5 Ways to Take Your Readers Back in Time: The Importance of Historical Research

There is nothing that jolts a reader out of a sense of place and time more effectively than using a modern voice for a Victorian heroine, no matter how richly detailed the description of her gorgeous crinoline and pantalets.  “I need my own space,” certainly informs the reader that your heroine is upset, so upset she must be alone.  But any young woman from the 1800s was more likely to murmur: “I have some letters to write.” And before her startled beau has a chance to respond, has left the room back rigid with outrage.  Authenticity enhances atmosphere and keeps the reader in the world you have created for them. Otherwise you are writing a costume drama set in 21st century America. Here are five ways to take your readers back in time and keep them there…

GIVEAWAY: Tessa is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rncarst won.)


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Column by Tessa Arlen, the daughter of a British diplomat, who lived
in or visited her parents in Singapore, Cairo, Berlin, the Persian Gulf,
Beijing, Delhi and Warsaw by the time she was sixteen. She lives in
Washington. She now lives in Washington, DC. Her first novel is
which Publishers Weekly described as “Lively… Mystery fans eager for
yet another look at the quasi-feudal system that prevailed in England before
WWI will be most rewarded.” Library Journal said “Readers of this debut
set in Edwardian England will feel as though they’ve stepped into an
episode of Downton Abbey, complete with murder and intrigue
upstairs and downstairs.” Connect with Tessa on Twitter.


1. A passion for the period. Become familiar with the time you are writing about: eat, sleep and breathe it. What time in history is popular for fiction?  It doesn’t matter. There are thousands of historical novels about the Tudor period, but there is always room for one more if you are prepared to dig to find other perspectives on Henry VIII’s reign – other than his interminable love-life and his tendency to execute wives that disappointed. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are a testament not only to her diligent, painstaking research but to her decision to reverse our perceptions of two of the Tudor court of Henry VIII’s bad-boys: Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey. She made them sympathetic, loyal men who struggled to do their best for their monarch in trying times, while keeping the events that took place contextually accurate. Mantel created an entirely new perspective on a well-used period in history.

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2. Complete Immersion is the name of the game. When you are compiling your reading list for research add several works of fiction contemporary to the time you are writing about. This will help you tune in to the way people expressed themselves and what they were interested in.  If possible listen to music that was played at this time, read the plays that were performed and find out about the period’s pastimes and hobbies.  English Victorians for example loved to play parlor games that were often rowdy and boisterous with names like Clumps and Dumb Crambo! The politics of the age are a huge indicator as to what was going on in the world you want to your reader to experience. Find out what people ate according to their station in life.   Nothing makes mediaeval history come alive more vividly than describing a feast in sumptuous detail:  “They feasted on roasted swans, geese, heron and quail. A peacock was cooked and then reassembled in its feathers. There were meat pies and fish tarts, and thick soups of Egerdouce and Bukkeanade.”  From Aliki’s Mediaeval Feast. Far more exotic than another description of the dress your heroine wore to the banquet! Collect photographs and prints of the time period, the houses they lived in, the clothes they wore and have them around you as you plan your story.

3. Homework before play. No matter how intriguing the plot you are cooking up and you can’t wait to tell this wonderful story, do your research before you start writing. Once you are a master of your subject you are less likely to commit horrendous mistakes like inadvertently describe someone happily pedaling their bicycle down a lane in 1830. Not everyone will know that you mistakenly invented the peddle-bicycle in 1830 instead of 1869 – but those who do will be infuriated and they might write a review in Goodreads telling everyone that your knowledge of the 1830s is sketchy! It took me days to find out how fast a motor car could go in 1912, and I am sure no one really cared that the top speed for a two-seater Bugatti was 60 mph, but I cared and it kept me on point.  Accurate research is a habit.

4. On writing Brit-speak. If you are writing about English history subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary on-line and you will be able to check the first usage of a word and whether it is of N. American origin or English or Scots. So much less in keeping to say:  “He landed his Farman airplane on a grassy field, four miles outside of Oxford.” When the English referred to these contraptions as aeroplanes in 1912.  Or: “He ran up the steps to the stoop of a London row-house.” Rather than: “He ran up the steps to the portico of a terraced house in London.” And be aware that in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales they use the same basic vocabulary but often use different colloquialisms. If you are writing about the British aristocracy two very useful books to have in your library are Burke’s Peerage and Debrett’s. This way you can research the ranks of the aristocracy for accuracy when creating your upper-crust characters and not call a baron: Sir Esmond.

