Researching for Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction is something I love to write. The reason…? I simply love history, any time period and any setting. At present I’m concentrating on the Viking era in the mid-ninth century as I finish the third book in my Sons of Kings trilogy. The first two of these are in my sidebar over there, and the third will be titled Wyvern of Wessex. After that, I have plans for several other ‘histfics’, but not set in the Viking era.

So what exactly is historical fiction?

Well, until recently, most definitions told us that stories set fifty or more years ago could be classed as historical fiction. Recently, however, I’ve seen various sites that have reset that definition to twenty-five years. For someone of my age, twenty-five years ago seems just like yesterday and that definition does little for my self-image. I’m already feeling like an old fossil.

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Twenty five years only takes us to the early nineties. So a book set in 1991 is now classed as historical fiction. Oh my…! But when I think about it, even yesterday is history… one second ago is history. I suppose past times, no matter how recent, are all ‘history’.

As for actually writing historical fiction, just what does it involve?

For starters, like several other genres, it involves the writer doing a lot of research (unless he or she a hugely successful author and can afford to hire people to do it for them). Fortunately, doing research is so much easier nowadays than it was years ago when the only place for doing it, other than buying your own text books, was the good old library. But now, authors have the Internet and access to numerous informative sites, including those about history.

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Having said that, I would never, ever, dismiss the value of good books about the period and historical characters I want to write about. I have some excellent texts that have been invaluable. But online sources can give us lots of interesting – and different – information. And, of course, there’s still the library.

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Exactly what you research can include anything from dates of characters’ births and deaths, to dates of important events of the time. But details about everyday life are important, too. We need to know things like building types, foods (and how and when they were cooked and eaten) clothing and general customs and attitudes. All add to the authenticity of the story – but must be ‘fed’ carefully and intermittently into the story.

Getting details about the period wrong is definitely not a good idea, as there will always be at least one reader who’ll notice. Several years ago I read an article in a Writing magazine by an editor in the US. In this article, he quoted what he called the ‘worst example of historical inaccuracies’ he’d ever come across. It was in a book about Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded in 1587. (The author’s name and book title were not divulged, of course). He quoted a scene between Mary and her husband, Lord Darnley, which I’ll re-quote as closely as I remember it. Mary supposedly says:

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Darnley, honey, let me fix you a chicken sandwich.

I’ll leave you to pick out what’s wrong with that one – but I found it hilarious!

For my trilogy there were two main things I had to focus on. The first was the life of King Alfred the Great, one of the two main protagonists. This is one of the two statues erected in his honour (both in Victorian times as you can probably tell from the photo below). This one is in the Market Place in Wantage, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire), which is believed to be where Alfred was born.

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I also had to focus on Viking ships and voyages as well as everyday lifestyles of both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in the mid-ninth century.These are a few ‘photos of photos’ we took in Denmark, so I apologise for the poor quality of them. They were taken at Lindholm Høje in northern Denmark. Some are from inside the museum, others are of the very famous Viking burial ground there.

The Jorvik (pronounced Yorvik) Viking museum in York (Yorkshire, UK) was also excellent for information about Viking life. The museum succumbed to floodwaters when the River Ouse flooded in December 2015 and won’t be open again until spring 2017. Fortunately, most of the exhibits were saved.

All in all, the research kept me busy for quite some time. But, we visited some wonderful historic sites and museums in both England and Denmark as part of it. So that can’t be bad, can it? The visit to Denmark really helped with the parts of the books set there – a lot of Book One in particular, which is mostly about my second protagonist, Eadwulf of Mercia. Although he’s a fictional character, the main events in my book that take place in his kingdom, are not.

We still love to visit historical sites related to all periods of history. Reenactments are a particular favourite at the moment, and we’ve been to a few this year. These photos are from a battle between Alfred and the Danes staged at Corfe castle in Dorset in May.

And these are from the Viking Village at Murton, near York. I wrote a post about this in April this year.

‘Bear’ is really quite something, and he was very helpful in explaining all about his unusual helmet and why few Vikings ever adopted that style. All ‘grist to the mill’, as they say.

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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59 Responses to Researching for Historical Fiction

  1. elliebleu says:

    I agree – fact checking is a must. If your novel takes place in a foreign country, hopefully you’ve lived and traveled there too. The key to writing fiction is to make it as real as possible.

