Have you ever wondered how to go about building the world of an historical novel?  Well, let me show you how I do it!  I am currently writing a book set in 1940s Japan. Toward that end, I am:

  • learning basic Japanese;
  • going to Japan;
  • reading the 20th of 30 or 40 books on the period and culture, including wartime diaries;
  • emailing strangers and asking them odd questions;
  • outlining;
  • day dreaming; and
  • basically drowning in research.

This is what I do.  For every single book I write, I drown myself in the process.  It’s probably not healthy—I have next to no room in my head for my own day-to-day life when I’m in drowning mode—and it’s never won me a championship on Jeopardy.  But for the few bright moments of vision and revision, I become an idiot savant.  I become an expert.  

Granted, it’s a useless sort of expertise, unless you are a writer.  Like cramming for a test, as soon as the book is done, the knowledge will fade to make room for the next story.  Really, what good is it knowing what instruments use silk strings, or what blind men used to play in Edo period Japan, unless you are a writer (or a time traveling musician)?  I can’t actually play a string instrument (if you don’t count three Groupon lessons I took for cello… and I don’t).  My book doesn’t even take place during the Edo period.  Does it matter if I know the name of Japanese work pants, or the common crops of a mountain farming village circa 1937?

Hopefully, yes.  To my story, and to my readers.  (The pants are called monpe!)

I say “hopefully” because I don’t know how much of what I am learning will be used in the final book.  There is a lot of “read-and-discard” going on.  I scour the internet for reference books, checking out what I can from the library, and purchasing the more obscure titles.  It can be frustrating, like sifting for gold.  Sometimes you buy a 500-page book that turns out to only have a paragraph or two of interest.  And then, sometimes, you hit the motherlode.
Like the koto player writing her own book on the spirituality of Japanese instruments.  Or the sociology book about the region you are researching, tucked in the high shelves of a small used bookstore in Vermont.  Suddenly, vistas open up!  Volumes of information that make the warp and weft of great worldbuilding, and the intimate details that make the story ring true.  It’s this sort of gold strike that makes all of the digging worthwhile.  

While the work seems huge, I like to start small.  I like to use kids’ books—they give you the short version of your research, and often come with a handy list of cited sources.  Those are the adult books I turn to next.  From there, I develop my story, making a list of what I don’t know along the way.  And then I start asking question of myself, the story, and take that list to the library, the internet, looking for answers.  

I do my research before, during, and after a draft.  Every time I feel stuck, it usually means I need to do more research.

And remember, nothing you learn is wasted, even if you discard it for now.  Somewhere deep inside that sea of knowledge, you might find the seeds to your next story. 



Sherri L. Smith is the author of several award-winning young adult novels, including the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist, Flygirl, the “cli-fi” adventure, Orleans and the middle grade historical fantasy, The Toymaker’s Apprentice. Her books appear on multiple state lists and have been named Amelia Bloomer and American Library Association Best Books for Young People selections. Sherri has worked in comic books, animation, construction, and most recently, a monster factory.

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