Researching your Historical Novel

Researching your Historical Novels

Written by Penny Ingham, author of The Saxon Wolves.

The idea of researching a historical novel can seem a daunting task, but if you’ve chosen a period you’re genuinely interested in, then you should find yourself down a rabbit hole full of boundless, inspirational ideas for both your plot and your characters. Read everything you can get your hands on, and keep on reading until you feel comfortable in your chosen period, until you can walk through its cities or stroll through its countryside and see (and smell and hear ) everything clearly in your mind’s eye.

Of course, history is written by the winners, not the losers. There is bias in every piece of original source material, and in every history book you read – no matter how expert the author. But looking out for the bias and analysing why it’s there, can be a great insight, and a wonderful source of ideas for a novel.

A word of warning – readers of historical fiction are an erudite lot, and will quickly pick up on any errors you make. The internet may be the marvel of our age, but it can also be a snake pit of fake news. It is worth taking the time to fact-check everything.

In my view, nothing can beat the ‘feet on the ground’ research method. Get out there, visit museums, get a feel for the artefacts, and walk the paths your characters trod all those years ago. In The Saxon Wolves, Anya finds herself at the spectacular fortress of Tintagel in Cornwall. Today, the wind on the cliff top smells of salt and fish and seaweed, just as it did fifteen hundred years ago. Anya also travels to the Roman baths of Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath). Here you can still smell the sulphur in the air and feel the steamy heat of the spring water against your cheeks.