5 Ways Biographies Can Inform Your Historical Fiction

This fascinating biography yielded many un-looked for gems.

This fascinating biography yielded many un-looked for gems.

I don’t know if some of you might be like this 1880’s girl but I used to think I hated history, all those dates and wars and statistics. But history is more than facts and figures it is stories, stories of real people who lived ordinary and extraordinary lives.

Tell the story of a single person or family and suddenly history comes alive, takes and shape and importance.


5 ways Biography can Inform your Fiction

#1 Politics

Politics form a back drop for just about everything but this 1880’s girl finds it incredibly dull, but a biography makes it better. If using a biography of a political or royal person you will also find the context of the politics, the sources of unrest and riots.  Biographies turn the statistics into stories.

From biographies about Queen Victoria I learned about the commoners view of royals, modes of travel throughout the period, the novelty introduction of fountain pens and the discomforts of living in a grand house.

#2 Household management

From the book Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foremen I learned a great deal about life in a great house, the number and type of staff employed and the role of the duchess in  keeping it all running.

Biographies are a secret insider look at one person or families life. From their extracts of letters or household ledgers we start to form a picture of the world around them. The biographer neatly compiles and presents the most interesting details for easy consumption by the novice researcher

#3 The Zeitgeist

To get the tone and feel of an age I like to read about authors or composers, even if the person you are reading about is distinctly outside the norm. For example Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte.  From this we learn how writers and thinkers of the day interacted, communicated and what they thought of each other.

We learn some of the challenges The Bronte’s faced, how they over came them and what the world of that day thought of them. From Charles Dickens we see a large breadth of society poor to middle class.

#4 Science, Medicine and Technology

I have just finished reading a biography of Rachel Beer which I picked up because I wanted information on professional women of the late 1800’s but got so much more.

It turns out her husbands family was instrumental in the growth of the telegraph. There was heaps of information about when and where telegraphs became available, how telegraphs changed the face of newspapers and how much they cost to send.

The book contains information on the treatment of TB  as well as the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire details the grusome treatment she received for a variety of ailments.

Mark and take note of these.

#5 Daily Life

This is perhaps the most obvious use of biographies.  True most biographies available will either be on the rich and famous (Queens and Duchesses) or of the brilliant and eccentric (Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Constable) But even they ate, slept, were waited on or employed.

From biographies you can learn about how to conduct a middle class courtship or how marriages of the elite were arranged. You can learn the habits of a confirmed bachelor or what went on at a Gentleman’s Club. You might find out how much was actually lost at the gaming table.

With careful reading you will pick up on the religious climate, the education system, family responsibilities and expectations, what people ate, watched and listened to.

Time to get out your highlighter and notepad and inform your fiction.

Details like this make history live, the more textured your understanding the better your fiction

Get out your pen and mark details that jump out at you, make marginal notes, write on your timeline


A few titles to get you started:

  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Roreman
  • Serving Victoria: life in a the royal household by Kate Hubbard
  • Lady Almina and the real Downton Abbey: the lost legacy of Highclere Castle by the Countess of Carnarvon
  • Marie Curie and her daughters: the private lives of science’s first family by Shelley Emling
  • Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttelton’s Daughters
  • Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale by Gillian Gill
  • The First Lady of Fleet Street, the life of Rachel Beer: crusading heiress and newspaper pioneer by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren
  • Constable in love, landscape, money and the making of a great painter by Martin Gayford

You may notice I have a weakness for books about women.

Happy Reading!!

PS It is best not to highlight the library’s copy.