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Opening Doors to the Past

May 8, 2016 by in category Blogs tagged as , , , with 0 and 0
Home > Writing > Blogs > Opening Doors to the Past

The Importance of Doing Research When Writing a Novel
Cindy Vallar

Cara Clarke once wrote, “If you don’t want to do research, perhaps you should think twice about writing historical fiction.” While fiction requires some research, historical fiction, and historical romance require an author to recreate the time, the place, and the social and political mores and customs in which the characters interact. Even the subtlest of errors can jar our readers out of the story – to the point where they scribble their displeasure (and the truth) in the margins. This can forever damage the author’s credibility, for I often encountered readers’ annoyance with the author’s historical errors as a librarian with the Baltimore County Public Library System.

Many historical novelists consult primary and secondary resources to bring authenticity to their work; other authors fail to do such in-depth research. I notice this failing when reviewing books for Historical Novels Review or Pirates and Privateers. It’s a delight to read novels, like Dan Smith’s Red Winter or Elizabeth Camden’s Beyond All Dreams, in which the authors deftly weave their research into stories that captivate readers with true depictions of the life and times of centuries past.

Roby James’ The Soldier’s Daughter asks readers to believe Robert the Bruce’s most trusted soldier is a woman, albeit William Wallace’s daughter. James does a good job weaving the complex facts of a turbulent period in Scottish history into the story but then endows the heroine with attributes more in keeping with a woman of the twentieth century than the thirteenth. The world we live in, our life experiences, and public attitudes and opinions influence us in ways we may not realize, yet it is essential we discard these “burdens” to write believable stories set in the past.

What may work in one time period may not be correct in another, but the only way we find out is to locate reliable source material and immerse ourselves in the society of that time and place. Rather than serve as window dressing, the details of mannerisms, speech, foods, clothing, attitudes, and customs provide texture to our novels and bring the past to life for readers. But doing research can be a daunting task. In my workshop, “Opening Doors to the Past,” I share some tricks librarians use to find information. We also discuss how to evaluate potential resources, organize our research notes, recreate historical times and places, and weave fact with fiction to write the story. Assignments reinforce what’s covered in the workshop, and all participants are invited to submit a chapter from their stories for a free edit. Won’t you join me as we explore the fascinating realm of researching and writing historical novels?


A retired librarian, Cindy Vallar writes feature articles and book reviews for Historical Novels Review. She also pens the biannual “The Red Pencil” column where she profiles authors and compares a selection from their published historical novels with an early draft of those works. She is a freelance editor, the Editor of Pirates and Privateers, and a workshop presenter. She belongs to the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors and the Historical Novel Society. She is the author of The Scottish Thistle, her debut historical novel about Scotland’s Rising of 1745; “Odin’s Stone,” a romantic short story of how the Lord of the Isles settled a medieval feud on the Isle of Skye; and “Rumble the Dragon,” a historical fantasy about dragons and Vikings, which appears in the anthology A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder. She invites you to visit her award-winning website, Thistles & Pirates (, to learn more.

Cindy is teaching the OCC/RWA May Online Class Researching and Writing Historical Fiction – Opening Doors to the Past.

  • This 4-week online course begins May 16, 2016 and uses email and Yahoo Groups. 
  • The class is open to anyone wishing to participate. 
  •  The cost is $30.00 per person or, if you are a member of OCCRWA, $20.00 per person
For more information and to register go to         


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