Researching Your Historical Novel

Angela Breidenbach is a bestselling author of fiction through the ages with most of her books set in Montana. She’s the host of Lit Up! on and iTunes about great entertainment from books to movies. Visit Angela and her fe-lion personal assistant, Muse, posting comedic conversations with his Writer on social media, entertaining fans just for fun. Please find her web site or on; Twitter/Pinterest/Instagram/Facebook:

Do your research! We’ve all heard that’s a crucial element in our writing, right? But research, that’s a really big and general topic. How exactly do we research and keep that research in case we have to prove a fact? What does it matter for fiction writers? Afterall, it’s fiction…

Research can mean something as simple as establishing a factual date that the moon glowed full a hundred and sixty years ago, shining on escaping slaves (check, or as complex as needing the specific sunrise for an execution or famous battle on the actual date in the year the calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian… But did you know different countries adopted it over a period of 300 years? Spain adopted the change way back in 1582. Get that wrong and you’ll get notes from people who do know. Simple, look up the calendar, right? Not if you don’t fact-check. Suddenly your work is suspect.

As an author, fiction or non-fiction, check your contractโ€”you’re the one responsible for facts written in your books. You. How do you handle 11 days disappearing from history in 1752 to mesh those two calendars in the Americas and the British holdings? (Spain only lost 10 days in 1582, by the way.) Just look at how this affects the birthday of our first president, George Washington, and anyone born before September 1752.

What if you write stories set in the 1700s or 1500s? Do you know when and how the new year started? How countries interacted while living on different calendar systems? Those facts could make a huge difference in setting if you have your characters celebrating in snow or around Easter or planning international relations.

What does it mean to be responsible for your own research? What you write is either believable or not, and can be challenged by readers, sure. But it can also be a legal issue should you write a fact that affects someone’s life today or willfully misrepresent a fact. True or otherwise, you must be able to back up what you write with proof. Then there’s the trust factor we build with readers. If they don’t believe what we write, they’re not going to buy what we write.

I love experiential research bolstered by the facts. My stories are richer for the real history and true people I sprinkle through my stories. For my novella, Fanned Embers in the Second Chance Brides Collection (Barbour Publishing, August 2017), I rode the Trail of the Hiawathaย three times with my family. Why? There were signs every quarter mile with facts, photos, names and places, data, and even the types of trains. But experiencing the country the largest fire in US history devastated helped me to visualize the reality my characters lived or died in during the Big Blow Up. I could have only read it in a book. I could have only looked online. But seeing the magnitude of how that disaster changed the world gave me completely different words than I would have used had I not experienced the real setting of the story. Knowing those facts makes the reader experience richer and more emotional, too.

For the upcoming Captive Brides Collection (also from Barbour Publishing, October 2017), I’d previously visited Pennsylvania and sat for days in the Pennsylvania State Library and then the Pennsylvania State Archives. I saw the lay of the land, historic buildings, maps of the original settlements, and indenture documents. I read books not allowed to be taken out of the facility and talked to historians about what my own ancestors might have experienced. Being physically present helped me gain knowledge I wouldn’t have otherwise understood.

Keeping track of writing research is crucial should you ever come under fire. For each book I write, I start an online file folder and a physical folder. As I collect my evidence, those items are filed into the appropriate spot. I’ll often print online information, being sure to include the search bar URL, and/or a screenshot. Those, plus any research items like the list of books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve watched, go into a plastic storage box to be kept with all versions of my manuscript and the contract for that particular work. One additional back up plan is in my email file system. Each book has its own label for every email concerning that work, including those I email myself with copies of my WIP or research links. That label system gets mirror ed inside my computer files. Programs like Evernote, Dropbox, Scrivener, etc. are also helpful for large files, to-do lists, and file management. Whatever system you choose, make it logical.

However you choose to save and document your research, make a plan you can rely on. That plan can help you avoid traumatic legal and career issues, but having past research available also opens up a world of new stories. Having already done the research can cut the preparation time for future books. I wrote Seven Medals and a Bride set at the 1893 World’s Fair, for the Barbour novella collection Blue Ribbon Brides (October 2016), and that research allowed me to write an entirely different novella called Bitterroot Bride because the Montana state flower information was sprinkled through the research for the first story.

