Rambling on About Historical Research

My guest today is the mysterious Cathie Dunn, alter ego of my amazing publisher. Although I learned not to classify my book as historical fiction, it is nonetheless African Historical fiction, and I learned the hard way what Cathie tells us now. Wish I had known you when I was struggling with the birth of mine, Cathie – perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite so protracted!

Image of Cathie Dunn

Thanks so much, Jane, for having me here today. I love rambling on about historical research, much more so than chatting about my books. So, here goes…

Researching history doesn’t have to be boring!

The first rule of writing historical fiction is that you – the author – should get your facts right. There are many debates, both online and in magazines, about how much ‘real’ history (which in itself can be debatable) writers should include, and where the fine line actually lies between fiction and fact.

If you want to write believable historical fiction, it requires an idea of the customs and way of life of the period you have chosen. If you confuse your Renaissance with your Dark Ages, you’ve blown it. Most readers will notice, as they often tend to have their favourite eras when choosing a book.

Of course, some genres require more and others fewer historical facts, and I’m sure some writers get away without great detail almost completely, instead focusing on characters and plot. It might make for riveting game of ping-pong of character conflict (particularly in romance), but readers may miss out on impressions of the times. This can leave readers wondering as to why characters reacted the way they did, far removed from modern sensibilities.

In general historical fiction, where the politics of the day might interfere with the main character’s life, it is crucial to consider the known details. Nowadays, it’s fairly easy to read up about kings and queens, political parties and the differences in roles between nobility, gentry and the working classes. There are huge resources available online that even a decade ago seemed unobtainable. And, of course, there are always volumes of history books to browse in libraries. Not just in English.

From my point of view (and some may disagree), you would want your characters to be as close to the real thing as you can make them. Ensure to read up on clothing, setting and day-to-day customs. Explore how they would behave towards each other, or how they would address each other, and their lords or villeins. If a real king or queen features in your novel, ensure they were indeed known to be in that particular place at the time, or at least that there is no record of them being at the other end of the country, signing a major treaty.

If you write historical mystery, contact local libraries for copies of old town maps. Read up about the roles of the sheriff, coroner, etc, and if possible, search for cases. Many original documents such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are available online. Whilst these often have to be taken with a pinch of salt – propaganda is no modern invention! – they provide you with a sound impression of opinions, fines or punishment.

There is another aspect of historical research, which not everyone has access to, but which I found invaluable: taking part in historical re-enactment. You get involved in a way of life so alien from ours, it leads to a more in-depth understanding of the time period.

My holidays often turn into research trips: I love visiting castles, cathedrals and medieval towns. Getting a feel for medieval Normandy was incredibly helpful for plotting Dark Deceit. Standing in front of buildings that belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine or William the Conqueror is humbling. And incredibly exciting!

Never underestimate your readers. Some readers don’t mind if you get things wrong, but others might throw your book against the wall and leave a poor review online. I have given up on books where the errors were too glaring. It spoils my enjoyment of it. However, many readers simply read for pleasure, and they’d be happy to forgive you a couple of capers… J

Now, take a step into the past and enjoy the adventure!


Cathie Dunn writes historical romantic adventure. Her favourite eras are the English Civil Wars, known as The Anarchy, of the 1130s-1150s, England under the Plantagenets and medieval and Jacobite Scotland.

Cathie has two novels published, Dark Deceit – available at Amazon and in all good bookstores, and Highland Arms – available at Amazon. She has also self-published Silent Deception, a paranormal romantic novella set in Victorian Cornwall.

Highland ArmsSilent DeceptionDark Deceit

Cathie is currently working on a medieval Scottish romance.


Website:        www.cathiedunn.com

Blog:              http://cathiedunn.blogspot.com

Facebook:     https://www.facebook.com/cathie.dunn1

Twitter:           www.twitter.com/cathiedunn

Author page on Amazon UK:       http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cathie-Dunn/e/B005IHAXH0

Author page Amazon.com:           http://www.amazon.com/Cathie-Dunn/e/B005IHAXH0

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2 Responses to Rambling on About Historical Research

  1. Cathie Dunn says:

    Thanks so much for hosting me, Jane. I appreciate it. 🙂

    Fact is, I could go on and on once I get started talking about research – and get lost in history!

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