Tumblr Ask #1: Balancing the Research and Story Processes

👋😄 I saw that you write historical fiction! I have a historical fiction book I’m planning atm and I’m not sure how to balance research and story. Any tips on that? ✒

Hyba Ouazzani

That’s a good question!

I think that the most important time to do the most research is at the beginning. When I have a very general idea of the time period and setting that I will be implementing, I research a bird’s eye view. Even if you feel like you know the period very well, it can help to review the major events of a century. Plus, doing this fosters more inspiration. If you find a specific event that sparks your interest, then you can look into it even deeper and include it as an important facet of your story.

For example, I was very interested in the 1618 Defenestration of Prague. My excitement about the topic led me to incorporate it in Atrocious Immoralities as a significant plot point.

You can also research specific historical figures, and include them as characters in your story. Using historical figures as characters is a good tool for emphasizing the fiction in historical fiction. Events are harder to tweak in a compelling way in a story, but characters can be manipulated much more.

Aside from the initial research and gathering events and figures that you are inclined towards, the next most important role that research serves is fact-checking along the way. Often while writing, I will find myself asking absurdly specific questions to Google. These are moments like “Did [thing] exist in [year]?” This is a crucial, less exciting element of making sure your story is grounded in reality. I’m sure you can relate to these silly Google searches.

If you’re feeling like most of your time is dedicated to one or the other, I would suggest thinking of it more as blending the two. After you research something, ask yourself some narrative questions, like:

  • How could this impact my protagonist?
  • What sort of societal consequences did this event/person have at large?

Asking these questions will help you to create a cohesive historical fiction narrative, no matter what direction you take it.

I also talked about this topic pretty broadly on my blog. Good luck!

Character writing: avoiding self-inserts

People often say that in order to write a character, you should be able to answer just about any question from their perspective. This is good advice until it’s taken to the self-insert extreme.

There are worse things than writing characters that are essentially just self-inserts. After all, a well-written character is the most important thing, and some authors may write wonderful characters who take after themselves. But it is always preferential to write characters different from oneself.

Imagine you write multiple books which are not joined by a series. Your readers loved your first book, but when they begin the next, they start to sense a pattern. These characters all seem the same, and why?

The only time your characters should answer everything precisely how you would is if you’re a memoir author!

Luckily, the good news is that delving into your characters is a lot of fun. I know authors who take personality tests from their character’s perspectives once they’ve come to understand them fully. But before you start pulling up Myers-Briggs tests, create something like this:

A Very (Very) Abridged Character Analysis Worksheet

  • Physical Appearance
  • Favorites
  • Background/upbringing
  • Family
  • Occupation/passions
  • Attitude/mindset/outlook
  • Personality
  • Interrelation with others/perceived as…
  • Their goals
  • How they react to problems/crisis

These are the major headings I use in my character analysis, which are then broken down into subsections diving in much deeper. You can take it as far as you want; some of mine go as far as their favorite book and their name’s etymology.

To further show the detail I delve into with my own character worksheets, here’s the physical appearance alone of Avis Papley, the protagonist of my upcoming book Atrocious Immoralities.


  • Age: 18
    • What is their perceived age: 15
  • Eye Color: Green
  • Hair color: Light brown
    • Distinguishable hair feature: wavy
    • Type of hair: coarse
    • Typical hairstyle: Down to her elbows, roughly chopped
  • Height: 5’6
  • Weight: 117
  • Type of body/build: Thin due to undereating
  • Nationality: English
  • Skin tone: Pale
  • Shape of face: Heart, round
  • Distinguishing marks: Birthmark on her ankle, scar on her cheek (unknown cause)
  • Most predominant feature: Her striking eyes
  • Resembles (famous or not): Avis Magellan
  • Accent: Cumbrian English
  • Are they healthy: No                                                  
    • If not, why not: Malnourished

When you finish a character worksheet, read over it again. Do you see yourself in the details? If you relate too much, try again. Think about your character’s situation in life and the setting in the story. Does this make them more inclined towards a certain proclivity or appearance? What can you change about your character to make them more believable as a wholly different entity?

Thinking in these terms helps me to create unique characters with unique desires in my work.

