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A Research Primer for Historical Fiction Writers

by Erika Dreifus

Having taken -- and taught -- workshops for historical novelists over the past several years, I now know that there are a lot of us out there telling stories about the past, even if we don't all become Charles Fraziers or Arthur Goldens (at least not right away!). Some peoples, places, and episodes from the past continue to fascinate writers and compel the creation of new stories all the time.

As all fiction writers understand, the success of any story or novel depends not only on the writer's ease with technique, with the elements of plot and character and dialogue, but also on the sense of authority one conveys. And mastering the content is just as essential as mastering the craft. So just as writers of contemporary (or more autobiographically inflected) novels and stories need to "know" their characters, settings, and subjects, historical fictionists must "know" whereof they write. Placing the French Revolution in the sixteenth century will automatically ruin one's authorial credibility, whereas slipping in the fact that Marie-Antoinette's origins were as an Austrian princess, well, that increases the reader's confidence considerably. But that -- as well as even more substantive work -- usually requires quite a bit of research.

A good starting place for anyone beginning a project in historical fiction is the local library. Here you'll find the basics -- encyclopedias with general outlines of "The Civil War" or "The Middle Ages" and biographies that can provide some essential background on your subject. Don't be embarrassed to begin in the children's section!

You'll also find your reference librarian, who can acquaint you with the library's offerings. Ask about newspapers and magazines. Many libraries have these on microfilm and you can acquire a sense of events and trends, what people were thinking, saying, eating, wearing and reading by consulting their contemporary publications. Ask also about any special collections your library may hold -- letters, diaries, maps, photographs that may be relevant to your particular project. Finally, ask about your library's Inter-Library Loan program, which can enable you to obtain more elusive materials from other libraries.

But your work likely won't end with library research. Perhaps you can visit a historical site, a cultural society, or a museum that commemorates a specific individual, event, or subject relevant to your research. One of my students, whose main character was an 18th century doctor, consulted a museum at a nearby medical school with an inventory of over 13,000 objects, including medical instruments and famous physicians' memorabilia.

Finding such treasure troves is another area where your librarian may be able to assist you, but by attending to the footnotes and bibliographies in your reading you will likely locate such sources, too. Note as well the documents others have used to write on similar topics. In many cases those sources -- letters and diaries, for example -- may even have been collected and published but may not be widely known. In other cases, they may be tucked away in an historical society or archive, but not necessarily inaccessible.

The internet also offers a number of useful sites for anyone conducting historical research. [Editor's Note: Please visit the links sections of my other sites, and for extensive links to historical resources.]

It should be clear that quite a lot of research can be accomplished locally, if not right from the keyboard. But for those writers who wish to conduct more in-depth work at archival collections and seek the funds to do so, a good source to consult is Grants and Awards Available to American Writers (New York: PEN American Center, 2002). Here you'll find opportunities such as the four-week fellowships at the American Antiquarian Society. Still, it's often the very beginning of any project in historical fiction that is the most exciting, as an entire new (if old) world opens up to explore and write about.

Related Articles:

Historical Research for Fiction Writers, by Catherine Lundoff's Links to Romance and Historic Fiction

Copyright © 2004 Erika Dreifus
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Erika Dreifus (Ed.M., M.F.A., Ph.D.) writes and teaches in Massachusetts, where she also edits the free monthly newsletter, The Practicing Writer. Her stories, essays, and articles have appeared in Lilith,, The Pedestal Magazine, Teachers & Writers, The Writer, Writer's Digest, and elsewhere. In 2003 her short story, "Homecomings," set largely during the 1972 Munich Olympics, won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest for Young Adult Writers. Visit her website at and read her latest writing-related blog posts at

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