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5. Real people. A wonderful way to keep your time period authentic is to include both historical and imagined people, places and events without informing the reader which is real. Try including a historical figure if he or she was involved in whatever kind of situation or political movement the novel is about. This will help create a strong sense of time and place and allow the reader to see the issues that were relevant to the time you are writing about. If you have several historical figures you can give each of them a brief bio at the back of your novel under Historical Notes.

Beware! Historical research is addictive! In the years it took me to research and write the first book in my Lady Montfort historical mystery series: DEATH OF A DISHONORABLE GENTLEMAN, I began to find the other-world of the early 1900s a far more attractive place than the one we inhabit today. But that is the delight of writing historical fiction.

GIVEAWAY: Tessa is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: rncarst won.)


This guest column is a supplement to the
“Breaking In” (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer’s Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
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55 thoughts on “5 Ways to Take Your Readers Back in Time: The Importance of Historical Research

  1. Elizabeth West

    I had this article bookmarked but just read it now. My novel is set in the mid-twentieth century in both England and America, and even though there is a lot of information available regarding my settings, the amount of research I have to do is formidable. I find that when I do too much before I write a first draft, it never gets done!

    I’m using NaNoWriMo 2015 to finish a rough, lightly sketched draft, and then I’ll go back and rework it. That will be the fun part. My research has already taken me to (1) a very cool Facebook page of old London photos (and I found a very good source here); (2) to London itself–twice, where I now have reader access to the British Library (a researcher’s DREAM), and (3) through countless books and websites I have yet to finish.

    Thank you so much for this article–it will be a big help! 😀

  2. schaunancy@gmail.com

    You have hit the nail on the head at exactly the right time. I am writing a novel about a girl who is researching her Mom’s side of the family that comes from Savannah. I have done some research and you’re right, you can get so involved in the research because it is so interesting that you forget your own story line. I truly enjoy the research part of writing. Thank you for sharing your experiences and hard work. I would love to win your book. Historical novels are my favorite. I enjoy being put in whatever time period they are written about.

  3. mdho

    Great pointers and the nuances of history make period writing so fun. Here’s a fun one I found useful. I also researched the next year to see what happened then. Then I knew I wouldn’t confuse something that happened “around that time” with something that had actually already happened.

  4. jgolden11

    Wonderful article, great instruction. I do have one question – do you feel it is necessary to physically visit the places in your manuscript (if you can)? To see the angle of the sun, the rustle of the leaves, the way the water runs when the snow melts? I realize it may all be different in modern day from what it was when my story takes place, but I’d like to be able to add verisimilitude with these things. In my case, it would be expensive and time-consuming. Should I go?

  5. alexcay

    Thanks for the great information on writing and researching a historical novel. Just one question – What is your method for organizing and keeping track of all the information that you find in your research? I have a kernel of an idea for a story set during WWI and I have no idea how to organize my research findings. I would appreciate knowing how others organize their notes.

  6. Russ64

    Taking your readers back in time, and keeping your plot current and interesting, is an art embracing self discipline and control. Read your favorite author’s subtle methods at work, and learn.

    Thanks for the terrific suggestions.

  7. mdsmith

    What a wonderful article! I just recently began a historical fiction project set in early 19th Century France. Deceit, mystery, and the societal class system of the period are becoming central themes and so far it’s been a great experience. I’ve been delving into books and even movies set in the same period to help capture the time period. Thanks for the insight. “Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman” sounds like a fascinating read!

    1. pinklady

      This is why I love writing historical novels, the research. It’s like a treasure hunt, you never know what you’ll find. The other fun part is adding fictional characters to interact with the factual figures of the time, and events. I’ve written one historical fiction novel, “Fire Within” set in 1961. Currently I’m working on another set Budapest Hungary during the 1956 Uprising. I’m also reading historical novels. Thank-you for a very helpful article.

  8. rncarst

    Very helpful. I used these very ideas in my last novel to take the character back in time AND place. Making the past real is vital. Thank god for the Internet! Good luck with your book.

  9. Laura

    My father-in-law was with the Milwaukee police department in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He knew John Dillinger so I have two real-life people and actual events to incorporate in my historical thriller of that era. Tessa’s advice will be invaluable to my completion of a readable novel. Thank you, Tessa!

