites alongside primary sources.

For “A Gentleman in Moscow”, Amor Towles’s novel set during the Russian Revolution, the author consulted secondary sources like historical timelines and biographies alongside personal accounts from the period.

When I wrote “Full Circle,” I couldn’t read primary sources as they are in Czech, which I am not familiar with; however, I could listen to interviews done in English, after the Prague Spring, with some of the student demonstrators, which described student life in that period to give a better impression of how it felt to be a student during that time in Prague.

#4 – Know When to Take Creative Liberties.

While accuracy is essential, there are times when it’s acceptable (and even necessary) to take creative liberties for the sake of storytelling.

Whether compressing timelines, embellishing details, or inventing fictional elements, feel free to bend the rules if it serves the greater narrative.

Historical accuracy is important, but the creative license is your superpower! Don’t be afraid to bend facts for a compelling narrative. Just ensure the changes feel believable within the established historical context.Remember, it’s YOUR story.

In “The Shadow of the Wind” (one of my all-time favourite book) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War, the author creates a fictional labyrinthine library but ensures the social and political climate of post-war Spain feels real.

#5 – Balance Exposition with Immersion.

One of the worst mistakes historical writers can make is starting with an “info dump”. When incorporating research into your narrative, balance exposition and immersion.

Avoid overwhelming readers with info dumps; instead, seamlessly integrate factual details into the fabric of your story to enhance world-building and character development.

Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” masterfully weaves historical details into the narrative without sacrificing pacing or storytelling. Through vivid descriptions and subtle allusions, Doerr transports readers to World War II-era Europe, immersing them in the lives of his characters against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in history.


#6 – Seek Authentic Voices.

When writing characters from different backgrounds or cultures, seek authentic voices and perspectives to ensure accurate representation.

This might involve conducting interviews, reading firsthand accounts, or consulting with cultural experts to capture the nuances of diverse experiences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” follows the journey of a young Nigerian woman navigating life in the United States. Adichie draws on her experiences as a Nigerian immigrant to create authentic characters and explore themes of identity, race, and belonging with depth and sensitivity.


#7 – Know When to Stop.

This is the most important tip. It’s easy to get caught up in the research phase, continuously seeking new information and delving deeper into historical details. However, there comes a point where you need to trust your instincts, draw a line, and begin writing. Here’s why:

  • Avoid Paralysis by Analysis: Researching endlessly without ever starting to write can lead to analysis paralysis. You may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information or constantly second-guessing whether you have enough knowledge to begin. Remember, writing is a creative process, and sometimes you need to jump in and start swimming, even if you don’t know every detail about the historical period yet.
  • Immerse Yourself in the Writing Process: Writing is where the magic happens. It’s where you bring your characters to life, develop your plot, and craft your narrative voice. By diving into the writing process, you’ll better understand your story and its historical context. You’ll uncover new insights and connections you may not have discovered through research alone.
  • Research as You Go: Writing and research go hand in hand. As you write, you’ll inevitably encounter gaps in your knowledge or areas that require further exploration. Instead of trying to anticipate every detail beforehand, embrace the process of research as you go along. This approach allows for a more organic integration of historical details into your narrative rather than overwhelming your readers with info dumps.
  • Trust Your Creative Instincts: As a writer, your unique voice and vision drive your storytelling. Trust your instincts and intuition when crafting your historical novel. While historical accuracy is important, don’t let it stifle your creativity or dictate every aspect of your narrative. Allow yourself the freedom to take creative liberties when necessary, always keeping the essence of your story at the forefront.
  • Set Realistic Boundaries: Set realistic boundaries for your research phase. Determine how much time and effort you will dedicate to researching before transitioning to the writing stage. By setting clear boundaries, you’ll prevent yourself from getting lost in an endless cycle of research and ensure that you progress towards bringing your story to life.

In “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, the story is set in Nazi Germany during World War II, and the author paints a vivid and harrowing picture of life under the oppressive regime.

While Zusak’s portrayal of historical events and settings is grounded in meticulous research, he also knows when to stop and focus on the emotional core of the story. The novel is ultimately a powerful exploration of humanity and resilience in the face of unimaginable adversity, reminding us that the true heart of historical fiction lies in its ability to capture the human experience.

In Conclusion – research is an indispensable tool for fiction writers, offering a wealth of inspiration and insights to enrich our stories.

By striking the right balance between fact and creativity, we can create narratives that captivate readers while staying true to the essence of our stories. So, embrace the research process, let your imagination soar, and create worlds that resonate with authenticity and imagination.

Now it’s YOUR turn – I would love to hear your tips and ideas how to balance research and creativity

Would love to get your input in the comment box below.

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