Always remember your research can make or break your career whether it’s for legal proof, telling the story-behind-the-story for readers, or spawning ideas more efficiently. You’ll never regret saving your research. It just may save your career or be the unexpected vehicle for your great American novel.



17 Responses to Researching Your Historical Novel

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    Rebekah Love Dorris September 21, 2017 at 5:22 am #

    Very helpful article, thank you! I agree; there’s nothing as enlightening as walking the physical steps your character walked. I scrambled up a North Carolina mountain face just as my character does, and nothing else could’ve informed me of the glittering quartz or the curling fiddlehead ferns like that hike. I don’t know how much of the description will make it into the story, but it sure made it more real to me! God bless ๐Ÿ™‚

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      Angela Breidenbach September 21, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

      Hi Rebekah, It’s so true, I rarely get to use ALL my research. Research is about flavor and accuracy. Sometimes it’s painful cutting some fascinating fact!

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    Damon J. Gray September 21, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    Really quite intriguing. I have always valued the “leg work” involved in my non-Fiction writing, simply because I want to be credible. It never occurred to me that there was a legal angle to this. Thank you for that slap back to reality.

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      Angela Breidenbach September 21, 2017 at 1:01 pm #

      You’re so welcome ๐Ÿ™‚ Those contracts often spell it out. But covering our own words and intent are also an important aspect of legal necessity.

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    Carol Ashby September 21, 2017 at 6:36 am #

    I totally agree, Angela. What started as a couple of overview books on the Roman period grew into more than 70 mostly academic books and a Roman history website that draws visitors from every continent except Antarctica. That site spawns a healthy number of international sales of my novels, so the reward for doing the research and then sharing it has been great.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 21, 2017 at 7:50 am #

    Great article!

    I’ve got a couple of areas of expertise, and I see some real howlers. In a book I’m currently reading, a history of the Pacific War by an excellent writer, the US navy’s premier carrier-based fighter (the Grumman Hellcat) is credited with a fighting weight of 1800 lbs.

    Wow. That would have been wonderful for the pilots (think of the performance with close on 2000 hp!), but the real figure was about 12,500 lbs.

    The hard thing about mistakes like that is that they are not just ‘unit conversions’ of metric to English, or a dropped order-of-magnitude (1800 instead of 18000). They belie at best carelessness, and at worst a basic lack of understanding of the subject.

    But it’s still a good book.

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      Angela Breidenbach September 21, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

      And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, someone else might accidentally change your fact. This is a major reason for keeping a copy of your original work and your original research. I’ve proven facts in editorial process because I had the facts. But it is possible for someone in the process to accidentally change something. Ouch!

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    Loyd Uglow September 21, 2017 at 9:53 am #

    I love to do research for my historical novels, Angela, especially in first-person accounts of the time and place. But on the legal aspects you mentioned, is there any legal liability in a novel if you’re not using real people as characters, or real businesses, etc?

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      Angela Breidenbach September 21, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

      Loyd, hi ๐Ÿ™‚
      Under normal circumstances, no. However, in the case of someone’s real life mirroring your fiction, you may have a problem. Hence, the disclaimers on almost all fiction works ๐Ÿ™‚

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    Judy Morrow September 21, 2017 at 11:51 am #

    I enjoyed this, Angela. Thanks for the helpful tips!

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    Mark Moss September 21, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    Thank you, Angela. Good stuff.

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    Angela Breidenbach September 21, 2017 at 8:07 pm #

    My pleasure, Judy & Mark ๐Ÿ™‚

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    Tisha Martin September 22, 2017 at 1:30 pm #

    Timely post, Angela. Thank you so much for sharing. I love using Keeping accurate historical dates are so important!

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      Angela Breidenbach September 25, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

      It’s really been helpful to me, Tisha ๐Ÿ™‚ One humorous moment I heard from another author was that in her story she always had a full moon. By finding out when it was actually expanded the story options. Think of the comedic opportunity when it’s a too dark night… or the disaster… or the escape ๐Ÿ™‚

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    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D September 26, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    Outstanding information! Thanks for sharing it with us!

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