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, Ellie. It’s nice for authors to be able to visit countries in which their books are set. I was really glad we went to Denmark – and, fortunately for us, Denmark’s not so far away from the UK. Sometimes, it’s impossible for authors to travel to distant places, and have to rely on research. There’s nothing to beat visiting the actual country, though, for making the story ‘real’, as you say.

  2. AJ.Dixon says:

    Loved this post and your pictures! Your books sounds fascinating, I must read them soon! Best of luck with your research, I bet you’ll have a great time doing it 😊

    • milliethom says:

      I absolutely love doing research, Adam, and could happily make a career out of it! It’s sometimes hard to actually draw the line and buckle down to write the book! I think I’ve done most of the research I need for finishing off this trilogy, other than minor details. I’ll need to start all over again for the next one, so that should be a lot of fun. It will just be a ‘one off’ next time, too.
      Thank you for liking my post and pictures. Much appreciated. 🙂

  3. giffmacshane says:

    Lovely post, Millie, I almost like I was there with you. Sometimes I think researching is more fun than writing the actual book!

    • milliethom says:

      Ah, thank you, Giff. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Doing the research becomes addictive, and visiting various historical sites is the very best part. I loved every minute of being in Denmark and, as I said in the post, it really helped when I was describing events set at various locations there.

  4. Joy Pixley says:

    Going to reenactments and Viking villages sounds like a great way to research a book — or the book sounds like a great excuse, either way!

    • milliethom says:

      Oh, you can’t beat a good outing to do research, Joy. It beats slaving over a hot computer or text book any day! We went to a wonderful Viking Moot at Aarhus, in Denmark. I forgot to mention that in the post, but I learnt a lot that I made use of in Book One. 🙂

      • Joy Pixley says:

        Oo, that sounds like fun! I forgot to mention in my last comment that I was also incredibly amused by the idea of Mary Queen of Scots saying “Darnley, honey, let me fix you a chicken sandwich.” I think only one word in that makes any sense, and oddly, it’s the use of “honey” as an endearment — odd because I didn’t realize that usage went back that far. Although I’m still not sure Queen Mary would have used it!

      • milliethom says:

        I don’t think Mary would have used it in that way, either. But you’re right, ‘honey’ was used as a term of endearment in a similar way to ‘my sweet’ or ‘my sweetness’ – or other poetic sayings like ‘lips like cherries’… blah,blah. Comparisons to sweet and scented things were common, I suppose. The idea of a sandwich creased me up – and that Mary herself was going to ‘fix’ it! I’m afraid I can’t help saying this with a Southern drawl. I suppose it’s because I know the author was from the US.
        Hope the writing is going well, Joy. I’ll pop over and have a read of some of your posts asap.

      • Joy Pixley says:

        Yes exactly. I’m assuming that at least one queen has made a sandwich, ever, but I imagine that didn’t start until much later. After sandwiches were invented, for one thing, ha ha!

        I haven’t been doing much writing lately, but I think I’ve posted a couple you haven’t seen yet. Pop on over!

  5. writenlive says:

    Your post is very interesting, Millie! I could not have imagined that so much research goes into writing a historical piece of fiction!

  6. A very well-written post Millie 🙂

  7. Reading about the definition of historical fiction makes me feel ancient! The 90’s indeed. And the Mary queen of Scots quote is farcical. History is such a wonderfully absorbing subject. I am currently trying to reconstruct Polish 19th century history from the net, as there would be little in that area in the libraries here. But it does make for fascinating internet “grist.”

    • milliethom says:

      I think before 50 years ago was a much better definition of HF. But who are we to argue with … well, whoever determines such things! I wonder who they are? Now, there’s a thought.
      Are you intending to write a book set in 19th century Poland, or is this research in connection with your art and design? It sound fascinating, anyway, whatever the research is for, and I hope you find enough information about it.

      • It is just my own interest in one part of my family history Millie. As there is no written information on the people’s movements, background or motives, due to destruction of records during the war, I try to flesh out the skeletal information with hunches from historical accounts. Sort of akin to researching sideways instead of straight back into history.

