Posted On December 4, 2009 by Print This Post

Researching Historical Fiction: Make it Fun by Jessica James

Welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing! Historical author Jessica James is going to talk to us today about one of my favorite topics – research. I love it. There’sJessica James something thrilling about digging deep into a subject to uncover its origins.

So I’m excited to welcome Jessica to RU today. After you finish reading Jessica’s post, please be sure to scroll down to the bottom to find out how you can win a basket of goodies.

Let’s get to it. Good morning, Jessica!

One of the questions I’ve been asked most often about my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray is, “how much research did you have to do?”

The answer is easy: A lot.

But the follow-up answer to the follow-up question, “how did you do your research?” is not quite so cut and dry.

Many authors think of research as endless hours sitting in a stuffy library pouring over dusty pages of history books. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth. I did read some war records and timelines and tactics, but every author already knows the nitty-gritty work that needs to be done to get their facts straight. I thought it would be more interesting to share some of the not-so-common methods I used to learn about the Civil War era when writing Shades of Gray.

A novel idea

Believe it or not, some of my research involved sitting in a comfortable chair simply reading novels penned in the 1800s. I really felt guilty indulging in this exercise, but the wealth of information I gleaned from those pages about the manners, etiquette, lifestyle and dress of the Civil War period is immeasurable.

I also came away with something that is perhaps more ambiguous, but no less important – a feel for the language and the cadence of the sentences in the 19th century. I am a bit of a stickler for language, and spent a lot of time making the dialogue in Shades of Gray sound authentic. This, by the way, paid off because I was asked to review and help improve the dialogue in a pilot script for a Civil War movie as a result of the strong 19th century voice used in Shades.

An added bonus of reading old books is learning the techniques of writing “romance.” Novels in that era do not contain sex or promiscuous acts of any kind – requiring the author to really write from the heart. Reading them made me realize it’s possible to convey true romance by using emotion rather than relying on sex. When you think about it, can you imagine if Jane Austen would have thrown Elizabeth into bed with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice? Most likely we would never have heard of the book today – it is the romantic elements and emotion we remember.

Battle scenes? But I’ve never been in one

Battle scenes were some of the most difficult ones to write since, of course, I don’t have any actual experience in that setting. One option was to pour over books containing official records and military strategies of Civil War officers, but for the most part, I did not. Instead, I read diaries and newspaper accounts, again, to get a feel for the language, and also to develop an understanding of the personal and emotional elements of the war.

Living in Gettysburg, Pa., gave me the added opportunity to attend large-scale battle re-enactments where I discovered what a camp full of horses and a few thousand men (in wool uniforms in July) smell like. I remember being surprised at how the campfires stung my eyes and how hot and stuffy those white canvas tents could be. What I discovered by sitting in the dark and taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a military encampment could never be learned in a book.

The battle re-enactments also gave me a feel for the chaos of battle – clouds of smoke, whinnying horses, bugle calls, booming cannons, shouted orders, etc. These things can be imagined, but are so much more vivid when experienced first-hand.

Walking in the footsteps of history

As I said, many aspects of the history we write about can be imagined, but I’m the type of person that has to visit, feel and experience an historic site – even if it’s just an empty field where a cavalry engagement once took place.

I call it “capturing the energy,” and, though it may sound strange, I always seem to get a burst of creativity after doing so. Whether it’s standing on the exact spot where Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded, or sitting outside the house where Colonel John Mosby escaped the Yankees by climbing out a window into a walnut tree (yes, the tree is still there), I “feel the vibes” and can hardly wait to get back home and write.

Other sourcesShades of Gray Cover

I also have to mention a few other research methods I’ve used that have inspired and educated me all at the same time. Reading old love letters and diaries are two of my favorites. Since writing was the main source of communication during the Civil War era, letters and diaries are so heartfelt and eloquent that they cannot help but serve as a source of inspiration.

I also enjoy visiting cemeteries, and reading the old inscriptions to loved ones. By the way, this is also a great place to find old and regional family names (as are obituaries).