Creating a book playlist

It does not surprise me that nearly every author jumps to the creation of a playlist, sometimes even before writing the book itself. Coming up with a set of songs to listen to while writing is often an integral aspect of the writing process and one which only further connects your intentions with the audience.

Depending on the type of person you are, this may come as a stressor. “You mean I have to pick songs for my book, and the list is limited?”

Well, if you’re like me, making book playlists is a whole lot of fun, and has the crucial role of helping you set the tone of your story. But if you find yourself wishing for a bit more guidance, here’s my method:

  1. Choose a medium
    Will your playlist be made on a streaming service like Spotify, or would you rather go physical with a CD or cassette? I like to use Spotify for personal use as I create the playlist, then I can transfer the playlist to more shareable sites like SoundCloud. This makes it easy for me to listen to, and easy to share as a fun connection with readers.

  2. Start with your gut
    You might be tempted to go to genre-inspired playlists that already exist. Resist that urge, and begin with your own tastes. This is critical because your music taste will intermingle with your authorial voice in a beautiful, genuine way while writing. More importantly, you want to listen to music you like! You can add some of those genre songs in later.

  3. Adapt to character
    Once you’ve added some of your favorite songs that just make sense, step into the mind of your characters. What music would they listen to? What do they like dancing to, or love to hear performed by a quartet? This helps you to develop an even stronger setting. Keeping in mind the period in which you are writing will create a much more immersive atmosphere.

  4. Consider specific tones
    When your book is a work in progress, you will have ideas of when certain scenes will occur. Having specific songs to set the tone for an action sequence or heartbreaking betrayal will help you to convey the same tone through your words. This could even be a diegetic choice, allowing you to elicit the same emotions in the characters. What song is playing when they dance, and what does that feel like to the characters?

  5. Don’t be afraid to keep adding
    It is inevitable that you will find the perfect song that you missed. I continued adding songs to mine until well after the book was finished, as I picked up on tones that I had not previously recognized.

    With your playlist ready, you will have a compilation of moods, scenes, characters, and settings, all ready for you to work with. Get to listening and start DJing your book process!

To see the end product of my own book playlist, listen to the Atrocious Immoralities playlist here on SoundCloud:

Historical fiction apart from suffering

If there’s a special, weird interest you have in positively anything, that affinity shines in your writing.

My first full-length novel was historical fiction.

Gasps from all around. The audience collectively shivers. One person dares to boo.
Writing historical fiction is simply not as insufferable as many people may think. It may take an acquired taste for research, but you never know until you’ve tried it. And if you enjoy reading it, you can absolutely write it.

Writing my first book, I had two companions by my side: Google and one (1) Renaissance history book (Christendom Destroyed by Mark Greengrass). I accumulated many bookmarked tabs with information regarding dialect, textiles, and torture devices. I annotated the book because tend to think that a highlighted, well-read book is just prettier.

Certain documents stood out to me more and became really exciting discoveries. I began to realize that I might just really love research. I love diving down a rabbit hole and entering a world of metallic crystals for a science paper or finding out about legal loopholes in the 17th century. This is an excellent trait to have in general but it makes historical fiction a joy to write.

If there’s a special, weird interest you have in positively anything, that affinity shines in your writing. Think of J.R.R. Tolkien; his interest in linguistics meant that he was drawn to create his own language for The Lord of the Rings, and the parts written in Elvish are gems in the books.

This is because it’s simply fun to live vicariously amongst someone’s interests. When your best friend tells you about their favorite song and why they love it so much, their words exude passion. And it feels great to be the one telling someone about your favorite things, too, because it’s a very intimate way of communicating. The listener is showing that they care about the speaker’s passions, which immediately connects the two with knowing this.

For example, if your favorite song has deeply emotional lyrics, by telling someone else that you love it you’re expressing your relatability to the piece of music. This instantly places you in a position of vulnerability that reveals what you connect to and makes the other individual wonder what experiences you must have had in your life to connect to that music so much.

By writing, you are putting that vulnerability on paper. You are unintentionally writing your wounds into every word. And when you know so much about something or simply can’t help but be interested in Greek mythology, your readers will thank you for including it.

We write best from what we love and feel.

You’ll find that when you use these resources that are lying around in your writer’s toolbox, they will come together effortlessly to elevate the story into something bigger and better.