Research for writing historical fiction

Research is an intimate part of writing historical fiction. It’s the foundation upon which each good story rests, and as such, it needs to be robust and well-laid. In my opinion, without a good basis in reality or fact, historical fiction becomes either historical fantasy or alternate history. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with those genres ― I’m fond of them myself, especially the latter ― but they fall into a different classification to the books I write.

Research can take many forms, but the methods that I find most useful are reading textbooks, studying the information on relevant websites, visiting museums and/or historical sites, and attending re-enactment events, where I can soak up the atmosphere and talk to the men and women who work so hard at helping us to understand how life was thousands of years ago. I like to buy small items that have been made as they were long ago. The bookshelf over my desk has a whistle, a bone hairpin, a little oil lamp, a brass whistle, a blue glass and other Roman trinkets on it.

Some textbooks can be very dry, full of details that tell us much about the structure, politics and  customs of ancient society but which reveal precious little about the real people who lived so long ago. Nonetheless, there’s great enjoyment to be had ― for me at least! ― in soaking up some of the huge quantity of information to be found inside the covers of textbooks. At times, the knowledge doesn’t always seem relevant, but it often becomes useful at a later time.  There is also a guilty pleasure in spending a few days in a café, reading texts and making notes. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like real work, although of course it is!

I’ve learned to be careful about which historical websites I trust enough to use information from. There are literally just a handful, which are generally run by academics, universities or re-enactors. Sadly, an awful lot of other sites just cut and paste articles that have been posted elsewhere, which means that inaccurate information is perpetuated. As a rule of thumb, if the historical information isn’t referenced, don’t believe it!

Museums have been places of great interest to me since I was a child. Back then, I could easily spend an entire day in places such as the Imperial War Museum. I can still do the same now, but I am usually searching for a specific item or exhibition. It can also be tremendously useful to spend time in the historical sites where men such as Julius Caesar may have stood. I’ve been to Rome three times, and on each occasion, I have never failed to find large number of facts/details to use in my books. In October 2011, I was lucky enough to make a one week trip to Italy, during which I retraced the route taken by Spartacus in his epic struggle against Rome.

One of the highlights of this trip was the large arena in Capua. It was built about 50-100 years after Spartacus’ rebellion, but it stands in the same spot as the previous building, in which he would have fought. Tiger bones and other dramatic finds were discovered there in an archaeological dig during the 1930s. I couldn’t help but feel moved as I stood in the circle of sand, with the angled seating all around me. I felt the same way when I went to the narrow ridge that lies high above the narrowest part of the ‘toe’ of Italy, where Spartacus and his men smashed through the Roman defences that had penned them in. Most of all, I felt it in a valley not far from Naples, the probable site of Spartacus’ final battle against the general Crassus, and on the extant section of the old Via Appia, which lies in the southern suburbs of Rome. That is where some of the 6,000 crucifixes that were erected all the way from Capua would have stood. Being in the exact place where some of Spartacus’ captured men suffered their savage fate was a strange and slightly unnerving experience.

And so despite the fact that nothing physical  ― buildings,  writings, clothes or weapons ― remains of men such as Spartacus, their memory lives on in certain places. I think it will do so forever.

(as first posted on the blog So Many Precious Books, So Little Time.)


This entry was posted in Default. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  1. sownack
    Posted 2 July 2012 at 21:54 | Permalink

    Hello Ben,

    Have you read On The Spartacus Road by Peter Stothard?

    One day I shall get to Rome and perhaps Capua. Until then I shall be satisfied with reading about the Roman Empire. Not long now until Spartacus Rebellion is published 🙂

  2. Ben Kane
    Posted 3 July 2012 at 09:28 | Permalink

    @sownack: Yes, I have. While I respect Stothard’s reasons for writing it (his illness), I found it extremely verbose. I finished it with a sigh of relief. Did you like it?

  3. sownack
    Posted 3 July 2012 at 20:50 | Permalink

    Not much. I felt the same way that you did. There were some interesting snippets, but on the whole I was happy to have finished it in order to move on to something else.

  4. nipaco
    Posted 7 May 2013 at 20:55 | Permalink

    Hi Ben

    Really enjoyed Spartacus the Gladiator – read a borrowed copy on holiday so will now buy your other titles too. At the back of the book you mentioned a website/forum dedicated to Roman history for enthusiasts – can you let me have the website name/address?



  5. Ben Kane
    Posted 8 May 2013 at 19:49 | Permalink

    @nipaco/Nick: Thanks for your post – glad that that borrowed copy caught your fancy. I hope you enjoy my other books too.
    The website you want is – see you there!
    Best wishes to you.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.