Old house tours are fun and can provide loads of information about life in the 19th century, period furnishings and architecture. No two are the same, which is why, as my significant other can attest, I’ve been to just about every plantation house and garden tour on the East Coast.

Don’t feel guilty! It’s worth your time to get away

One of the dictionary definitions of research is “study,” but another is “explore.” If you set aside one day or afternoon a week to go on a fieldtrip, you will find yourself “creatively refreshed.” I know not everyone reading this post writes historical fiction, but there is plenty of “exploring” to do no matter what your genre. Whether you go to a cemetery, a bookstore, a museum, or an empty field, the time you spend will not be wasted – so don’t feel guilty about being away from your computer. It’s research!

The next stop on Jessica James’ Blog Tour is on Monday, Dec. 7.

* * *

Thank you, Jessica!

RU Readers, do you have any research tips you can share with us? Be sure to scroll down for details on Jessica’s basket giveaway.

Please join us on Monday with query writer extraordinaire, CJ Redwine, tackles another reader query letter.

Jessica’s Bio:

Jessica James is the award-winning author of the historical fiction novel Shades of Gray, an epic Civil War love story that has twice overtaken Gone with the Wind on the Amazon Best-Seller list in the romance/historical/U.S. category. A former newspaper editor, she spent 18 years in a newsroom before turning her attention to fiction writing. She holds a master’s degree in communications and a bachelor’s degree in public relations/journalism.

This multi-award winning novel has been widely praised by historians for its balanced portrayal of the War Between the States, and by romance readers for its emotional description of the love that develops between the two main characters.

The novel chronicles the clash of a Confederate cavalry officer with a Union spy as they defend their beliefs, their country and their honor. The rolling hills of northern Virginia provide the backdrop for this page-turning tale of courage and devotion.

Holiday Blog Tour and Civil War Basket Giveaway!

From Nov. 30 through Dec. 14, I will be stopping by different blogs with guest posts, interviews and reviews of my historical fiction novel Shades of Gray.

Readers are invited to follow along each of the stops and leave comments (with an email address) on those blogs that allow them. For every comment, you will get your name put into a hat and be eligible to win the basket of goodies.

But there’s more…!

For those readers who are on Twitter, by re-tweeting the message of the day with an @jessicajames and #BuyABook, you will receive 3 chances to win the basket. (Check back for the message of the day)

AND by becoming a follower of my website ( and my blog ( you will receive five chances.

Contents of Civil War Romance Basket GiveawayGift Basket

T-shirt: Loved I Not Honor More (M)

Candleholder with Primitive motif

Pack of 5 Shades of Gray/Justus Greeting Cards

CD: Homespun Songs of the C.S.A. by Bobby Horton

Romantic Rose Stationary

Pack of 5 Votive Candles: Pumpkin Bread (smells, oh so good!)

Southern Magnolia Handmade Virginia Soap

‘Virginia Grown’ Shopping Bag

Faux Roses

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26 Responses to “Researching Historical Fiction: Make it Fun by Jessica James”

  1. Jessica –

    Welcome to RU!

    Your research methods sound like hard work, but tons of fun. As Adrienne and Tracey would tell you, I don’t write anything close to historical (although I like to read it) so my research is usually a little different. That being said, sometimes I run into challenges because I currently live outside the US . Do you have any advice for someone like me who might not be able to access some local resources or places?

    Thanks again for joining us!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | December 3, 2009, 10:59 pm
    • Hi Kelsey,

      I guess the next best thing is to read everything you can about your topic, getting as many different points of view as you can. The internet puts more information at our fingertips than ever before so it’s at least a great starting point.

      Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 9:03 am
  2. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for joining us today! I love your idea about reading books contemporary to the time period when it was written. The book I read (over a hundred years old) had lots of “telling” in it. Amazing how things have changed.

