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How to Research a Novel: 6 Tips and Tricks

Updated: May 23, 2019

Historical fiction is my absolute favorite genre. As a history major and social studies textbook writer--who was is also a professional writer and avid reader--I'm a huge fan of learning about a time period while getting lost in a good novel. So as I've started to write a novel of my own, I'm heading down the historical-fiction road. Which means I do LOTS of research. If you're in a similar boat, here are my best tips and tricks for researching your historical fiction novel:


1. LOVE the research.


Maybe it's obvious, but please don't start writing a historical fiction novel--or any piece of historical writing--if research just isn't your thing. You have to love the smell of a cool library on a hot summer day. You have to love the joy of discovery and truly enjoy the endless journey down countless rabbit-holes of information. Digging and learning and discovering has to spark more joy than Marie Kondo has even imagined.


"Wait, Marie Antoinette wore what kind of underwear?! I must know more!"


(By the way, if you just paused to open a new tab so you could search "Marie Antoinette underwear," then we very well may be long-lost soulmates.)


2. Get lost in the details.


Especially in the early stages, it's ok to let your research and your discoveries guide the trajectory of your novel. Learning important pieces of information about what a character may have certainly experienced or what she may have learned can absolutely affect the decisions that character makes, the people with whom she may interact, or the places she may travel.


Remember to get lost in the details of place, just as you get lost in the details of characters. The setting in a piece of historical fiction is another character unto itself. Don't overlook it or assume that savvy readers won't pick up on out-of-place details.


3. You don't ever have to leave home.


Now that so much information is digitized, you don't ever have to leave your couch to start your research. My home state of Minnesota has an amazing records collection. Your state likely does as well. So does the national archives. Local counties and municipalities, even really small or rural ones, also often publish public records online.


4. But find inspiration in real documents.


While it's great that so much information is so readily available, there's something really inspirational about digging into the physical records. Historical fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, needs to be accurate and believable. Especially if you're a tactile learner, nothing can compare to the inspiration of holding someone's actual letter, of seeing the ink from their pen and experiencing the same physical sensation that the letter-writer had so many years before.


5. Don't be afraid to make s**t up.


If Oliver Stone can do it, then so can you. You are not writing a biography or a textbook. You are writing a novel. I am giving you complete permission to be as creative as you need to be with any of those historical nuggets you unearth.


So if you're writing about an amazing historical figure who grew up in Arkansas, but for the sake of your novel, she needs to be from Maine, then you swap that southern twang for a northeast bite. If you're writing about something that happened in the eighteenth century, but your plotline dictates that it happened in the twentieth century, then put on your time-traveling pants and make it happen.


6. Know when to stop researching.


Good research is like eating Thin Mint cookies: it can seem impossible to stop.


Research is addicting and it's fun, but it's also a great way to procrastinate. At some point, you have to realize that you could continue to do research forever, but you need to stop researching and start writing. You can always come back to this part of your journey, but it's time to move on. Until it's time to start writing your next book.