Thinking like a historian when writing historical fiction


You don’t have to be an expert historian to delve into historical research. Learning how to be a thoughtful and clever historian takes years and years of practice. But you can start your journey by understanding how to think like a historian.

Always consider context

The old adage, “hindsight is 20/20,” can be a detriment to historical storytellers. Challenge yourself to think about events or interactions not from your modern perspective, but using the details you uncover from your research.

Be mindful of your sources

Different sources covering the same era or event can tell wildly different stories. Consider the 1940s — a New York newspaper covered WWII far differently than a German publication. Investigate multiple sources to see what unique perspectives you can find and use in your story.

Draw conclusions with evidence

If you have a hunch that a certain character would react in a certain way, use your research to support that behavior. This helps you think more objectively about context, and can also fuel your narrative.

Ask specific questions

Being specific will guide your research process. If you’re writing a book about Ancient Rome, that’s a huge topic and can be overwhelming! Focus your questions based on your story or characters, such as: what did teenage Roman girls in wealthy families wear during the summer months?

Research topics from different perspectives

See what you can find out about the same events from the perspective of multiple characters. For example, what would a married Roman woman talk about while watching Gladiators battle in the Coliseum? What would a Gladiator in slavery think about as he is sent into the arena?

Download the free guide, Researching Your Historical Novel, by clicking below!

How to prepare for National Novel Writing Month

October is quickly coming to an end! I don't know about you, but I feel like this month flew by. And while I'm bummed that my favorite holiday, Halloween, will be over soon, I'm really excited about November, because it's National Novel Writing Month! (NaNoWriMo, for short.)

This year, I am dedicating November to writing a historical fiction novel. To make my month of writing easier, I'm spending this week outlining my book and doing some research. Here's how you can prepare for November writing: 

Pick your writing tool

A writing tool can make or break your writing experience! You may prefer good ol' tools like journals or typewriters, but I think most writers these days prefer a digital word processor. Here are a few I recommend:

+ Novlr

Novlr is a book writing tool that I absolutely love. Their interface is minimalistic, and it's easy to create new chapters or new books. Each novel you create also has a section for taking notes; I use this for organizing my research, writing my outline, and documenting character/place descriptions. It costs $10/mo, but automatically stores all of your writing in the cloud (you can sync it with Dropbox or Google Drive) so you never have to worry about losing your writing. One of my favorite features is their analytics, which shows me how many words I've written that day and what my writing preferences are (I like to write in the evenings, for instance). 

+ Google Docs

If you want a free option, Google Docs is also an excellent free tool that I use every single day. Docs are automatically stored in their cloud, which again alleviates the fear of losing your story (every writer's worst nightmare!). Use their comment tool to make edits as you go without having to delete things entirely from your story. 

+ Scrivener

Many of my writer friends are diehard Scrivener fans. Scrivener is writing software that helps you organize and complete your writing. It's a bit more technical than the other tools I've shared, but it's excellent for longform writing. You can download a free trial to give it a shot. Scrivener Coach is a great resource to learn how to use this tool to the fullest. 

Create your outline

Even a book with a simple narrative still needs a good outline to ensure continuity. An outline will help you set goals. If you're not sure about what's going to happen yet during a part of your book, your outline may help you think this through. Your outline may look like this (this is actually part of my outline for the book I'm writing!):

Outline for The Red Violin

Plot: Introduce Julia and Daniel
Time: Present day (2016) 
Location: Reno, Nevada

Part 1
Plot: Introduce Lidiya, who meets Dmitri
Time: November 1941
Location: Leningrad, Russia

And so on. Your outline is like a storyboard: an overview of what happens, who it happens to, and how it happens. 

Do your research

The challenge of NaNoWriMo is to write a whole novel, start to finish, in one month. But if your story requires some research, such as historical research, there's no harm in doing some of that this week. Compile photographs, documents, audio clips, and notes that you can reference as you write. Add your notes to whatever writing tool you choose to use, and annotate them so that you know where in your story you want to incorporate this information.

If you're new to writing historical fiction, you'll enjoy my mini course, Researching Your Historical Novel. Because of NaNoWriMo, it's just $5, and comes with a worksheet that will help you organize your research and your story. 

Happy writing!