    Take care,

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | December 4, 2009, 6:39 am
  3. I love research, and most times I can do it from the comfort of my chair, with my laptop and books. But recently I got to do some real hands-on research, when I went to a firing range to learn how to shoot a gun, because I had a scene where my heroine would be doing just that! And the actual experience was so different than I would have imagined, so I think it added a lot of rich detail to the written scene.

    And I just had a thought pop into my head about Tracey’s comment and the “telling” in the books from a hundred years ago. Maybe because there was time to “tell” a story then, that was the obvious style. But now, with TV and movies “showing” us the story, our methods (and attention spans) changed, so books had to change to keep up.

    Thanks for another informative post. I love this blog!

    Posted by Donna Cummings | December 4, 2009, 8:16 am
    • Donna –

      We’re so glad you like RU! Please let us know if you would like to see certain topics or visiting professors.


      Posted by Kelsey Browning | December 4, 2009, 8:35 am
    • I bet that was fun – and really important! There is nothing worse than someone calling a shotgun a rifle, or a pistol a revolver – plus you got a better understanding of the feel of a weapon and the power of the discharge. That is exactly the kind of research I enjoy doing. You can learn so much that you didn’t even know you didn’t know! 🙂

      Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 9:11 am
  4. Hi Jessica. Thank you for being here. I like to read non-fiction to help with my research. A few of my characters are ex-military and the non-fiction books written by Special Ops guys really helped me get a feel for the way they speak and work with each other. Very different from women! LOL.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | December 4, 2009, 8:28 am
    • Yes, good point! Reading non-fiction is a great tool. For sure, the language and relationships of Special Ops guys are nothing like those of women. I would think the more books you read on the topic, the more you’d begin to get a natural feel for how they interact and kind of become “one of the guys.”

      Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 9:20 am
  5. Hi Jessica,

    You must be a woman after my own heart. I do love visiting old cemeteries, reading the inscriptions and then trying to imagine what life was like for them. Thanks for the research ideas.

    Posted by Shirley | December 4, 2009, 9:49 am
    • I highly recommend Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. if you are ever in that area. It’s a beautiful setting – on a wooded hill overlooking the James River. I remember coming across a huge monement for a husband’s young wife, and I didn’t write down the info because I was looking for something else. It still haunts me today when I think about it, it was so beautiful. The cemetery is so large – it’s doubtful I can re-find it, but I’m going to try. (Another lesson: write EVERYTHING down).

      Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 10:37 am
  6. Morning Jessica…

    I don’t write historicals either, but I do enjoy reading them immensely. I love when an author can transport me away to another time and place.

    I don’t get a chance to “get out there” much…the job keeps me tied to home…but someday….=)

    I also love visiting cemeteries…I’m amazed at the inscriptions people used to (still do?) put on their headstones…makes for fascinating reading… you think you can get enough information by using the internet and talking to people to write a book? without having actually been there in that time or place?


    Posted by carrie | December 4, 2009, 9:57 am
    • Hi Carrie,

      I, personally, can’t. I need to see it and feel it. But I’m sure it’s been done – and can probably done well if a person has a good imagination and has plenty of reading material on the subject.

      BTW, don’t know where you are located, but Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va., is just unbelieveable! It’s on a wooded hill overlooking the James River and is so large that it gets a little scary trying to find your way out. There are three presidents buried there, as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. JEB Stuart, just to name a few of the many famous figures.

      Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 10:33 am
      • I’m in Iowa….no battle reconstructions here….=)…we have a few Renaissance Faires around that I get to go to occasionally,…if I ever get out that way though, I think it would be fascinating to look at!



        Posted by carrie | December 4, 2009, 3:36 pm
        • If you come to Gettysburg in July the streets, restaurants and sidewalks are filled with people in period attire. It’s funny to drive home from work late at night and see people window shopping dressed in 1860s clothes (men and women). You can’t help but be drawn into the history here.

          Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 4:51 pm
  7. Hi, Jessica,
    I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and can readily recall my reaction to “being there” on the battle grounds . It really puts a different tone on the war to ride a tour bus with a yankee guide and a mixture of northern and southern visitors “sharing” their views!

