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How to do Research for Historical Fiction with ChatGPT

Renaissance women, historical fiction

My first historical fiction novel, Darkest of Waters, is nearing completion. This particular novel has been in the works for almost a decade. It started with a trip I took by train from Dresden to Prague and grew over the years to be a complicated psychological suspense with a lot of gothic vibes.

I did a massive amount of research for this book. I have a B.A. in history so I take historical research pretty seriously. I researched the period (1860s) the place (Bohemia) and a lot about psychology and views on women at the time so I could get the book right. At the same time I came up with some pretty interesting characters and unusual plot lines (at least I think so). It was all going smoothly until I got started on drafting and hit a research snag.

I don’t know why, but for some reason I got really hung up on not knowing how people dressed at the public spas at the time.

A lot of research required for writing historical fiction is fairly straightforward. Between Google, Wikipedia, and the vast amount of research papers and books out there, most answers are findable. But this one was seriously tricky. Because who does research on what women wore to a public spa in the 1860s?

Midjourney imagines what a public bath house was like 1860s
Image: Midjourney
At last, I can imagine what my setting was like!

I stopped writing. I couldn’t see past the problem. At least until ChatGPT came along.

I remember so clearly the morning I asked it to tell me what women wore to public spas in the 1860s and the absolute elation I felt when I finally had an answer! Granted, a lot of what ChatGPT comes up with is made up, and you have to do a lot of digging if you want to verify it. But because this is a minor detail in the overall novel, and because it’s nearly impossible to find the answer in any acceptable research outlet, the information ChatGPT gave me changed everything. It was a totally reasonable answer, one that felt right to me. And so I went with it, after trying for a while to either verify or deny it.

Below are a few of the prompts I’ve found useful for researching historical fiction. Keep in mind, though, that ChatGPT should only be a starting point for your research. It’s known to make things up (although GPT-4 has gotten a lot better about this). Verify the results if accuracy really matters to you, or if it would matter to your reader. Good luck traveling back into the past!

Imagining London in the 1860s, historical fiction
Image: Midjourney

The Prompts

  1. What was the system of governance and how were laws enforced during the time period of my novel?
  2. Can you provide a brief overview of the art, music, and literature that were popular during this historical period?
  3. What were the views on psychology during this period, and how did they differ for men and women?
  4. How did transportation methods evolve during my story’s time period, and what were the primary modes of travel?
  5. What were the major medical practices, beliefs, and challenges faced by people in my story’s setting?
  6. Can you describe any significant social movements or revolutions that occurred during the time period of my novel?
  7. What important historical figures from this time period could potentially intersect with my story’s characters or events?
  8. What was the diet like for people living during (time period) in (place)?
  9. Can you describe the fashion trends, clothing materials, and styles commonly worn during my story’s time period?
  10. How did people in this historical period communicate over long distances, and what challenges did they face?
  11. What was the structure of the family unit in this society, and what were the customs around marriage and child-rearing?
  12. Can you provide examples of popular forms of entertainment, leisure activities, and pastimes in my story’s setting?

ChatGPT for Fiction Writing by Nova Leigh cover

Want to learn more about writing fiction with ChatGPT? Check out my book, ChatGPT for Fiction Writing!

Filled with detailed tips, explanations, prompts and examples, this is a great guide for anyone wanting to start writing better fiction faster.

Includes an entire chapter on researching for fiction.

“Only actionable book I have ever read in kindle.” – Amazon Reviewer

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