Research and Storytelling for Successful Historical Fiction
“It must be easy writing historical fiction. You already know what’s happened.”
That comment always makes me laugh. When you write historical fiction, you wonder what really happened. According to historian Patrick Collinson, “It is possible for competent historians to come to radically different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Because, of course, 99 percent of the evidence, above all, unrecorded speech, is not available to us.”
That 99 percent leaves a lot of gray areas.
Happily, those gray areas are where historical novelists get to play. That’s where our imagination fills in what might’ve happened behind and between recorded accounts. It’s where we invent the characters, relationships, and motives that history books can’t supply. The challenge—and enjoyment—of writing historical novels lies in successfully weaving a story that meshes what’s known with what might’ve been.
The Right Inspiration
As storytellers, we find sparks of inspiration everywhere—history books, novels, films, a chance comment, or footnote. As history nerds, we dive into research and identify the spaces where sparks ignite into story. Since it can take months or years to complete a manuscript, what’s most important here is passion for your topic because it has to sustain your interest while you write the book your characters and their stories deserve. According to bestselling author Erika Robuck—whose upcoming novel, Sisters of Night and Fog, releases March 1, 2022—it feels as though you’ve been handed a mission.
“My subjects from the past issue a call to me and I respond. In that response, I pour myself into understanding my characters—real or imagined—through extensive research and yes, prayer, so that my writing contributes to their redemptions.”
I tend to research off and on for about six months, reading widely to obtain an overview of the historical period, then digging deeper to understand specific lives and moments. Then I put together a synopsis of five to seven pages and get down to writing! There’s always more research along the way because it’s impossible to know in advance what other details the story demands. Was Chanel No. 5 available in 1918? During which year was the Shanghai Hospital for Women and Children established?
By now, it’s no surprise to me that women are not as prominent in the historical record as their male colleagues. The silver lining is that with some digging, a famous incident told from a female point of view offers a fresh story, something Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code, The Huntress, and The Alice Network, actively seeks out.
“I look at a historical event, and I ask ‘What were the women doing?’ Because the answer is almost always ‘More than you think!’ Women’s deeds are rarely front and center in the historical record, but they’re there—you just have to go hunting around the edges, in the nooks and crannies. Most of the narratives I found about Bletchley Park seemed to center on the male codebreakers. So I asked myself ‘What were the women doing?’ and that’s when I discovered that of the nearly 9,000 personnel employed there in 1945, nearly 7,000 were women!”
Tangentially, a seemingly minor character at the periphery of a famous incident could prove worthy of a novel.
“I found Thelma Furness in a movie directed by Madonna called W.E. of all things!” said Bryn Turnbull, internationally bestselling author whose second novel, The Last Grand Duchess, releases Feb. 8, 2022. “The movie referenced a moment when Thelma, who was mistress to the Prince of Wales at the time, asked Wallis Simpson to ‘take care’ of him while she was away. Initially, I thought Thelma was giving her friend Wallis the go-ahead to pursue Edward but once I jumped down the research rabbit hole I realized it wasn’t the case—and that Thelma had a much bigger story to tell!”
Even when you have a solid outline for your novel, be flexible. It’s practically guaranteed that some unexpected tidbit will shove your plot sideways—usually for the better. This happened with my third novel, which is set in 1937, when dozens of Chinese universities evacuated their campuses to get away from invading Japanese forces—an experience my father lived through with his classmates and professors. They reached the safety of central China after months of walking through war zones, then finished their education at temporary wartime campuses.
It was a story I’d been wanting to write because the evacuation of Chinese universities was an event almost unknown to Western readers. But while skimming memoirs by the alumni of a university, I came across a totally matter-of-fact mention about how those students walked 1,000 miles while transporting a priceless library of ancient books.
My original synopsis went out the window as I investigated this sizable tidbit, altering plot and themes, not to mention the novel’s title, which became The Library of Legends.
Give Readers an Immersive Experience
Apart from inspiration, research gives us the details that make the world of our story come to life. History books offer names, dates, and locations of events. But novels need characters and relationships, conflict and redemption, risks and rewards. This is where the “it must be easy, you already know what happened” comment makes us shake our heads.
Historical fiction is often set during times of social and political transition because change creates opportunities for our characters to show who they are as they deal with conflicts both internal and external. If you want their responses to seem plausible, it’s important to establish how gender, education, social class, belief systems, occupation, and a myriad of other factors have shaped your characters because otherwise, readers will judge their behavior by contemporary values.
So in a process not unlike world-building in speculative fiction, we explore the minutiae of daily life to layer the landscape. How did men and women dress for different occasions? What kind of medical care was available? How was mail delivered and how often? What did food cost? What level of schooling could a girl expect? Would a stove burn wood or gas? Oil lamps or candles? Was there running water in this part of town back then?