    What I’m wondering is how difficult it was to get your hands on hundred year old original documents, and perhaps fragile books of the era.

    Thanks for sharing in such vivid detail.

    Posted by Barbara Ann | December 4, 2009, 2:49 pm
    • Well you opened a can of worms with that question! I got the book-collecting bug and I BOUGHT first edition copies of many books. The oldest book I have is actually on a RevolutionaryWar topic and is 1834, but I own a lot of first edition books written during the Civil War as well as immediately after (written by veterans).

      There’s just something about holding that original copy in your hands – often times inscribed and dated. The only problem – if I actually added up what I spent, I’d probably cry 🙂

      Libraries also have great original documents and collections from Civil War veterans. Many times you just have to make an appointment. I even went down into the vault at the Museum of the Confederacy and got to see some orginal battleflags.

      Posted by Jessica James | December 4, 2009, 4:42 pm
  8. oops, That would be 160 year old books and documents. Guess I’m living in a time warp today!

    Posted by Barbara Ann | December 4, 2009, 2:52 pm
  9. Hi Jessica,

    I’m so glad you mentioned Hollywood cementary. Yes in the spring and summer on Friday afternoons, ( If I remember correctly) they have a program called Lunch with the dead and give tours with a boxed lunch. We Virginians can be quite taken with our dead.
    If you are in Virginia and do take in Richmond, travel a bit futher to Pamplin Virginia to the Civil War Museum on the Petersburg Battlefield. The museum and 25 surrounding acres tell a lot about the seige of Petersburg and the end of the War.

    I loved the Gettysburg battlefield. I went with three friends and we were there on July 5. It is quite a magical place. We were coming down one of the roads that led from the southern side and a young man stepped out and began walking across the field in Confederate garb. I still get goosebumps because it was growing dark and just the strangest thing. You really get a taste of history walking those battlefields.

    Thanks for the great lesson

    Nancy O in Virginia

    Posted by Nancy O'Berry | December 4, 2009, 9:40 pm
  10. Oh, thanks for letting me know about that program. The cemetery is SO big, I just kind of wondered around. I own a couple of relics from a Civil War soldier buried there in a family plot and want to get down to find a missing link I need in the family tree.

    BTW, I have heard stories from a lot of people who have seen a Civil War soldier at dusk, but when they stop the car to get a better look, he’s not there…

    Posted by Jessica James | December 5, 2009, 9:02 am
  11. Hi Jessica,
    I loved hearing about your research methods. Thanks for sharing them. I love doing research too. One book that really helped me learn more about life in a Roman fort was Garrison Life at Vindolanda. I was able to read actual letters and lists that were found at that site. It really helped bring my setting to life.

    The Civil War is an interesting war to study. Best wishes on your book sales.

    Posted by Kelley Heckart | December 5, 2009, 12:06 pm
  12. Thank you for sharing your research information.

    Posted by Linda Henderson | December 5, 2009, 10:35 pm
  13. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. Like you, I find diaries, letters, and fiction of the period to be wonderful sources of inspiration as well as information. I live in Virginia, so I’ve taken many “field trips” to historical areas, though my husband didn’t realize our bicycle rides were actually research : )

    Posted by Victoria Gray | December 5, 2009, 11:37 pm
  14. I truly applaud the detailed research which elevates so many works of historical fiction. The author who thoroughly and lovingly investigates and explores the social mores, politics, popular entertainments, foods, wardrobes, religious beliefs & etc. of the era involved paints a vivid picture with words.

    Posted by Virginia C | December 8, 2009, 6:31 am
  15. I highly appreciate and respect the research you do. I have one advantage over you. I am 83 years old and have been through world war II. I have been in the technical field working on government electronic devices as an engineer all my life. I write from my own experiences. Of course I have to do some reasearch but it is minimal compared to you.

    Posted by Angelo Thomas Crapanzano | December 9, 2009, 5:12 pm

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