Realistic fiction: Research your way to a convincing story


This article focuses on making your story realistic, not the genre known as realistic fiction.

A history book I was reading a few months ago included an inspiring and heartwarming incident that took place over 80 years ago. When I finished, my brain did a little dance — a strange visual, I know, but that’s just how it felt.

My newest idea for a novel was born, and I am now stepping into what publishers call the historical fiction genre.

The story will take place during one of the most devastating times in history — the Great Depression — and in a city that is well known to me: my hometown.

To turn the story into a fictional account that rings true, I have a lot of research to do.

What about your story? Even if a past event plays only a small part in it, you still want to give your reader a true sense of what happened, how people lived, what they were thinking, how they were speaking.

Writing realistic fiction involves going beyond your creativity and doing some digging in the trenches.

Online Helpers

As I thought about what I was getting into — writing a realistic portrayal of life during a time in which I did not live — I reminded myself that this is the 21st century. The World Wide Web has at least 3.66 billion web pages.

Yes, it’s a good time to be a writer.

In a Google minute, I found and bookmarked these excellent sites:

  • Public Broadcasting Service tags itself as “America’s largest classroom.” That says it all, doesn’t it?
  • American Memory from the Library of Congress. This is a fantastic site and my favorite so far because it includes all types of media (including photographs) and lets me browse by time period.
  • The National Archives is comparable to the Library of Congress with everything you want to know about America and its history.
  • Google Books. Find out-of-print books quickly, and read them online or download to your computer. I found a book on my city’s history that was written in the early 1900’s.
  • The Social Security Administration has a wonderful resource: A list of the top 200 names for each decade of the past 100 years. How useful will that be for naming your characters and/or their ancestors!

Community Helpers

Besides online help, you also have your community resources:

  • Public Library. Not only will you be able to use its computers to check out the sites I listed above, you’ll also have access to the many on-site reference books.
  • City Government. If you are using your hometown as the setting for your story, as I am, then make use of the historical documents available in the city government libraries and courthouses.
  • Historical Museums. Most towns have a museum that showcases historical treasures. My city’s museum includes books, paintings, maps, and artifacts that I will use to color my story and transport my readers back to the days of old.
  • Art Museums. Browse their galleries for paintings from your time period, and note the artists, colors, clothing, and other details within the artwork. Add these to your story.
  • Senior Citizens. Do you have family members and friends who could share first-hand information with you? Reach out to the elderly and get personal with your research.


Have fun with research. I sure am. I want my readers to think they were “there” when they read my historical novel.

That can’t help but happen when you’ve decorated your story with details gathered from your research. Take advantage of the fabulous resources available to write your story in a realistic and convincing way.

What have you used to research your novel or another writing project? Let me know in your comment.


4 thoughts on “Realistic fiction: Research your way to a convincing story

  1. I sold a story to HIGHLIGHTS, and the setting was the Depression. Another great source is to listen to and learn from people who lived through certain time in history.
    Suddenly knowing what your next novel will be about is an exciting gift. Go for the gold, Darla!


    1. I have fond memories of reading Highlights! When was your story published in it? Yes, speaking with people is the most rewarding part of research because you get more than words. There are several people in my church family who are of Depression era age and I hope to get their stories.


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