Researching Historical Fiction

When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, my usual response is, “Historical espionage fiction.” I write about spies and their involvement, fictional though it is, in historical events, hence Historical Espionage Fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an historian by training and degree, and that training not only showed me the importance of good research but also how to research well. In fact, it’s one of my favorite parts about the publishing process, second only to writing itself. Indeed, I quite often find myself falling down interesting but unrelated rabbit holes while researching.

I feel so strongly about good research in historical fiction that I’m conducting a workshop on it this weekend for the Author Transformation Alliance’s 2023 Virtual Spring Writing Retreat. (For more information on that, click HERE.) It starts on Friday, so you still have time to sign up for it.

What is Historical Fiction?

There are almost as many answers for that as there are types of historical fiction, but I particularly liked the definition given by Celadon Books:

“Historical Fiction is one of those sub-genres of literature that takes many forms. It’s most important feature, though, is that it’s set in the past, with every element of the story conforming to the norms of the day.”

Celadon Books expands on that a bit by emphasizing that Historical Fiction occurs in a real place in a culturally recognizable time. Historical fiction is usually a mix of real events and events from the author’s imagination, which the author uses to fill in the gaps, which is generally called artistic license. I so relate to that in writing my historical fiction. The people in historical fiction can be real or made–up or an amalgam of several real people in one character. Everything about historical fiction – people’s attitudes and beliefs, their clothing and appearance, how they talk, their social status, and their life experiences – has to match the time period you’re writing about.

A tall order, to be sure. So how does an author get all this right?


Types of Historical Fiction

As with any genre of literature, historical fiction has its sub-genres. Some of the most popular are:

  • Documentary Fiction, which adheres closely to events and is as historically accurate as possible, with little or no deviation from the history
  • Biographical Historical Fiction, which is the fictionalized telling of the life story of an historical figure
  • Historical Series or Epics, which may cover many eras and sometimes in multiple settings, like a family saga
  • Historical Mysteries and Thrillers, which are structured the same as a regular mystery or thriller but takes place in the past. I consider my work to fall under this sub-genre.
  • Historical Romance, probably the most popular sub-genre, is simply a love story set in the past.
  • Historical Adventures, which take readers on a journey in a specific era with an historical backdrop
  • Historical Fantasy, where the writer takes dramatic license with some facts but stays true to others, e.g., an alternative history where, say, Pres. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated. This is sometimes considered sci-fi or speculative fiction.

How Far in the Past is History?

I talked about this in a blog post several years ago: “When is Something Considered History?” .

Historians think of history as generational, and a generation is roughly 30 years. But historians also consider significant events as historical, like the Challenger Disaster in January of 1986, 37 years ago. Historians would consider that history now, but they also considered it of significant historical importance in 1986.

Celadon Books, whom I cited earlier, said history is anything past 50 years of present day. So, anything before 1973, but trust me, since I was alive then, plenty of historic events happened before and since 1973. I’d say, as an historian, what happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, doesn’t have to wait 50 years or even 30 to be considered history.

But this segues into an important aspect of researching for historical fiction: the farther back in time you go, the more you have to research, because there is someone, somewhere who knows the history of 15th century France as if they lived it, and you better get it right. I think that’s why I’ve stuck to writing about events that happened in my lifetime. Even then, I have to research.

But, Why Research?

Even when you’re making it up, it has to be accurate; it has to fit, by the definition above, within the norms of the day. So, if you’re writing about the time before 1849 and have someone use a telephone, you didn’t do your research. And, yes, I know that Alexander Graham Bell patented his version of a telephone in the U.S. in 1876, but Italian Antonio Meucci invented the first basic phone in 1849. Frenchman Charles Bourseul developed one in 1854.

How’d I know that?


Second, you need to research because no matter the genre, there are tropes you must include because the reader expects them. The only way to make sure you’re true to the genre is research.

If you’re using a setting you’ve never been to, you have to accept there’s likely a reader who has and knows it like the back of their hand. You’ve got to get it right. Say your story is set in Alsace Lorraine. Depending on the time period, the national language may be French or German.