Memoirs and diaries are wonderful sources but even here, we can’t find everything. Diarists tend to document unusual and memorable events but not the ordinary things they took for granted—the very things we fervently wish to know. USA Today bestselling author of Bringing Down the Duke, A Rogue of One’s Own, and Portrait of a Scotsman Evie Dunmore’s hunt for mundane but essential specifics led her to Oxford.
“When I researched the first women at Oxford, there wasn’t much online. So I went to Oxford and found much of the information in a small stash of documents in the Lady Margaret Hall archives. I skimmed 40 years’ worth of correspondence between people who supported allowing women to sit the full exams and those against it. These primary sources really helped me understand the prevailing attitudes and the very real anger the proponents felt. I sat there in my nook saying ‘Yesss, girl!’ to some Victorian lady I’ll never meet. That’s when they really became alive to me. It helped immensely to feel my characters as fellow humans rather than imaginary friends.”
We always hope we’ve succeeded at conjuring up the past but it’s only through readers’ feedback that we can know. Comments such as “felt as if I was right there” or “I didn’t want to leave the world of this book” make us glow. History nerds that we are, we love when readers comment that our books have taught them something new and now they’re interested in that period of history. Think of historical fiction as the gateway drug that turns readers into fellow history-lovers. After all, it’s how many of us got started!
When History Meets the Present
It’s especially gratifying to me when readers of Chinese descent comment that my novel has taught them something about China’s past. But it would be hard to beat New York Times bestselling author of The Women of Chateau Lafayette and My Dear Hamilton Stephanie Dray’s amazing experience when a reader wrote that her novel provided their family with new insights about a famous relative.
“In my career, I’ve had some very rare opportunities to contribute to, or correct, the historical record, and I have come to treasure these moments, some of which have brought me close to tears. One of the most recent discoveries happened during the writing of The Women of Chateau Lafayette when I found some letters at the New York Historical Society and uncovered a 100-year-old secret love affair between World War One heroine Beatrice Chanler and a French officer. This helped Beatrice’s family discover that she’d been lying about her identity her entire life and that she was actually a much more extraordinary woman than anyone knew. Bringing lost heroines to life and telling their untold truths has become a nearly spiritual exercise in empathy for me, rewarding beyond compare.”
It’s no coincidence that Erika Robuck also uses the word spiritual to describe the experience of research that led to an unexpected outcome—contact with the family of one of her subjects.
“Research is a spiritual process with many strange and wonderful rewards, not the least of which comes when my subject’s living relatives reach out and say things like, ‘I never really knew him/her until I read your book.’ This is the true and priceless reward, and it outweighs any other kind of success.”
I consider historical novelists lucky because research gives us wins that don’t depend on conventional definitions of success. It doesn’t mean we ignore the publishing industry’s success metrics, but it does mean we can always count on the satisfaction that comes from learning about some heroine’s quirk or unearthing an incident that slots neatly into our storyline. Perhaps this lends us a bit more resilience when we face a challenging market.
Beware the Moving Target of Success
There came a time when I realized that with each achievement—signing with an agent, another book sale to a publisher, award nominations, bestseller list—I was mentally raising the bar. What about the Booker? Or the New York Times list? When would one of those film options make it to production?
That way lies madness.
One of the few things authors can control is the quality of our writing. So now with each book, I push myself to improve, to try something outside my comfort zone. Hone the prose, switch point of view, set a dual-timeline plot, or use multiple characters to narrate the story. And while we can’t control them, Kate Quinn believes it’s good to be aware of market trends.
“The best quality I can think of to nurture success is adaptability. Yes, you need to work hard at your craft; yes, you need to have a certain degree of talent for your craft; and absolutely yes, you are going to need a dose of good luck—all of those things are necessary to succeed! But beyond all that, be adaptable. Markets change, the publishing world changes, readers’ tastes and trends change, and you must be willing to change with them if you want to carve out a place at the top and stay there.”
Success to me now means writing a better novel than the previous. It’s doable and not crazy-making.
“When I first started writing I told myself the work/life balance was overrated,” said Eliza Knight, USA Today bestselling author of The Mayfair Bookshop, available April 12, 2022. “At some point, I realized the fallacy in that. Balance is the only reason I get things done now because my creative brain is much likelier to produce meaningful, compelling words when everything else is aligned. I live by a detailed daily schedule, and a quarterly goal board, which gives me sanity, and the ability to say yes or no to various tasks/activities. Structure has given me the power to succeed not only with my writing but at this beautiful thing called life.”
You’ve probably noticed this article includes insights from several author friends. I’m grateful for their advice but I especially love these words from Bryn Turnbull, a reminder that sometimes the success you hope for is something you’ll never witness personally:
“Your novel might become someone’s favorite book or a bestseller. It might be the book that changes a person’s outlook on life, or it might bring two new friends together. Whatever the outcome—whether it’s read by 10 people or 10,000—that moment of possibility, to me, is the most wonderful thing in the world: to hold in your hand, success in all its myriad forms.”
Order your copy of The Library of Legends by Janie Chang.
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