Thursday, April 2, 2015

Researching Historical Fiction, From Beginning to End

By Karen Mann

Researching to write historical fiction is interesting and even exciting. The first thing to consider is going to the location of the novel and walking the streets your characters walked. Interview people. Go to the library there. Take time to find out how that place sounds, feels, tastes, looks, and smells.

However, when writing my novel The Woman of La Mancha, I was unable to go to Spain or even more specifically, I was unable to go to sixteenth-century Spain, yet my readers tell me I have made that time period vividly alive. How was I able to do that? Through extensive library and online research.

To begin, get a general overview of the time period. I started by reading one book about the time period. From that beginning, I understood the kinds of things I needed to research. My next stop was a weekend at university library. I made a lot of copies (2 bankers’ boxes full). Then went home and read and read.

Today, online research may be the first thing to do. Organize your bookmarks so you can easily find the pages where you find information. Be discerning about your online research to be sure you feel it’s accurate. Often you can find books or chapters of books online. Through libraries, you can access databases which may have even more accurate and detailed information than webpages. Remember the stacks at the library when you went to college? Nearly all those books and magazine are available online now. Consult your local library to find out how to access them.

Organize your notes by category: costumes, food, religion, government, farming, education, healing, illnesses, family life, architecture, household furnishings, hunting, music, art, literature, and more. Don’t leave any stone unturned; you need to have the entire picture of that society so you can write specifically about it.

You don’t have to write down everything you read. You are going to begin to get an overall picture of what that time period was like. You’ll be able to imagine yourself there and you’ll be able to imagine your characters there.

But there are details you will want to keep handy for reference. To keep that information handy, find a system that works for you to find the information you need when you need it. It might be something as simple as a spreadsheet. Type or paste information in worksheets with appropriate titles so you can find what you are looking for. Or your system might be a more elaborate software program or actual pieces of paper in a file cabinet. 
The more you research, the more you’ll have an idea of what you know (you know how they dressed in the eighteenth century) and what you don’t know (you don’t know how they prepared their food), so you can focus research on those topics to fill in the blanks.

Over time I assimilated everything. Nothing went to waste. It was as if I were sitting there while I wrote.

What is the key to incorporating the information in your writing? Find the most interesting tidbits. Don’t repeat facts by rote; adapt what you’ve read to your writing. Sometimes it’s only a word from that period, or the name of a particular cloth, a particular kind of chair or weapon. Maybe it’s how you make a porridge or ale or how you bake bread. Maybe it’s the flowers that bloom in the spring or how a harpsichord sounds. Bring each tidbit alive through evoking the senses or recreating specific and vivid scenes. Research informs your writing. Use it wisely and bring your writing to life.

Karen Mann is the author of The Woman of La Mancha and The Saved Man. She is the co-founder and Administrative Director of the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Spalding University and managing editor of The Louisville Review, a national literary magazine since 1976. Having lived in Indiana most of her life, she now lives in San Jose, California. See more about her books at

About The Woman of La Mancha:

The Woman of La Mancha, a companion book to Don Quixote, tells the woman’s story of Don Quixote by recounting the story of the girl he called Dulcinea, the woman he loved from afar.

It’s 1583. An eleven-year-old girl wakes in the back of a cart. She has lost her memory and is taken in by a kindly farm family in La Mancha. She adopts the name Aldonza. She doesn’t speak for quite some time. Once she speaks, there is a family member who is jealous of her and causes a good deal of trouble, even causing her to be forced to leave La Mancha in tragic circumstances. Having to create a new life in a new location and still unaware of her birth family, she adopts the name Dulcinea and moves in the circles of nobility. While seeking her identity, she becomes the consort of wealthy men, finds reason to disguise herself as a man, and learns herbal healing to help others.

There is a parallel story of a young man, Don Christopher, a knight of King Philip and the betrothed of the girl, who sets off on with a young squire, Sancho, to find the girl. Christopher’s adventures take them across Spain and force him to grow up. Does he continue the quest to find his betrothed or marry another and break the contract with the king?

Both young people have many experiences and grow up before the readers’ eyes. Floating in and out of each other’s paths as they travel around Spain, will they eventually find each other and be together?


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1 comment:

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Another way to research historical fiction is to use your own history. Even then, it requires a fact check because memories can get scrambled. I found a few inaccuracies whin I did this before I sent my new novel to my agent.

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