March 3, 2011


When it comes to writing historical fiction—any fiction, actually—there are two kinds of research: the necessary and the ritual.

Necessary research is what you need or the book won't work. For historical fiction, this tends to be the standard of living details: what are people wearing? Eating? How do they light and heat their homes? What kind of homes do they have? What are their jobs? How do they get from place to place? These are the basics—everything that makes a historical novel historical.

And then there's the ritual research, mmm, sweet ritual research. Anything an author studies to add little bits of truth to a novel, that doesn't actually forward the story is done for ritual—for pleasure.

It makes you feel like your fictional world is more complete if all the train schedules are accurate on that day in history. The world on the page is more real if all the food the characters eat is in season and locally available on that day in 1885; if you know in which issue of Harper's Bazar, on which page, your characters could find the very dress they're wearing.

The VespertineBecause you have to do your necessary research, it's sometimes not as much fun as the ritual variety. It's homework really—and you won't be graded on it for several years. It's not until the book is published, and in people's hands, that you find out whether you did enough. And invariably, it's where you'll find out you failed to look into something you should have.

And that's when ritual research pays you back again. It was fun to goof off and learn exactly how the Liangzhu artisan shaped jade into a cong. It's equally fun to hear from people who already knew and are delighted you got it right.

In the end, writing books is all about making connections between strangers. The necessary research of a historical novel presents an invitation: will you come to this place with me?

But it's the ritual research that pulls special readers into a corner, and whispers a secret in their ear. It creates a moment—an intimate, wonderful moment—when author and reader perfectly connect. Which is why it's my favorite, even though I'll never again need to know how to make lye soap from wood ash.

Learning all that trivia is so worth earning that moment when I get to meet you.


Saundra Mitchell has been a phone psychic, a car salesperson, a denture-deliverer and a layout waxer. She's dodged trains, endured basic training, and hitchhiked from Montana to California. She teaches herself languages, raises children, and makes paper for fun. She's also a screenwriter and executive producer for Fresh Films and the author of Shadowed Summer and the forthcoming The Vespertine and The Springsweet. She always picks truth; dares are too easy.


  1. Hey! i'm a new follower via GFC! love the blog and can't wait to read more! this book looks great!

    hope you check out mine and follow me too!! =]

  2. Love this post and am so very excited about reading Sandra's book. Thanks for highlighting her and the book.


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