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Ramping Up Your Research: Tips and Resources for Historical Fiction Writers: The Books You Need

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Most Useful Books for Historical Writers

The most useful books for historical research are unlikely to be available on the web (only books out of copyright are available for free).  Check your public library or the WorldCat catalog (on the right) to find them.  Or try to get a used copy on Amazon!    

Here are some examples of the types of books you need:

  • Books in the "Daily  Life or "Everyday Life" series:
    Specially designed for writers, these books help you answer questions about the daily life during a certain period:  What did people eat?  How did they dress?  What did they do for fun?  What did they do for a living?  What was it like to be a kid?  Several publishers publish them, most notably Greenwood Press,  Oxford University Press, and Writer's Digest Books.
  • History of a country or a topic:
    There might be hundreds of books on the history of a specific country or period.  Remember that interpretations of the past change over time.  You may want to find both older and more recent books.  
  • Specialized Encyclopedias:  
    Specialized encyclopedias can provide reliable background information on your period or topic.  For example, if your novel takes place during the Renaissance and your main characters are women, you may want to invest in something like the "Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance". 
  • Historical Atlases: 
    Useful to find historical maps
  • Travel Guides:
    Older travel guides are a good source for historical novels.  Some of them, like the Baedeker's series are available on the web through the Internet Archives.
  • Oxford English Dictionary and other books about language:  
    Use the OED to check the etymology of some words.  You want to be sure that the words you put in your characters' mouths were actually in use at the time of your story.  The OED (online and in print) is available in almost all public libraries.
  • Diaries, Letters, Memoirs from the time period: 
    Use these primary sources for authenticity and inspiration



How Do You Find These Books

Use WORLDCAT.ORG to find books on your topic.  WorldCat is an online catalog for all the libraries in the U.S.  You can find out which library close to you has the book you are looking for.  Enter your topic and other keywords describing what you are looking for.

Examples:  Renaissance and daily life
                   Renaissance and travel guides
                   Renaissance and encyclopedias
                   World War II and letters
                   Golden Rush and Diaries

Always use the ADVANCED SEARCH to be able to limit your search (by date or language for example) if necessary.


When you look at your results, you will be able to locate the closest library where the book is available.  You can also search the online catalog of your own public library.  If your library doesn't own the book, you can use the "interlibrary loan service" to obtain it.