      • milliethom says:

        It all sounds fascinating, especially as it’s part of your family history. Poland did suffer tremendously in the war, so I can understand the difficulty you’re having in getting hold of records. Perhaps you could make it all into – or part of – a good book once you’ve fleshed it all out. 🙂

      • Perhaps. I feel that I might become too old before that happens

  8. Susan Langer says:

    Good information as always. I can’t believe how much work you put into your research.

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks Susan. I keep telling myself I should write something I can take straight from my head. Historical fiction does involve a lot of time on research. Unfortunately, I’m just not as interested in contemporary stories. I seem to be stuck in the past!
      Hope all is well with you. I’m trying to catch up with a few posts now that I’ve finished my ‘flash’ book. Thank you for all your support on both WP and Twitter.

      • Susan Langer says:

        Things are okay except that I had to have my dear dog, Guinness, put down last Friday because he had cancer. I miss him terribly but he is better off without the pain he was having, poor thing. Take care.

      • milliethom says:

        I’m so sorry to hear abut your dog, Susan. It’s hard to watch any animal suffering and I can understand your distress. You’re bound to miss him for a long while, that’s only natural. But, as you say, at least he’s better off without all the pain. Take care, too.

  9. draliman says:

    See, I can’t be bothered to do any research whatsoever so I’d stick to vampires and the like 🙂
    Great photos!

  10. Singledust says:

    doing research is lots of work but very rewarding i am thinking as you really get into the era you are researching….i enjoy historical fiction to as i believe there’s lots to learn from the past. Viking history is a favourite besides Scottish tales….you do a lovely job describing what goes into this research MT!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Gina! Sorry this reply is so late, but we lost our Internet on Wednesday. Engineers eventually came out and put thing right today (Friday). Two whole days without the Internet is totally frustrating. How did we manage before? Lol.
      I love doing research – far too much. Sometimes I have to pull myself away and make myself start writing!

      • Singledust says:

        totally understand the frustration, no need to apologise as I am sure your fingers were itching to get to all the blogs and articles! Research really take you to another place and sometimes I feel I am so immersed in what I am following up on times stops for awhile. I appreciate the fact that you do still go to real books to get your research material as I believe sometimes online versions get a little distorted.

      • milliethom says:

        Thank you for understanding. I’m on my ‘catch up’ rounds now!

  11. r_prab says:

    Wow! So much fun Millie! 🙂 Writing and Researching and travelling! 😀 Your post made me rememebr a historical fiction which I stopped reading because it talked about the character having a contemporary food item! I was like, “Wait! What!” and I made an expression as if I had got sick.And I got mad about it and complained about it to everyone.I got rid of this hysteria only after I convinced myself that I will not read the book anymore.

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, I agree, things like that can really put a reader off a book. All writers need to do research, not just writers of historical books. On the other hand, mistakes can be made and I’d like to think that if anyone found any in mine they would email me and let me know. (I have a story I’ll share sometime from an author who that did happen to. He was very grateful for the advice he got, too.)
      I’m well behind reading posts, especially as we’ve had no Internet for the last two days (I’ve just done a ‘moany’ post about that today.) I’ll be over to read a couple of yours as soon as Ive caught up with myself.
      Thank you for the great comment on this post!

  12. Antonia says:

    Good luck on completing your book Millie! I am with you on the definition of historical fiction. I would think at least 50 years. Wow, 1991…..

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, 1991 sounds far too recent to be classed a historical – but who am I to argue with whoever decides these things. (I do wonder just who ‘they’ actually are! Lol)
      I’ve had no Internet for two days, Antonia, so haven’t been able to get back to anyone until today. (I wrote a whining kind of post about it earlier. We’re always losing connection in this village!) I’ll be doing some catch up over the next few days.

  13. Christy B says:

    Wonderful to learn more about historical fiction! Yes, it’s important to keep details authentic so the reader continues following the story. Good points here.

    • milliethom says:

      Hi Christy. I agree, there’s nothing more off-putting than reading really inaccurate facts or descriptions. All authors need to do research, as you will know yourself, but with historical stories, there’s so much to check on.

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  15. 80smetalman says:

    Why does it have to be 50 years for a book to be considered historical fiction? My first book was set in the 1980s and I would consider it to be historical fiction.

