Writing Historical Fiction and the Serendipity in Research

Some historical fiction writers find it easier to do the research after the story has been written. The serendipity in research adds the flavoring.

Writing Historical Fiction in Research

Many historical fiction writers write the story first and deal with the facts later. It may seem unorthodox to do the research after the story has been written, but it works for the writers who use this method. Writers can experience incredible serendipity when they get around to filling in the historical details.

Research Gets in the Way of the Story

Writers have a love-hate relationship with research. They love it because it’s fascinating, necessary and useful, but they hate it because it time-consuming and very addictive. One interesting discovery invariably leads to another which calls for even more follow-up research.

When researching while the story is in progress, the writer gets wrapped up in it, and the story itself, the raison d’être, never gets written. Using the “write now, research later” method will ensure the story gets written because the writer is actually writing. She’s not stopping to find the name of the ship her main character sailed to the New World or to learn exactly how witches were burned in barrels of tar in 17th century Scotland. The story gets written and the questions get answered later. With this method there is no pressure to finish the story. The hard part is done. The rest is the flavoring.

Serendipity by Fire

To use burning as an example, perhaps a secondary character has to die tragically – a fire can cause a dreadful death, so we’ll use it here. The writer writes her story and while she’s doing her research for the second draft, discovers some incredible detail, that there was in fact, once a house on that very road, and in that same time period it burned to the ground with an unknown woman caught behind its walls. Perfect. Serendipity by fire.

With further research into that fire, more interesting details are revealed and like petals from a rose, fall naturally into place, layered with grit and ash.

Serendipity does result in parts of the story being rewritten, but the changes can only enrich the work. The writer should remember she isn’t writing history, but a story that comes alive with historical details.

Too Much History

Just because a thing happened, doesn’t mean it should be in the story. Sometimes a novel can have too much history, too many details that have no relevance – added only because they can be. The story itself is the reason readers read fiction. When reading historical fiction, they simply want to be engrossed in the story. They want interesting characters with only the historical background and details necessary to place them in the novel, as well as the time period they’re reading about. The writer should never let history get in the way of a good story.