March 5, 2020

Simplifying Historical Research

By Amanda Cabot, author of Out of the Embers

Research. As writers, we either love it or hate it, but no matter which camp we’re in, almost all of us agree that research is essential, particularly for historical novels. Accurate research gives us the details that make a story come alive and – just as importantly – keeps us from receiving those dreaded one-star reviews that point out every anachronism.

The question is how to do enough research to add authenticity to our stories without spending more time on research than on the actual writing. I use a three-step approach to research: one step before, one during, and one after the first draft.

At this point, I’m establishing the historical framework for my book. Once I’ve chosen the location and timeframe as well as the protagonists’ professions, I head for the children’s section of the library. Why the children’s section? Unlike adult books, which can rival War and Peace for length and which include far more details than I need, children’s books focus on the basic information. That’s all I need to begin crafting a story.

This is the trickiest time and the one when I used to spend hours researching something online, going down proverbial rabbit holes, simply because there’s so much fascinating information out there. To avoid falling into that trap, I do not – repeat, do not – research while I’m writing. Instead, I keep notes of information I think I need. Notice that I said “think.” While I’m working on the first draft, I may believe I absolutely, positively must know how long it takes to ride a horse from my fictional town to Austin, but it’s entirely possible that that scene may be deleted or changed in the second draft. Why waste time researching something that may not be needed?

Once the first draft is completed, I pull out the list of questions I’ve compiled and decide whether I really need the answer to each of them. After culling the list, I begin to search. Many of the answers can be found online, but some require trips to the library. This is the time when I may need to visit the adult section. For example, when I was researching Waiting for Spring, the children’s history of Wyoming I’d consulted did not explain the reason for the collapse of the cattle industry in the 1880s, but the books for adults included the unusually heavy snow and ice that prevented the cattle from reaching food and water.

By waiting until my first draft is complete and doing the research then, I’m more focused on what information I really need. Furthermore, my consolidated list of questions, many of which are related, can be answered in far less time than if I’d tried to find the answers to each one individually.

This technique, which is a variation on the KISS (keep it simple, silly) principle, has saved me hours and hours of time. I hope it works for you too.
Amanda Cabot is the bestselling author of A Stolen Heart, A Borrowed Dream, and A Tender Hope, as well as the Texas Crossroads, Texas Dreams, and Westward Winds series. Her books have been finalists for the ACFW Carol Awards, the HOLT Medallion, and the Booksellers’ Best. She lives in Wyoming. Learn more at

1 comment:

  1. Great suggestions. It's really difficult for me to not research as I write. Maybe I can take your suggestion to write down what I think I need. :-) Thanks!