    • milliethom says:

      Well. I’d have to agree with you. If your book is set in the 1980s, it is classed as historical fiction. Only a few years ago I’d read that books set 50 years ago could be classed as HF, now that seems to have changed to 25 years – any time before the early ’90s.
      Don’t ask me who fixes these dates, but if that’s what they reckon, I’m happy to go along with it. 🙂 I was simply laughing at how ‘recent’ 1991 seemed to someone of my age. One of my daughters, like you, thinks that the 1980s are easily historical fiction, so I’m taking her word for it. Thank you for your input.

      • 80smetalman says:

        You’re quite welcome and I’m intrigued by all of your historical fiction stories. I really love the “Viking” period.

      • milliethom says:

        I’ve loved stories about Vikings since precisely 1959. We were on holiday in the Isle of Man and Mum and Dad took us to see ‘The Vikings’. I was totally smitten (and Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis weren’t bad either!).
        Seriously though, it is a fascinating period and Viking mythology is wonderful. It’s impossible to write about Vikings without bringing the myths into it.

      • 80smetalman says:

        That’s true. There has been a very good series on the Vikings on the History Channel. The main actors are actually Norwegian! They’re into the fourth season now.

      • milliethom says:

        If the series is just called ‘Vikings’ I haven’t watched any of it yet, but intend to do so soon. I wrote a post about the blood eagle ritual some time ago and put a link to the video of the blood eagle scene in the series. (I couldn’t actually put the YouTube on my post because of copyright.) It looks a really good series and well worth watching.
        I’m half expecting you to tell me now that you’re talking about something quite different! 🙂 If that’s the case, I’d really appreciate you letting me know the name of the programme so I can have a look. The Viking era is such an interesting and exciting one, for both Norwegian and Danish Vikings.
        Thank you, metalman.

      • 80smetalman says:

        You’re welcome! It is just called “Vikings” and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it.

      • milliethom says:

        I intend to watch it at some stage. I’ve seen snippets of it – and the blood eagle scene on YouTube – and it does look very good. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  16. irinadim says:

    Wonderful post, Millie. Love the photos and the re-enactments. The extensive research you do is very obvious in your books where one can get the picture of those distant cultures and feel the intricate relationships of the characters bound by the laws of their society. Apart from researching historical books, it’s great that you can travel and collect more facts. I knew of the Vikings, but didn’t know much about their way of life before reading your books. History is fascinating!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Irina! Yes, for writers of HF, being able to do research in the place it’s set is really useful. I don’t know what I’d do if I set my next book somewhere many miles away, though.
      It was easy for us to hop over to Denmark. For Book 3, we went down to Southern Spain, but we didn’t really need to. We’ve been to Spain before – but any excuse for a holiday! 🙂 Thank you for saying nice things about my books. I do know a lot about Viking life because I’ve been thinking and reading about it for years, as well as going to Denmark.

  17. Love your posts about writing. If I didn’t have to write, I’d love to write a book and self-publish it, in fact I already have an idea and a plot outlined. – And I can’t believe the ’90’s are considered history!!!! Whaat. Now I feel old, too.

    • milliethom says:

      I’m pleased to hear you have a plot drafted out. Please don’t put it to waste – or leave it until you’re my age! I was surprised to read that the early 90s are classed as HF. Time goes so fast that the 90s don’t seem that long ago. But I won’t argue with the powers that be… Thank you for liking my posts about writing. I try to do them when I find the time.

  18. inesephoto says:

    So love this post and the photographs!
    It is embarrassing to write historical novels and fail to look up the details, at least in Google. A sandwich! To fix!
    I cannot wait for your book #3, because I am in love with the #1 and #2 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      I thought that line was so funny. Sandwich and fix… exactly! Mary wouldn’t have used ‘honey’ in that way either, although to call a loved one ‘my sweet’ or ‘sweetness’ was common, so they could have referred to something like ‘honeyed lips’.
      Thank you for liking my books! I really appreciate that.

  19. Murielle Cyr says:

    I see this post has generated a lot of responses, and rightfully so. Good work.

    • milliethom says:

      It’s lovely to meet you, Murielle, and thank you so much for following my blog – and the retweet. I know you write historical novels, so I imagine you spend a lot of time doing research, too.

  20. Pingback: Researching for Historical Fiction — Millie Thom | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

  21. Pingback: Millie Talks about researching historical fiction – The Anglophile

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