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Researching To Write A Historical Novel, by William Dietrich

Start with history, add your five senses, and conclude with heart and mind.

That’s my formula for researching to write a historical novel; a genre that requires a combination of accuracy and inventiveness. In the case of my Ethan Gage novels, I have a fictional American interacting amusingly with famous real people but I have to make it convincing.

The Ethan Gage novels move sequentially in real time, meaning that unlike a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes tale, we know what year it is. Ethan’s adventures are tied to the events of the day.

My first step, then, is to read general histories of the period and create a timeline for, say, 1803. What was happening, and where?

A decision is then made to send my hero on an adventure in a particular place. That means more reading of what was going on during that particular episode, plus biographies of people Ethan might meet there.

Some of this history, while impressively researched, is dull as told. I read boring books so you won’t have to. I take notes off the books of lively incidents, curious personalities, witty quotes, and colorful locales so only the ripest fruit can go into my novels.

From this I work up an outline. Since Ethan must plausibly affect history while remaining an outsider, and because I need a dramatic conclusion, I must map out the story to make he sure he can get from Point A to Point B by the recorded date in history.

I can invent, but only in the context of a real world with real events.

The research will continue as long as I am writing the novel. Answering new questions as the story progresses can be as simple as looking things up on Wikipedia to tracking down reprints of memoirs written centuries ago.

I try to travel to the places I write about. Museums, castles, forts and churches can be tremendously useful, as are photographs taken of the locale.

I’m also trying to find out how things look, sound, smell, taste and feel. Historical re-enactors can show me what a musket sounds like, kicks like, and how much gun smoke it generates. I can watch smiths, craftsmen, eat period foods, and study clothes. I’m reminded how big a horse is, and how smoky a hearth smells. Novel writing requires visualization, so I’m building a movie in my head.

Historical novels don’t require a ‘message’ but the biggest problem in writing a book is deciding what it’s about.

That’s where the heart and mind comes in. Part of researching is plumbing oneself. What would a key character desire? What would they feel in a historical situation? What would their actions mean about how we live our lives?

That’s what gives a novel depth. By thinking about a book so long, you begin to discern its meaning. You create a world that seems almost tangible.

Then, by the end, you’ve read enough to map out where the hero goes next.


William Dietrich’s author website:

William Dietrich’s bio page


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The Barbary Pirates: An Ethan Gage AdventureBlood of the ReichHadrian's Wall: A NovelNapoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)     The Silver Eagle: (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles No. 2) (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Auslander

Writing Historical Novels


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