Writing historic fiction, or any fiction that is based on fact, can’t be a daunting prospect. While we might get excited about sharing our world with our characters or going into the past and entering a different world for our stories, the risk of getting something wrong is huge.
The idea for this post came from a member of my Facebook group. Everyone has to answer questions when they join and the last questions is about what issues you’re facing as a writer.
Someone said they were worried about writing historic fiction, which is a problem when you want to write stories set in the past.
Thing is, setting stories in our own time, in the real world, is just as problematic.
I once read a book where the character travelled from London to Chelmsford in Essex in 20 minutes by car.
I’m from Chelmsford. You CANNOT make that drive in 20 minutes. I double-checked with Chelmsfordian friends and confirmed it.
It’s something forgivable, but it did irritate me and made me wonder what else wasn’t quite accurate.
And there you have it. One of the biggest fears of all writers.
So, how do you overcome this?
The best way to overcome the worries of writing about a past time or a real life place is to do the research.
Yes, it takes time. Yes, it can be a headache. But it is SO worth it.
6 ways to research
Ah, this takes me back. After an A-Level in History and a degree in Archaeology, I feel like I know something about historic research!
So, here are 6 places to find what you need to know.
- Read up on it.
Anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry so please don’t rely on Wikipedia for your research. At least check out the citations and sources they list!
Reading is the most obvious, reliable and often fun way of researching. You can treat yourself to some books on your favourite topic, take a trip down your local library and check out official websites online.
Depending on what you’re researching, don’t forget to check out magazines (there are a lot of great history magazine articles out there!), journals and periodicals (ask at your library). You might even be able to get access to your local university library (mine was my happy place until I moved away).
If you’re lacking time for reading, give audiobooks a try, but make sure you’re paying attention while you multi-task! Historic UK and All That’s Interesting have a vast collection of articles worth perusing. All That’s Interesting also has some fantastic photos of the more recent past, such as life in the 1960s.
- Do a course.
If a particular topic or skill has always fascinated you or you just love to learn, you can take a course on it. There are loads of free online courses. My particular favourites are over on Coursera, which offers courses and certificates from major universities.
FutureLearn happens to be my mum’s favourite (she’s now a forensic expert!).You can also find short courses and workshops at your local university, college and any city you’re close to (these are also a great way of meeting new like-minded people).
- Are there any podcasts or interviews you can listen to?
Similar to reading and audiobooks, you might want to see if there are any podcasts that cover what you’re interested in learning. Podcasts will often contain interviews and the people making the podcast will usually have done all the research for you.For example, I recently found a podcast all about the history of Bristol (the city I live in).
Have a quick Google for ‘your topic podcasts’ or do a search on your favourite podcast platform.
- Go there! Failing that, Google Earth it.
If you’re writing a modern story set in the real world but want to know more about where your story is set, consider going there. What a great excuse for a holiday or ‘business trip’!
If you can’t get to where you want to write about, or you’re like me and forget certain details as soon as you get home despite all the notes, then try finding the area on Google Earth and take a ‘walk’ around there.
- Don’t believe everything you see online.
But hang on a second, if you go searching online for a location, don’t believe everything you see. Social media is generally about making things pretty. Search for Bristol, for example, and you’ll find beautiful snaps of street art, gorgeous colourful buildings and the sparkling harbour. What you won’t find is the homelessness problem, the food banks, the poverty, and the general grime, litter and prejudice that comes with a big city.
- If in doubt, ask.
So, if you’re ever in doubt or struggling to find the truth of a topic or place, whether historic or modern, ask someone! Ask on social media, ask your friends, ask in your online groups. Ask in anyone knows anyone.There’s a section on the Absolute Write forum (click here and scroll down to ‘Research’) just for this purpose and it can be a story saver.
There’s also a section on there for historic fiction writers you might want to take a look at.
How to research
It’s so easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of research, especially on the internet. You go in searching for hospital conditions during World War One and suddenly you’ve spent four hours reading and you’ve somehow managed to get onto which celebrity looks like a Pug (it can happen!).
Now, getting lost in research can sometimes be great.
You could find inspiration and new ideas for your story, the sequel or a completely new project. So allow yourself to wander every now and then.
Otherwise, you’ll want to be strict with yourself:
- Make a list of the things you want to research and where you might find the answers. Then give yourself a time limit. An hour at a time, say, and set an alarm to make sure you stick to it.
- Write down any ideas or questions that arise from researching so that you don’t go off on a tangent or forget what you were supposed to be researching. You can come back to those ideas and questions later.
- Keep notes of your research and where you found the information. You don’t want to be writing something, wonder if you got that right and then have to dive back into the internet to figure it out all over again.
Equally, you don’t want to forget everything!
- Don’t research EVERYTHING! You’ll never get any writing done! Decide which bits you definitely don’t know and which bits will cause problems if you get them wrong, and research those bits.
If you research everything before you begin writing, the majority of your hard work won’t make it anywhere near your story. But you can always do more research as you’re writing and realise you don’t know something.
In the end, the answer is to research enough that you have some confidence in what you’re writing about and then to just get on and write it.
There has to come a time when you just get on with it, otherwise you’ll spend your life down the rabbit hole of research.
Take a deep breath and trust in your abilities.