How to Research a Historical Novel: Escape the Research Rabbit Hole

by Guest Blogger | 0 comments

It doesn't take any research to know that historical fiction writers love spending time in history books, digital archives, museum exhibits, and library collections—and that's just in our spare time!

But how do we keep that research from overshadowing the actual writing of our books? How do you research a historical novel without getting lost in the research rabbit hole?

This guest post is by Susanne Dunlap, author of twelve works of historical fiction for adults and teens. You can find her newest book The Portraitist here and find all her books and courses on her website 

Face it, none of us would write historical novels if we didn’t love the research. If we’re lucky enough to go to historical archives, the very smell of the dust, the idea that the materials and primary sources were handled by people decades or centuries ago, gives us a thrill.

And when we discover something others have overlooked, maybe that little fact that gives us something to hang an entire plot on—pour the champagne! History inspires us, it amazes us, it fascinates us—it torments us.

Research is wonderful and essential. But it can so easily commandeer all our time and energy.

How far do you need to go to track down a person or a date? What if you can’t go to places or get ahold of archival material? Do you have to know everything about the historical period and place and characters in your novel?

Won’t readers be waiting with red pens to circle any little thing you get wrong, or take exception to your interpretation of a historical character’s motives?

And what about the sheer volume of material we now have access to, thanks to the Internet and online archives? One thing leads to another and then another and then another. Before we know it, weeks have passed and we’ve got tons of research but haven’t put a word on a page.

How to Escape the Overwhelm of Research

I had to let go of that tendency to remain mired in research in a hurry when I was forced to research and write a complete manuscript in a year. It had been sold on a one-page proposal.

As I wrote, I remember being certain that someone would take me to task for changing the year a composition by Chopin was published, which I had to do in order to make my story work. But no one cared in the end.

That’s when I first learned that the story comes first, history comes second—a lesson I've had to learn over and over. Story first, history second.

That may sound like sacrilege coming from someone who started writing historical fiction after being in the academic world—a PhD in music history from Yale.

In academic articles, it really mattered that I’d consulted every known source, verified everything and didn’t categorically state something unless I knew it was backed up with historical sources and facts. I learned that the hard way, submitting articles for peer review. Ouch.

When I chose to start writing historical fiction, the research obsession was still deeply ingrained. For the sake of readers and my own sanity, though, I had to learn how to subjugate research to story.

I don’t mean being inaccurate or anachronistic (when a detail is in the wrong time period such as a television in 11th century Europe). I mean becoming comfortable with the necessary limits and with using my own imagination to fill in any gaps.

When My Research Turned Into a Rabbit Hole

My novel The Portraitist is a good example. I started working on it—on and off—seven years ago. Then, I was researching Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the bitter rival of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (protagonist of The Portraitist), thinking she would be the focus of my story.

There was so much material about her, so many paintings, a Metropolitan Museum exhibition of her work, and her own three-volume autobiography—published when she was very old.

Not only that, but because she was the official portraitist to Marie Antoinette, I felt obliged to research everything about the doomed queen and the true events surrounding Louis XVI’s court.

Through that research, I discovered a close friend of Elisabeth’s, another artist: Rosalie Bocquet Filleul. What a story there!

She married the concierge of the Château de la Muette and became concierge herself after his death. She produced several pastel portraits of royals, and—perhaps more interesting—took a number of likenesses of her neighbor in Passy, Benjamin Franklin.

When I discovered that little fact I had to start researching Benjamin Franklin, his life and politics and how he ended up in that diplomatic residence next door to Rosalie Filleul—of whom he became very fond, not least of all because she was stunningly beautiful.

The rest of Rosalie’s story was poignant and tragic. She ended up guillotined because she auctioned off some chairs that belonged to the Château (I argue she was destitute and nearly starving).

So I wrote a manuscript that encompassed the stories of all three of these remarkable women. How could I leave anything out?

Turns out, I should have. That manuscript was a monster. Too long, too complicated, and I couldn’t do justice to any of the women. I had Too. Much. Information.

How to Set Research Limits

Now, of course we love stumbling on all that good stuff, those intriguing tidbits and interconnections. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that—there’s no “should” about this.

My point is that at some juncture, you have to let go of the idea of “everything,” or the idea that you have to be the expert, and set your limits.

What limits? You might ask. There are several ways you can rein in your research so it really serves your story.

