Writing Historical Fiction: Organizing Research


This past week, I started doing serious research for my next book. For some reason, I’m finding this upcoming project more intimidating than The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which is odd because the new book will cover a much more condensed time period. Maybe I’m nervous because I have a better idea now of what researching a historical novel actually entails. Last time, I went into it with a certain naïveté.

At any rate, I want to organize my research more efficiently than I did last time. One thing I’m doing is to highlight the books I read. You have to understand that I’m someone who NEVER marks up books. This time, however, I’m highlighting important facts and details in yellow highlighter and even writing an occasional comment on the side–so far, mostly connections to other events or questions about the author’s objectivity/interpretation.

I also bought several packages of colored flags, and I plan to use them to indicate the different categories of information. Yellow for plot events, blue for information about my main character, green for details of daily life in the late 1800s, etc. Of course, I’ll do a lot of Internet research and probably set up a system of folders for book marks, maybe using the same categories, maybe others.

I’ve also realized I’m going to have to create a list of minor characters. There will be a lot of people in this book, although most will appear for only a page or so. It can’t be helped because of the nature of the historical conflict I’m portraying. Making a list will help me decide who to include and who to ignore.

That’s as far as my thinking has taken me so far. Do those of you who are writers have any other helpful tips for organizing research?


Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

21 responses to “Writing Historical Fiction: Organizing Research

  1. Well, I have a document of notes (it’s something like 30 pages long right now, not including the book I just finished reading). For books I’m reading on Kindle, I take notes as I read. For physical books, I flag.

  2. Me? Have helpful tips for organizing research? Psh– I’m over here takin’ notes from you! haha

  3. The colored flags are a good idea! I, too, really have a hard time marking books. I did it with a couple, in college, because it seemed like the “thing” to do. But by senior year, I did the flagging thing, and would very occasionally underline (my Fagles “Iliad” has the flags in it still). Happy researching!

  4. Oh that’s too funny. I just mentioned the flags in my comment to your comment before I had even seen your photo up top!

    Even though I handwrite my notes, I do color coordinate them with highlighters. For example, my notes about period dress might be highlighted in blue, my notes about food might be highlighted pink. So yes, we have the same idea, we just come about it differently. 🙂

  5. Wow, that is incredible. I know what you mean about marking up books. I’ve taken notes in a separate notebook before. I wish I could research and keep up with stuff like this. I tried to color code revision notes once, but I ended up just putting them in chronological order.

  6. Sounds like many of us don’t like marking up books. I didn’t either but finally had to get the yellow marker out. I like the flagging idea. I’m fairly old school and make physical folders arranged alphabetically in an upright filing system. I find that’s the best way for me to have any downloaded material right at my fingertips. I just fan through the files and pull out what I need while I’m writing.

    • I tend not to print out material from the Internet–I just bookmark it. But then there’s always the danger that the web site will disappear. Your way might be better.

  7. giorge thomas

    Oh my gosh, you’re like me. I get super excited at the sight of post it flags and such like. I label everything! (But not the husband. I did try to once but he said I was taking it too far)

  8. I’m scared to death to write in the late 1800s. I admire you and love reading about the era. My grandmother used to laugh at me calling it historical fiction, because she was born in 1892. Now I am writing books based set in the 1950s and 60s and people are calling them historical…makes me feel REALLY old. But to answer your question: Here is a nifty little piece of downloadable software that comes in quite handy. It is FREE, and was created by the ingenious “new” husband of Wendy Clarke (a keeper for sure). I have been using this for my current WIPs (three of them) and consider it a Godsend.

    • Thanks for the software tip. I appreciate it! My recently published novel is set in the early 1800s, which was even more of a challenge. But I found that I enjoy the research. I always admire people who can focus on more on multiple WIPs. I can only do one at a time.

      • Once I get deep into writing, I am the same and put everything else on hold…especially when there is a lot of research involved. The research is fun to me too. It is a large part of why I write.

      • I also write for my living (I’m an educational writer), so I think that’s another reason why I can’t juggle multiple fiction projects.

  9. Maybe I should try this – I deal with non-fiction and it is covering such a wide area – I sometimes confuse myself – can’t imagine how the readers feel!!

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