Resources for Writing Historical Fiction

Need a description of a lady’s hat  in the 1850’s? A first hand account of  a Civil War battle? A picture of a Tudor lady’s gown? At a writers’ conference last week, several authors of historical fiction asked for a list of my favorite general resources–the reference books I reach for first when I need quick information for a work in progress. Over the years, I’ve collected dozens of specialized books that relate to whatever story and time period I’m currently working on, but here are a few that I’ve found useful across many time periods and settings.

What Happened When: A Chronology of Life and Events in America by Gorton Carruth.  Beginning in the year 986 and continuing to the present day, this book offers thumbnail sketches of American life in numerous categories including Exploration and Settlement, Government, Wars,  Architecture, Arts and Music, Popular Entertainment, Publishing, Theater,  Education, Philosophy and Religion, Science, Fashion, Holiday, Sports and more. I use this book often when I want to have my characters discussing the events of their day or when I am creating a timeline for my novel.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800’s by Marc McCutcheon. Writers Digest Books. One of a series of “Everyday Life” books, this volume covers much of the same territory as Carruth’s book, but in more detail.  It includes a chronology I’ve found useful when I’m in the middle of a scene and need to know what magazines my heroine might be reading , for example.

20,000 Years of Fashion:  The History of Costume and Personal Adornment by Francois Boucher, Abrams Publishing. As the name implies, this is an exhaustive encyclopedia complete with dozens of gorgeous color plates and detailed accompanying text.

Vintage Hats and Bonnets 1770-1970 by Susan Langley published by Collector Books. I nearly wore this one out as i was writing BEYOND ALL MEASURE sincemy heroine is a milliner. This book contains dozens of color illustrations of hats and bonnets arranged by decade. In the back you’ll find a brief history of milliners and their work, which proved invaluable to me.

English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, Writers Digest Books. I bought this hefty tome after a copy editor on one of my early books caught a line in which I ‘d used the phrase “caught red-handed.”  Turns out that phrase wasn’t in use until much later than the year in which my story was set.  Oops. Now I use Brohaugh’s book any time I’m unsure of when a word came into popular use.

If you’re writing about Henry the 8th, Anne Boleyn and that bunch, you need this book: A Brief History of The Tudor Age by Jasper Ridley, published by Carol and Graf. Detailed enough to be useful, but short enough not to overwhelm the reader, this book provides a lively account of life in the Tudor Age, complete with color plates and black and white illustrations.

I absolutely love reading first hand accounts of historical events. If you’re writing about the Civil war era, find the dairies of Mary Chesnutt of South Carolina,  Cornelia Peake of Virginia, and Emily Morgan of Louisiana, as well as the wartime papers of General Robert E  Lee.  For writers of historical fiction there’s nothing more exciting or more useful than the diaries and letters of those who witnessed events first hand.

Do you have a favorite resource you’re willing to share? Leave a comment and let us know.


2 thoughts on “Resources for Writing Historical Fiction

  1. Cathy Richmond

    What a great list, Dorothy! For fashion, I like American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs by Dalrymple, The History of Underclothes by Cunnington, and Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar 1867-1898. Reenactors are a great source for all sorts of historical details.

    1. dorothy Post author

      thanks for your list, Cathy! Now I’m curious. Need to get a copy of the History of Underclothes! 🙂 The Harpers book sounds great, too. I’ll be adding these to my library.Thanks for sharing!!

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