The purpose of research, then, is not only to find the accurate details to enhance your story but to make sure you don’t put off the knowledgeable reader.

But I Write [Fill in the Blank]

Do I have to research if I write fantasy, sci-fi, speculative fiction, steampunk, contemporary romance, etc.?


In Fantasy and Sci-Fi, and speculative fiction to an extent, you may make up the setting (an alien planet), the characters (fairies or orcs), the events (taking a magic ring to a volcano), or the norms (the society is matriarchal), but the reader relates better to your story if you include something familiar in it.

For example, medieval fantasy is a highly popular fantasy sub-genre. People read it not only for the fantasy but for the medieval aspects. The same is true for Steampunk, especially Victorian era Steampunk, and even contemporary romance.

What about your artistic license, you ask. Use it. Definitely, but keep it in the context of the era, the setting, and the norms. The only way to do this is . . .


There are times, of course, when you may not need to research. If you’re a subject matter expert on the era, the setting, or the societal norms of the era, you may not have to. There would have been a time when I could have written about an aircraft or a flight and relied on nothing except my knowledge and experience. But now? It’s been more than 15 years since I touched the controls of an airplane, and the regulations have changed in that time. Take it from me, I’d research.

Where Do I Start?

At one time, it would be at the card catalogue in your local library. Now, it’s the Google. That’s my go-to to check a date I may be fuzzy on for a specific event or the whole timeline of an event. From my Google results, I may find articles to read. Sometimes I search in Amazon for books on the same event or era, and I’ll read both fiction and nonfiction books about it. Nonfiction books are great because they have bibliographies where you can find titles of other books to use for research.

If I want to use a setting where I’ve never been, Google Maps. If I want to see how women dressed in 1944, Google Images, and so forth. Google Translate is also a great help, allowing you to pepper your work with the language of your setting.

When I want to delve deeper, perhaps to get a good idea of how an average person lived in a specific era, I’ll look at faculty listings in the History departments of local colleges and universities. Maybe I’ll interview subject matter experts for the details (and thank them in the book’s acknowledgements).

Newspaper archives are a gold mine, though you may have to pay to access them even beyond a subscription price. The same is true for online encyclopedias – Encyclopedia Britannica or the World Book Encyclopedia, for example – you may have to subscribe. (An aside: My father bought me a set of the World Book Encyclopedia before I even went to school. Once I could read, I started at the first volume and didn’t stop until I reached the last. I loved those books and was immeasurably sad when a water leak in my brother’s basement destroyed them, even though they were hopelessly out of date.)

Of course, if you have the budget for it, there’s nothing quite like traveling to the setting you want to use and talking to people who live there.

This is a good spot to talk about Wikipedia, which is indeed the most often consulted online encyclopedia. Wikipedia is problematic because someone can write an article about a person, place, or event and make it all up without providing any sources. Wikipedia is trying to police that better, but for now, Wikipedia is a good starting point for general information about a subject – but double-check what you find somewhere else.

A Few Things to Consider

As I said earlier, research can lead you down some fascinating rabbit holes, especially online research. If you’re on a deadline, be careful with your time.

Then, after you’ve taken copious notes on the types of crops planted by farmers in the Saar Valley of Germany in the 19th century, resist the temptation to info dump everything. Remember, the point of every scene in a story is to advance that story. I will confess, however, I do read the info dumps where I find them because I’m still a history geek.

Use those SMEs you consulted as your beta readers. Trust me, historians will let you know if you got it wrong. So will cops and pilots and most anyone with a deep background in a profession.

Bear in mind that when you’re dealing with history, one or more rewrites may be necessary because, like scientists, historians find something new and unknown about an era all the time.

And last but not least, writing historical fiction is great fun. I always learn something new about a time I lived through or a time before I was born. It’s the kind of fiction you can easily lose yourself in as a reader and a writer, and it’s incumbent upon those of us who write it to make it interesting.

The only way to accomplish that is . . .