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Time and Place: Researching Your Historical Fiction

By Liz Curtis Higgs

When I asked my fiction readers to finish the sentence, “I love historical fiction because…”, my favorite response was this: “It’s like a history class and an adventure, all rolled into one.” Yes!

I’ll leave spinning memorable adventures to your fertile imaginations. I’m here to help with assembling a historically accurate world in which your characters can live and breathe.

My novels are set in real Scottish towns and villages on specific days, months, and years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But even if you create a fictional town in a vague time period, it still has to feel real to your readers. So, by making your research highly focused–a particular county or region in a given year–you can keep your descriptions and other details accurate and make your information-gathering manageable.

Use available resources as your starting point. I chose the time period and locale of Scottish poet Robert Burns because I found several well-researched biographies to give me a proper sense of the Dumfries and Galloway regions in the 1780’s. Of course, my library soon stretched far beyond that handful of books, but they provided a strong foundation and copious footnotes that pointed to other great resources.

Research, then write, then research again. Once you’ve told your story, you’ll discover what you really need to know. Analyze every action in every scene, and ask yourself questions. Let’s say you have your heroine rising to break her fast. When exactly did the sun rise in that time and place, and what hour did people generally awaken? What sort of bedding did she sleep on? Are her nightclothes made of silk, linen, cotton, or lawn? When her feet touch the floor, is it dirt, wood, flagstone, or carpet? Each one has a different texture and temperature. And what’s burning in her fireplace–coal, wood, or peat–since each one provides a unique aroma and light? All this before your heroine is even out of bed!

Don’t panic. Here are some sources for all those details. Start with classic novels published during your time period. For me that’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Pamela (1740), Vanity Fair (1848), Catriona (1893). Such novels help us grasp not only the details of the era, but also their conversational style as well as their values and thinking patterns. Next, look for credible nonfiction books written about your time period. The more specific the better. Rather than The History of Scotland, I go for titles like Edinburgh at the Time of the Occupation of Prince Charles or Three Centuries of Scottish Posts to 1836.

If at all possible, research your setting in person. Some things to take with you? A small digital recorder, measuring tape, a magnifying glass, maps of the area, your w-i-p, and a long list of questions that need answers. Places to visit while you are there include the public library, the oldest church in town, indie and used book stores, museums, historic sites, cemeteries, and antique shops. I record copious notes all day, then transcribe them into a document in my room each evening, adding story ideas in red.

Befriend an antiquarian bookseller in the region. Not only will he or she happily track down the books you need, but a local contact will likely know people in the area who are history buffs and might prove helpful. When I visit my story locations, I casually interview every person I meet, from innkeepers to shopkeepers. People love to talk about their town and what they know of its history.

How much time should you spend on research? And how much money should you invest in books and travel? Ask yourself if you are writing a single title, a series of novels, or if this time and place is going to be the bedrock of your fiction career, then make wise use of your time and money.

Above all, don’t let your fear of research overcome your faith in His calling. Whom God calls, He equips. And (this is the best part) He goes with you. Have fun storming the castle!

Liz Curtis Higgs is the author of 36 books with 4.6 million copies in print, including: her nonfiction bestseller, Bad Girls of the Bible, and her latest release, The Women of Easter; her award-winning children’s Parable Treasury; and her Scottish historical novel, Mine Is the Night, a New York Times bestseller. Visit Liz at www.LizCurtisHiggs.com or www.MyScottishHeart.com.

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2 Responses to Time and Place: Researching Your Historical Fiction

  1. Thank you for these great tips, Liz. Before writing my historical trilogy, The Italian Chronicles (Book 3 in progress), I was blessed with having lived in Italy for a year and having visited the country several times thereafter. Plus, I still have many family members there who contributed first-hand to my research. One of the greatest blessings, however, that our Lord gave me was to connect me–in a miraculous way–with a professional historian and genealogist who scanned and sent me document after document of primary sources for my books. Yes, “whom God calls, He equips.” Hallelujah!

    Love and Blessings,

    MaryAnn
    http://www.maryanndiorio.com

  2. Melanie says:

    What a great way to jot down notes–record it! Love that idea. It has been wondering around in my head as a notion to do, but now that I have read your post, I will be sure to start recording my notes!

    Thank you!