  10. Bigfoot

    Tessa, excellent article. I especially like using real people or events to flesh out time and tone. Goes along with “Show, don’t tell”. I have been accused of loving the research more than the writing, and I plead guilty. But I find I am often going back to the library as my story takes a turn I wasn’t expecting. Search engines are great, if you know exactly what you are looking for, but there is plenty that needs doing the hard (fun) way. So, absolutely do your homework, but it’s not like cramming for a final.

    1. Laura

      @Bigfoot: Ain’t it the truth? In college I spent so much time in the library doing the research I hardly had time to actually write the term papers! lol One of my favorite movies is the one with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn where Hepburn works in the research department of a newspaper and Tracy comes in to install a computer. It was so funny watching Tracy put requests into the computer for information that it could not handle while Hepburn and her team either answered questions off the top of their heads or went to the stacks and grabbed material in a fraction of the time the computer came up with hilariously wrong answers.

  11. Debbie208

    Great ideas! Thanks for sharing. I myself was pulled into historical fiction while doing genealogy research. My ancestor’s came to life in my mind as I discovered who they really were. My current WIP is a Historical Romance set in the Lowlands of Scotland, along the Highland border, during the early 1100’s. I can’t wait to see where my characters take me. Your advice and suggestions came at the perfect moment for me.

    I’d love to get my hands on your book to see how you make it all flow.

    Thanks again and have a GREAT day!

  12. Backfence

    Good points. My novel is set during the American Civil War. When I started researching the era in the context of my setting, I discovered so many little tidbits of which I hadn’t previously been aware. Some of them even worked themselves into my storyline. Now, research is one of my favorite parts of the process!

  13. bjs69

    My friends are amused that they can tell when I am reading an historical novel, because my word choices and conversation style are influenced by my reading. I say it is a sign of a good book! If I am not immersed in the culture and time, I don’t keep reading. That is exactly what you want as a writer: for your reader to loose herself in the world you have created. Thanks for the great ideas.

  14. writerontheroadway

    This article was perfect timing. I just returned from a two hour camp out at the library researching my characters location, and realizing the importance of getting even the proper speech for the time period correct.
    In our stories, it’s important to make the reader believe they are in that time and space-no matter if it’s a week or one year. It’s the little things, like my character who has resided in London for a year and when his sister visits, she notices a change in the manner of his dress and speech. It’s something the reader would expect.
    I love research and can spend hours doing so. The trick is to remember to comeback from the dusty books and pages of notes to do the important thing-write the story.

  15. Jack1811

    The tips you outlined are great! I particularly liked the one regarding Brit Speak – my novel is set in American colonial times, so obviously there is a strong British language influence. It’s hard to know exactly how they would have spoken then, but at least I won’t introduce any inappropriate modern words. I also liked the tip of using real characters mixed in with fictional ones. I debated whether or not to change the name of one of my “real” characters, but now will definitely keep him. As far as immersion goes, I’ve chosen a location that has been recreated and has re-enactments of daily life, and also has a detailed non-fiction book that I believe was the author’s doctoral thesis on the subject. I first visited the area 25 years ago and have been enthralled with imagining life there and finally am in the home stretch (2 chapters to go!) of completion of the rough draft. I’ve found two books extremely informative about this time period: The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840 by Jack Larkin, and Colonial Living by Edwin Tunis. Thanks for the article!

  16. Tamara50

    I love doing the research, but hate it when there are so many conflicting ‘facts’. My WIP is set in the heart of the California gold rush and I live within fifty miles of Sutter’s mill, where it all started. I thought I would find more information than anyone could possibly use. Instead I have discovered unsubstantiated legends and facts that both prove and disprove events. As an example, Phillip Armour was purported to be an active participant in the Placerville, CA 49er gold rush and yet others insist that he was never in Placerville California.
    I find the legends most interesting and yet most of them cannot be proven true or false. I’ve decided to just go with the story and let the 49er’s ghosts enjoy the confusion they’ve caused.

  17. vickielb

    Tessa – I am delighted to read about both your insights on historical research and your first novel. I am anxious to read your new release. I hope you will consider me as a possible recipient of your book. Your background and childhood sounds intriguing. Best wishes for a successful debut!

