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Slaying the Beast: How to Add Historical Details.

by Morgan Matich

Historical fiction is a sleeper genre: there is a very dedicated fanbase, teeming with life and a passion for days past, and that can create a reading and writing experience unlike other genres. It’s mostly gone under the radar for a while now, but some authors are pushing their historical tales to the forefront once more.

Oftentimes, it seems as if making your historical fiction book accurate, while also being readable and recognizable within your time period can be difficult, and adding detail is an extra monster to tackle. We all want our books to be lush and atmospheric, like our readers took a time machine (if anyone has one, hit me up. Now *that’s* what I call good research) straight to the eras found in our stories. You want them to hear horse hooves on cobblestone streets, feel the silk of their new modiste-made garment on their skin, the taste of food without preservatives.

It can be hard to flesh out your story, and making it a living, breathing place straight from years long gone by can seem daunting at first. But it doesn’t have to be! Adding tiny nuggets of information can be a breeze, and after many historical projects of trial and error, here is how I find information to make my stories pop:

  1. Reading in your Era: This may sound trivial, but it’s a step often overlooked! Pick up a few history books (especially ones in your preferred decade, if you’re getting specific), and see what stands out to you. The more niche the better! What little details stick out? What fun facts surprised you? Even the smallest thing could mean making your story that much more realistic and grounded! There’s always a scholar somewhere who has done the research for you and written it down!

  2. Search, Search, Search Some More: The Internet will be your best friend. Though it sometimes can be finicky and will refuse to give up its wealth of information, looking for an insignificant detail can connect your story to reality. Instead of saying your characters went to a general location, like a restaurant or park, try to be specific and instead find somewhere they actually could have gone. Have a question about the food they would have eaten at lunch? Ask the all-knowing Google! Maybe search for some common phrases or lingo your characters would have been saying.

  3. Find Unlikely Sources: Perhaps there’s a museum in your area, or a Colonial-Williamsburg-esque living history site. Visit someplace from your time period and check out authentic ways your characters would have lived (and ask lots of questions!). I’ve found a lot of hidden or buried details from going to museums, but if there are none by where you live, a lot of them have online catalogs for you to search through!

  4. Extent Items: The best place to look for information is to find information directly from your era. Books published around the year your story is set, aforementioned museums, and even patents can help you get a sense of what life was like straight from the source. There are many places to find extent examples of items, including the resources I mentioned above!

  5. Find Other Historical Writers: This isn’t necessary, and you can still write awesome books by your lonesome, but having another historical writer close to you helps immeasurably! They understand what you’re going through, and probably have little facts of their own to share. Plus, it helps to have someone to call you out when you miss the mark on historical accuracy (looking at that time I set my book in the wrong decade because my math was off, oops). My critique partner and I are always helping each other with research and brainstorming scenes for particular eras, and it's a lifesaver when my brain is fried while trying to juggle all my details! Never underestimate a fresh perspective in writing!

Historical research looks tough, and in some cases, locations, and eras, it can be. But once you have your toolkit in hand, it can help give you a lens to look through rather than just staring at chaos! Never be afraid of being detailed, but also know you don’t have to know every little thing: remember, complete historical accuracy doesn’t exist! There’s a balance between too little detail and bogging down your reader with facts that don’t serve the story: once you hit that middle point, your book will flourish!