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 your writing space

We all have our favorite spaces to create, whether just out of comfort or awareness that we produce our best work while there. But Rattner is able to break down why this happens and how to manually foster a creative space.

I’ve been incredibly inspired as of late after listening to an episode of The Writer Files podcast featuring Donald M. Rattner.

Rattner is a “creativity architect”, an architect who specializes in designing spaces that maximize creative productivity and inspiration. This concept felt so obvious to me as soon as he introduced himself, but it wasn’t ever something that came to mind naturally. We all have our favorite spaces to create, whether just out of comfort or awareness that we produce our best work while there. But Rattner is able to break down why this happens and how to manually foster a creative space.

An important first step is to assess your surroundings in your favorite writing space. Is it a minimalistic setting where you have few surroundings, or is it a space filled with memories and ephemera that inspire you? It can say a lot about where you find inspiration when you look around.

My favorite writing spaces have been some of both, depending on what sort of headspace I was in. I like writing at my desk where I’m surrounded by my inspirations and favorite art, but I also finished my first book at the beautiful, modern UCSB library.

You want a place where you can either find inspiration around you or where you have to find it yourself. Some of us need that outside inspiration, and some of us just need peace and quiet.

Go to one of each and try writing. See how it feels, how hard you feel like you have to work to get words on the page. Maybe you want a blend of the two. Be sure to try writing outside at least once in your life!

I highly recommend listening to that episode (The Writer Files: How to Design Your Writing Space with Award-Winning Architect Donald M. Rattner) and checking out other episodes of The Writer Files. Kelton Reid is an excellent host and the guests are incredibly varied and bring unique insight every time. I also recommend checking out work from Rattner (donaldrattner.com). I don’t yet own his book My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, but I hope to get it soon.

Nick Cave on writer’s block

Maybe you take a break from looking at the page or the screen and step away for a bit. But what do you do if when you return you’re right where you left off?

Hello writers.

Writer’s block is a universal concept. That time when you got stopped up and the words can’t flow. Maybe you were writing so fast the pencil was flying and then, suddenly, you lose your train of thought. You can’t think of the next line of dialogue.

Maybe you take a break from looking at the page or the screen and step away for a bit. But what do you do if when you return you’re right where you left off?

Essentially nothing, at least not yet. I’d wager to say that anyone who has ever written anything has experienced some form of writer’s block. And yet, there are professional authors who write thousands of words each day. You’d think they must have found some way to avoid it but most of them deal with it just like we do.

Nick Cave is often regarded as one of the most brilliant lyricists in music. He writes elaborate stories and poetry into his music in a way that carries their significance, along with bringing his experiences along through his words.

And no more shall we part, the contracts are drawn up, the ring is locked upon the finger and never again will my letters start sadly, or in the depths of winter

His thoughts about writer’s block may be specific to lyrics in his words, but it’s clear how his advice applies to all writing.

Cave says, “The idea of lyrics ‘not coming’ is basically a category error. What we are talking about is not a period of ‘not coming’ but a period of ‘not arriving’. The lyrics are always coming. They are always pending. They are always on their way toward us. But often they must journey a great distance and over vast stretches of time to get there. They advance through the rugged terrains of lived experience, battling to arrive at the end of our pen. In time, they emerge, leaping free of the unknown — from memory or, more thrillingly, from the predictive part of our minds that exists on the far side of the lived moment. It has been a long and arduous journey, and our waiting much anguished . . . our task is to remain patient and vigilant and to not lose heart — for we are the destination.”

We are the destination — not our writing. Through writing, we discover more about ourselves and the writing continues to convey more and more about us. Our writing must cross the terrain of our lived experiences; we cannot write disconnected from our lives. Everything we write is deeply ingrained with our joys and pains.

But ultimately, as he says, vigilance is key. We can’t be upset with ourselves for the ideas taking a while to reach us, because they need time to develop.

Next time you find yourself staring expectantly at the page, take a walk with your thoughts. Drink some tea and let the ideas steep. Don’t let yourself give up simply because you lost the patience to wait for your best ideas yet.