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Researching To Write Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Researching to write a historical novel can be a bit overwhelming. Where do you start? How much detail do you need?

For children’s historical fiction, I always begin my research using children’s non-­fictionGood children’s non‐fiction can be a great jumping off point to start figuring out the history of your times. Unlike adult history books that are chock full of period detail, non‐fiction for kids can give you a succinct overview of the period. These books provide just enough information to glean what details you want to expand upon and research further.

For instance, you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time covering Napoleon’s battle strategy. Kids won’t care. They want to know how the fifteen‐year‐old bugler who, accompanied Napoleon, survived the fight and whether he ever saw his brother again. So unless you yourself are interested, spending copious amounts of time understanding battle strategy would be a waste of energy. On the other hand, knowing what a bugler did during battle would be important. What did he wear? How were his days organized? Where did he stand when the battle began? This gives a specific direction in which to head when you turn to more sophisticated forms of research such as letters, journals or adult non‐fiction.

While writing my book, Quest, the story of Henry Hudson’s last ill‐fated journey, I began researching by reading Beyond the Sea of Ice by Joan Elizabeth Goodman.

This book was a godsend because, in an uncomplicated format, it gave me the facts about the voyage: the daily problems the explorers faced, the routes they took, and the issues they had to deal with when their boat got lodged in the ice. It also contained excerpts from one of the mutineer’s logbooks, enabling me to see what had occurred on the Discovery each day and why the emotions had changed from placid to mutinous. I understood quickly the events that led up to the mutiny and was able to take those events and convey the emotions of the crew to readers through my own characters.

However, research is also where fun can become folly. With the wealth of information out there, the Internet seems a logical place to turn. Yet, as with all things on the web, you will need to confirm it to verify its accuracy. You wouldn’t want to spend all that time researching only to find that a site you’d relied on was inaccurate.

That said, the internet can provide some amazing pictures of period details that you might have trouble bringing to mind yourself: fashion, table decorations, housing and so on. Photos or drawings of these from the internet can help you convincingly convey how something looked.

Researching the past can be fun and exciting. I often find myself immersed in details I had either forgotten from my own history lessons or never even knew in the first place. I love digging through letters, journals, books and sites to find just the right details to make my story immediate and palpable for my young readers. I am also always aware of checking my facts and ensuring the accuracy of my information.


Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website:

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The SacrificeQuest     The Kennedy ConspiracyOne Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix, a Novel

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. The sort of detail needed by novellists is definitely different from the content usual in non-fiction history. Largely because the purpose differs. Yet I can’t help thinking that the philosophical issues following from the limits of partial documentation and the issues of modern viewpoint are the same.

    September 11, 2013
  2. Pathstothepast #

    Thanks for this post Kathleen. Interesting to see your research process for children’s historical fiction.

    September 11, 2013
  3. Hi Kathleen,
    Thank you for your tips on researching and writing historical novels. This article is very useful and it’s great to share writing experiences.

    September 11, 2013
  4. Brilliant. This kind of rat cunning didn’t occur to me when researching my latest. I bought a small library of old obscure books from old obscure bookshops across the planet, then waded through them for relevant gems. Next time I start my research I’m going to enjoy a bunch of kids’ books instead. Genius. Thank you.

    September 16, 2013

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