Once you’ve done enough research to figure out the primary story you want to tell, map it out. I mean that both literally and figuratively. I’m not an outliner by nature, but I’ve learned—again, the hard way—that it’s important to know a few basic things:

1. The time period of your story present.

This may seem obvious. Of course you know what time period you’re writing in!

What I’m suggesting here is that you take a good, hard look at how much of that stretch of time you really want to use.

While there may be a case for covering the entire real life of a historical figure, that sort of endeavor is best left to a biographer. You’re looking for the period bounded by the exact moment that triggers the action in your story, and the exact moment when your protagonist’s arc of change is complete.

Put another way, the moment at which the story question is answered.

You’ll no doubt have researched things around this historical time period, and that’s good background information. But you only really need to look in depth at the historical events that directly affect your protagonist.

2. The places where the story is set.

This is possibly a little easier. I’ll give you a simple example: The Portraitist takes place before, during, and after the French Revolution. But it’s set entirely in or near Paris.

To get even more precise, the primary locations are the Louvre, Versailles, the Château de Bellevue, and a suburb of Paris called Pontault en Brie.

No doubt a lot was going on in other parts of France, and of course, there’s that whole American Revolution that had an impact on the French, but it didn’t impinge on my protagonist’s life. Not Adélaïde’s, in any case. (I axed Benjamin Franklin when I focused the story away from Rosalie.)

Once you have that all mapped out, you can get the vital everyday life information about how your characters get from place to place, how long it takes, whether it was comfortable or a huge pain, how much it might have cost, etc.

I did say you still have to do a lot of research, didn’t I?

3. The main characters.

Another obvious one, but if you keep reminding yourself that the focus is on your protagonist and one or two others, you might avoid amassing research that would only bog down your story if you tried to include it.

And maybe you’ll stop yourself from digging into the life of an interesting but peripheral character (did I mention Benjamin Franklin?) when you should be working on getting those words on the page.

4. Finally, give your research the necessity test.

This is simple: Ask yourself as you start diving into that rabbit hole if what you’re looking for is absolutely necessary.

If you don’t have that piece of information you’re looking for, will something important be missing from your book? Think it over. If the answer is no, then you're likely creating the dreaded info dump.

Once you’ve set your limits, organization is your best friend.

How to Organize Your Research

I have one word for you (and I’m not being paid to say this): Scrivener.

Even if you don’t want to use it as a drafting tool, it has so many great features, not the least of which is that you can use it to gather and organize all your research, even import Web pages so you don’t have to go hunting for that bookmark you forgot what you called or where you put it.

If you’re tech savvy, you can also add metadata to make it easy to search.

And if you’re REALLY tech savvy, you can sync it with another great tool, Aeon Timeline. It would take a long time to explain all the benefits of this app for historical novelists, so I’ll leave it to you to go and check it out. The good news is that neither of these apps is very expensive.

Of course, spreadsheets work too, if that’s your comfort zone. But I recommend at least giving these tools a look.

What you’ll probably find when you start organizing all your research is that having to do so gives a good view of what’s essential and what’s not. You can keep it all, but putting it in folders by priority or time span is a sanity preserver.

Do the Research, but Write the Book

My tips above won’t let you off the hook for doing good, solid research. But they may help you give yourself permission to be more focused, to not have to know absolutely everything.

Sure, you’ll write along and discover a gap in your knowledge that you need to fill in order to tie something together or provide a motivation—or just move your characters around from place to place. So be it.

Do that research when the need arises, don’t try to anticipate every eventuality at the start. It’s all about giving yourself permission.

You want to get that draft written. I want you to get that draft written. So embrace the limits and get organized!

Where do you get stuck in the research process? What tips have helped you learn when to stop, so you can get back to your writing? Share in the comments.

This guest article is by Susanne Dunlap. Susan is the author of twelve works of historical fiction for adults and teens. Her love of historical fiction arose partly from her studies in music history at Yale University (PhD, 1999), partly from her lifelong interest in women in the arts as a pianist and non-profit performing arts executive. Her novels The Paris Affair, The Musician's Daughter, and In the Shadow of the Lamp have all earned awards for young readers. Susanne earned her BA and an MA (musicology) from Smith College, and lives in Biddeford, ME, with her little dog Betty. You can find her newest book The Portraitist here and find all her books and courses on her website here.


Take fifteen minutes to write a scene in a historical setting. When you feel the urge to stop and research a detail, simply add a note in parentheses or brackets and keep going. Need a prompt? A young person gets lost while looking for [insert object/ person/ place]. What happens next? 
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