Writing & Research in Historical Fiction: A Peek into my Method and my Madness

On the precipice of my newest historical release, Conquering William, Book 3 Sir Arthur’s Legacy, I wanted to talk a little bit about my methods and experience doing research to prepare for my books. Writing historical fiction can be extremely gratifying, taking you on a journey that challenges you as a writer and asks you to become immersed in a different place and time in a way you previously may never have experienced. Having an interest in history in general and the time period you’re writing about in particular can be very helpful here.  In writing historical romance, as any other fiction, the characters and plot must reel in the reader and keep them interested, but the attention to detail here is perhaps uniquely significant. You have an audience that is probably very knowledgeable about the historical moment you’re portraying in your book and if they spot incorrect or incomplete elements in the language, setting or larger socio-economic climate in your story, they will be very frustrated. The wonderful thing about writing historical is that you really get to take your reader on a great adventure, providing them with a very specific experience that creates an almost intimate connection between reader and author. Respect and nurture that connection, and you will find the pursuit of writing historical romance very rewarding.

I write the rather niche genre historical romance set in the high middle ages (1200’s-1300’s).  I came to reside in this corner of historical fiction-dom because it’s what I love personally, and that’s critical, otherwise the act of researching facts, dates, culture, politics and minutiae would be incredibly tedious and I would be bored to tears. Writers are inspired by that which has a personal significance for them, and historical fiction is no different, at least for me. I find that it’s a time of great upheaval and historical significance, the resonance of which is still felt today, and there are many opportunities for exciting, intriguing romance to take place, that will keep the reader engrossed and engaged. My personal media consumption habits (books, television, etc.) led me to this genre, and although it can be hard work it’s truly a labor of love.

That being said, even as a fan of the era and writing style myself, I know that my readers and fans will be scrutinizing my work for historical accuracy, and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite – readers have so much love for the genre that they can’t help but demand that the highest standards be met when they read historical fiction and I want them to fall in love with the book, rather than be removed from the story because I got sloppy and overlooked an important detail.

So, yes, the really fun part is watching your favorite tv show, becoming immersed in it, and getting inspired to write a series of books because of how much you’ve enjoyed it, but then I must hunker down and drill deep, leave no stone unturned and no bliaut unexamined, in order to create a historically accurate world, but onewhich enchants any reader who comes into it. For a historical romance writer, that means: balance. I have to be very familiar with how my characters are shaped by the political & cultural trends, and what their lifestyle looks like, but I can’t get too boring and go too much in depth on any subject or topic, for fear that the reader (for good reason) will lose interest. Words must be used very intentionally. Writing a description on its own is a missed opportunity; if two characters enter a room. What do they see? It depends on: who they are, what they want, why they entered the room in the first place.  I must learn a host of facts, from the different names that were used for places and objects at that time, to the basics of medieval architecture, but I have to be careful not to overload the reader with a lot of information they don’t need or want. Furthermore, the spoken language in my characters’ dialogue must reflect their correct vocabulary, grammar and usage, but I also have to make their speech clear enough for a reader to understand.

Historical research is actually easier than it seems, with all of the resources we have at our disposal. The most important thing is to know and respect your reader, don’t assume ANYTHING, whether about your audience or what you think you already know/common knowledge about the time period. It can be very humbling to learn that what you may have always thought to be true is quite the opposite, but it’s a wonderful thing as well, with a transformative quality that likens writing historical fiction to what we all love about romance itself!