Well, summer is officially over – Autumn Equinox today, and here in the depths of mid-Wales, the weather has been suitably cold and rainy. I am, as usual, writing my post late on the day it’s due, but I have some slight excuses: I got home from three months in Italy a week ago, had a friend staying until Saturday, developed a cold that gave me a fever of 39 (102 F) for two days, and (on a much more lovely note) witnessed my sister’s marriage yesterday. Now I’m sitting on my brother’s couch with tea and leftover cake, his three-year-old is in bed, and I’m finally able to crack on with it.
I felt a bit overwhelmed trying to put a post on writing craft together, if I’m honest, because for the last three months I’ve done almost no writing and am feeling very out of practice. (Maybe I should have written a post on the age-old craft of Not-Writing instead, but I think we’re probably all experts in that anyway.) However, one of the things I am and will be doing is trying to go back to my ‘finished’ manuscript for another round of edits following a meeting with my agent (yes, the agent is a new development, and yes, I casually dropped that in there). And while that’s largely beyond the research stage, it is a thoroughly historical novel, so my head is in that space again, and I thought I’d share with you some research techniques I find useful (bearing in mind that I’m probably not a very conventional researcher). I know a lot of people use historical details in fantasy writing as well as actual historical stories, so hopefully this may be of interest to the fantasy folk too!
I studied history for my undergrad degree (it was what would have been my major if I’d been studying in the USA), so in many ways I’ve got an advantage. Not necessarily in how much I already know (although there’s sometimes that too), but in that I spent three years being taught how to do historical research by top experts in exactly that.
Academic research, though, isn’t quite the same as story research. In some ways it’s easier – you have far more leeway in terms of making mistakes, inventing things to fill gaps, and generally using your artistic license. In many ways it’s harder, because the kind of detail you need to know for a story isn’t always the kind of detail readily available. I’ve had to learn not only how to adapt the skills I learnt as a student, but also when and how to ditch them altogether and do the exact opposite of what my tutors taught me (see Point Seven).
All of the following, of course, are only tips based on what I find useful myself – different things will work for different people!
- Beware of big thick academic Histories. They’re mostly waffly analysis; great for essays, less so for stories. You will find great tomes of theories about the whys and wherefores of the fall of the Roman Empire, for example, but among those you will struggle to find any information about what the average citizen of a specific small town in northern Italy ate for breakfast in that period. Read the chapter lists to get an idea of the real content, and then read the introductions and conclusions of the relevant chapters. (Also read the footnotes. If they’re mostly referencing primary sources, they’re going to be way more interesting than the ones that mostly reference other people’s analytical works on the same subject.)
- Know your research questions, and choose your reading accordingly. Of course, in early stages and when you’re looking for general inspiration, read as widely as you can about anything that interests you. But it’s easy to get bogged down, so try and hone what you’re looking for. Think about the things that are actually going to be relevant to your story and your characters. My manuscript is set in WW2, but I didn’t need to do detailed research on the entire war, only on what was going on in Britain in the summer of 1940 – and then, only really the things that were likely to affect a sixteen-year-old girl living in a farflung part of the countryside. I had a general timeline of the war to refer to, but otherwise the things I needed to know about were things like egg rationing and upland sheep farming calendars, not Hitler’s policies or occupied France, or even the London Blitz.
- Know your period broadly before you start. Don’t stress over it, because the story is the main thing, and mistakes can be put right in later drafts. But don’t go in blind because some mistakes can be put right more easily than others, and if your big error is something your plot hinges on, you could have a problem. At least make sure you have a timeline of important dates, and have done some reading around the subject. One perfectly acceptable way to do that is:
- Read other (well-researched) fiction set in the right time/place. Check reviews, bibliographies and author information to see whether they appear to have done their homework, but generally you can tell a lot by how much detail they put into everyday life, people’s clothes and food and manners etc. (The same goes for well-researched films and TV programmes, but those are harder to find.) Even better, if your period is more recent, read books written (and set) then. There’s no risk of terrible inaccuracy, and you’ll also get a much better feel for things like how people talked to each other, and the language they used.
- The internet is your friend. Just as with any novel research, we history lovers find ourselves looking up some flipping obscure things at times. Looking for that in a book is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but on the internet you have Google. There are also a lot of truly fascinating pieces of research that are only published as articles in journals, so the internet is the easiest way to access them. If you’re part of a university or college you probably have access to the JSTOR library through your university account. If not, using Google Scholar will find you free academic journal articles, and they’re both easily searchable. Someone, somewhere, will probably have done the research you’re looking for; you just need to find where they wrote it up.
- If nobody has done it, do it yourself. Go back to primary sources. Unless your characters are historians, you probably don’t need all the endless analysis and debate around the facts; you just want the stuff that was happening there on the ground. Newspaper reports. Census information. Petty court records. Adverts. People’s letters. Personal anecdotes. The list could go on. Again, there is so much online you barely need to stir from your chair, but if you’re able to visit your location in person, you may be able to find more.
- Sometimes Wikipedia is your best resource. You would not believe how long I spent reading endless original legal documents and trying to get my head around the UK Education Acts of the 20th Century and what they would have meant for my character’s schooling, only to find that Wikipedia has a neat summary of the entire thing that made it clear in about five minutes. Check the sources if you can – as with any non-academic work you find online – but as a starting point, you can’t usually beat it.