Doing the research

This is the fourth of my blogs for the Australian literary review: Writing Historical novels.

Historians will tell you to go to primary sources for your research and that, of course, is the ideal, but not always possible and, for the kind of books I write, not really necessary. I am not trying to educate my readers, though it is a plus if they learn something they didn’t previously know and it interests them. I want a believable and accurate background for a story.

Before the days of the Internet, it was done through books and it still is to a great extent. The shelves in my study are crammed with books I use for research.

First of all there is the invaluable Oxford English Dictionary and are those of general interest, used for background. There are social histories like Christopher Hibbert’s The English, A Social History 1066 - 1945; Asa Briggs’, A Social History of England, a much-thumbed penguin edition of Chronology of the Modern World 1763-1965 by Neville Williams, and Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain from Queen Victoria to VE Day and many more. There is the huge and almost unmanageable Chronicle of the 20th Century put together by Longman and, almost as big, The Chronicle of the Second World War. It is important to remember when using the latter or any similar book, that the date on which the event is recorded as happening is not necessarily the date on which it became known.

Then there are several costume books. One I use a lot is Costume 1066-1966 by John Peacock, but there are many others. Knowing how people travelled is a must, so my shelves contain books about coaching, the different kinds of coach, how they were made, timetables and fares. Being particularly interested in railways which once covered the British Isles, all run by different companies, I have a big selection of those. And then there are books about sailing ships, how they were sailed and how long voyages took. There were explorers, pirates, ships deporting prisoners to America and Australia, besides war ships.

Geography is another important area for research. The books I have in this category have all come about because of a particular story I wanted to write. Guide books are only marginally useful, contemporary travelogues are more helpful. You can get a feel of the geography of a place by visiting it, but the way a town looks now is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what it looked like a hundred or perhaps two hundred years ago, or even in our own lifetime, come to that. How many of us have gone back to the scene of our childhood and found ourselves unable to recognise any of it? It needs a leap of imagination to picture it as it was in the period we want to write about. I find contemporary pictures and maps much more helpful, although having said that, going to a place can give you a ‘feel’ of it and might tell you if a particular view you want to include would be feasible or not. It’s easier to stick to a countryside you are familiar with, which is why so many of my books are set in the English countryside and East Anglia in particular.

I use my local library a lot too, either to borrow books or read them on the premises and I have always found librarians very helpful in helping me to search out what I am looking for, even if it is only trying to discover when plaster of Paris was first used to set broken bones!

The Internet is now a great source of information too, but some of it needs taking with a good pinch of salt. It is not a good idea to use only one source, but to study several and if still in doubt, go back to books and authors you know you can trust. Sometimes I contact the originator of the site and ask questions and this seems to work with some. You soon come to realise if they know what they are talking about.

And we mustn’t forget fiction, particularly contemporary with the period you are writing about. Some of it is hard work, but worth it if it gives you a feel of the time in which it was written and the way people spoke. It is then I go to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or back to my library of classics.