    I, too, want to write historical fiction, and I am researching now. I loved Victoria Holt’s novels of long ago, and fell in love with her Victorian England. Her books filled me with anticipation and a love for mystery with secrets and romance thrown in. I can’t wait to see what your characters do and say in your historical visions.

  18. LaBaroque

    I loved this article! I’m hanging on to it as reference to whoever tells me that research is overrated, as I’ve heard before…

    I love the research part. It feels like getting to know my characters better by looking into what they might have eaten, worn, lived in, etc!

  19. Malcolm Aylward

    Thank you Tessa for the enlightening article. On the subject of Brit-speak, I have always been fascinated by the alternate words they have for the American counterparts.
    baby carriage – pram
    elevator – lift
    truck – lorry
    man – bloke
    Those little details in dialogue can surely make or break a good book.
    I look forward to reading “Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman”.

  20. Lynn

    I agree 1000%! It’s frustrating when characters in historical novels are written as little more than modern-thinking people in costume. You can’t take a 21st century college co-ed, plop a bonnet on her head and stick her in a buggy to pass her off as a Southern belle. 😉

    I write Post-Civil War Western historical fiction. One of the things that’s helped me most in “getting it right” has been volunteering as a re-enactment docent for historic homes, museums, and events that relate to my period. People may have always hoped for the same things in general (health, dignity, love and happiness, etc.), but their motivations and expectations about life were very different from our own, as were their experiences. The opportunity to walking in their shoes really has helped me understand their unique historical perspective.

  21. jdmstudios

    Thank you for the great article on historical fiction, great information 🙂 It’s a tricky trying to balance research with writing. It’s so important to get your facts right! Thank you for the opportunity to win your book 🙂

  22. helenkit

    Tessa, your article gives excellent advice. You’re right that historical fiction must feel, sound and be true to the time and place that the characters are living through. As one of the above commenters noted, sometimes the research can be so enjoyable that you have a hard time deciding when to stop. Your book sounds like one I will enjoy. Wishing you much success

  23. authoralyssamayley

    This article has been exceedingly informative on how to capture a story outside of a time period that one knows first hand. Thank you, and I look forward to the release of your new novel.

  24. Shennon

    I love that you stress the importance of not only researching a period, but also eating, sleeping, and breathing it. That’s also the best way to learn a foreign language – it just makes sense. Thanks for a great article!

  25. ryspease@yahoo.com

    Tessa, You are spot on by warning about getting too addicted and caught up in your historical research. I had to rip myself away from researching the historical data on my middle grade history mystery “Ghost Over Boulder Creek” because I loved that 1860’s western era. Excited to read your new release. Congrats!

  26. leadrian

    Great article! Some of the research I’ve done for my Nevada gold-rush-era novel has involved reading contemporary novels about Western Americana. Sadly, many of them are disappointing. The kings of the genre, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, have a grace and authenticity in their writing that I think is unmatched by contemporary Western writers, and one of the main pitfalls is in the dialogue, internal and external, of the characters.

    Another things I’ve observed is that those same authors overdescribe everything. There is a fine line between painting a rich picture and painting a gaudy picture. Whenever I read a description that leaves nothing to the imagination of the reader, I’m left with a sense of the author’s desperation. It seems that he is saying: “I really do know what I’m talking about! Please believe me!” Authors who really know the time period also know what information can be left out. Yet another stark contrast between the writing of Louis L’Amour and contemporary Western writers.

    1. Lynn

      I agree! People have not always thought the same or expected the same things out of life. Their motivations invariably come out through dialogue and observations, and if it’s off, it can be glaring.

  27. LCN

    Great article, Tessa – very helpful advice! I was only recently introduced to Downton Abbey (I know – hard to believe!!) and fell in love with the time period. Looking forward to reading your novel – thank you for presenting the opportunity!

  28. margareth1313

    In writing my current WWII era historical, I am grateful to still have people to talk to who were young and in love during the war. One great resource though if your era is out of reach from those first hand accounts would be museums and genealogical research centers. No one loves the past more than us historical writers like history buffs. Also, reenactment groups are excellent resources because they do so much research on life in their chosen period. Actually go to reenactments from the time period that consumes you for a total immersion experience. (I love antique air shows and my heart races at the rumble of an approaching B52.) Nothing can inspire like feeling the ground shake from the cannon or ducking to avoid flying pieces of a knight’s shattered lance.

  29. Dana

    I look forward to reading your book – I love historical mysteries! You’re right about research details, a slip can throw the reader right out of the story. How daunting it is for the writer, however, to hold all these threads together!

  30. evedrew

    Thank you for these wonderful tips. I actually fell in love with the historical fiction genre a year ago as I researched and wrote a play about the early 1800’s in California on an adobe rancho. I love walking the same “hallowed” streets of the community where my characters lived and worked. I love looking at the names on the streets signs and having that person’s full life and adventures spring up and come alive in my mind. I love taking the early settlers of the community whom the majority of modern-day citizens have forgotten and immortalizing them in their glory in a modern theater piece. And finally, most of all, I love bringing the past alive onstage with the actual reverent knowledge that “these things actually took place and now we can relive them again with wonder and awe.” This is what we did last year, presenting a historical play at the very adobe that the history actually occurred. All this by seven-year-olds, speaking authentic 1800’s dialogue, wearing top hats or vaquero hats and bow ties, completely costumed. These are the children that were in my second-grade public school class last year.

  31. Pam

    Wonderful article. I love doing research. It does have its tendency to pull me in and I can easily spend time traveling down many apparently irrelevant roads. But, as your piece suggests, one never knows and total submersion helps later in writing a scene or creating a character. I also liked your idea of reading plays from the period one is interested in. Interesting advice.

  32. jezebellydancer

    Thank you so much for this. I am a certified professional proofreader and editor along with being a writer. I love historical works. Everything you said in the article is on point. I hate coming across an anachronism that screams modern day. It pulls me right out of the mood. I had difficulty with one client who had not done her research at all and thought that was my job to ‘fact check’ for her.Writers need to know that it’s their job to do the research, not the job of the editor/proofreader to fix all of their factual errors. Not unless they want to pay me hourly to do the research. 🙂

    For those writing historical works, cultivate friends in the reenactment community for that time period. They are invaluable and can save you a lot of time. I have friends in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisms) who delve into the medieval period. They were a big help for things like how long does it take to make mead and what would my characters wear if they lived in Ireland in the start of the middle ages.

    Thank again!

  33. lu2belle

    I cannot even begin to describe the horror and disappointment I feel when reading a book and discovering that the writer did a weak job with their research. I appreciate good research that goes with the good writing. There are so many slipshod books out there, it makes one appreciative of the shining gems.

  34. Toby

    Children spoke and acted older as a rule in historical times, especially those forced to survive in often brutal ways. Have to work to achieve a balance of developmental maturity and social experience with correct language of the times. Great tips!

  35. Badgersmom

    Now I know why so many people find comfort in support groups: Ms. Arlen reminds us historical fiction writers that we’re not alone. Looking hours and hours for one tiny tidbit–oh, yes, I’ve been there! I appreciated Ms. Arlen’s remark, “I began to find the other-world of the early 1900s a far more attractive place than the one we inhabit today.” Again, oh yes! My work is set 150 years earlier, which would be a less appealing time to live in (hygiene, medicine)–still, would it really be so very hard for we modern folk to be a tiny bit more polite? A tiny bit more circumspect about our personal affairs? One way in which I differ from Ms. Arlen is that I do homework not just before but also during and after (my editor has had a chance to chastise me). Thanks for this post! Sharing!

  36. bewarne

    And since I am American trying to write about Britain in World War II, I found problems getting the spelling right. Fortunately, I found a free online writing aid that will tell you when you are mixing British and American spellings: Pro Writing Aid. I missed more than I thought. I do not want to be like some movies about ancient Rome where all the men have modern haircuts. I do not know what else they got wrong because I just couldn’t get past the haircuts. Or Medieval stories where you can tell that the characters are familiar with Freud’s theories. Thank you so much for the article. Other advise I have gotten is to write first and research later but I agree with you. But then I love the research. Oh, I noticed your biography contains the following: “She lives in Washington. She now lives in Washington, DC.”

    1. Theresa Schultz

      This is so true. And I find I frequently can’t use a lot of the wonderful information I’ve learned without making the passage sound like an info dump. How to incorporate those period details without dropping the tension of the story can be a challenge.

  37. Kate

    I’ve also found that taking the time to do proper research is like opening a treasure chest of inspiration. Learning about different elements of history awakens my mind to all sorts of twists and connections I might never have imagined on my own.


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