Writing historical fiction 2 – doing the research

Today RS Downie continues with her second post on Writing Historical Fiction (if you missed the first on creating your historical world, why not check it out first). Ruth is the author of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (’Medicus’ in the USA) and Ruso and the Demented Doctor (’Terra Incognita’ in the USA), the first in a series of historical crime novels set in Roman Britain.

You can’t please all of the people…

Here’s a confession: the earliest edition of my first book contained a wrong Latin ending. I only found this out when it was firmly and very publicly corrected by a reviewer in a national newspaper. It was a small thing – just two letters – but as he said, it cast doubt on the rest of the research. He said nice things as well, and later chose the book as one of his top thrillers for Christmas, but at the time I barely noticed the positive points. I was mortified. I felt I’d let everyone down. I lay awake fantasising about recalling all the copies so I could set fire to them and then fling myself on the pyre.

So I’m hardly in a position to criticise the apocryphal author who put the words, ‘Hi honey, fix yourself a sandwich!’ into the mouth of Mary Queen of Scots. The point is, if you’re inaccurate enough to jolt a reader out of the story, then you’ve failed.

Nobody’s right all the time – and a surprising amount of knowledge is soon out of date – but a reader who has taken the trouble to pick up the book wants to enjoy it. I think we have a duty to try and get things as accurate as we can.

Is there a ‘right’ way to research a novel?

Firstly – a word of reassurance. ‘Research,’ in this context, just means ‘finding things out’. You do not need to be an academic: ordinary people can do it, albeit often more slowly than somebody who already knows where to go. Different writers work in different ways. Apparently some of them even hate doing research, but if you’re reading this, that’s unlikely to be your problem.

Some advise that you should write the story first and then do the research. Others suggest finding out the basics, then writing the first draft and going back to check the details later. This is something you’ll probably have to do anyway, since often what you need to know won’t be clear until you’re well into the story.

Personally I like to visit the location and read background material for several months whilst sketching out rough ideas. I then resolve to concentrate on writing, but am frequently sidetracked, because…

Research can be more fun than writing

I should know. I signed up for a brief archaeology evening course ten years ago and now spend a substantial part of every summer scrabbling around in mud with a trowel. It’s enormous fun and inspiring in that you do get a sense of the physical past, but it’s not the most efficient way to learn and does eat into the writing time.

Here are some better (and worse) ideas to try. Most of my experience is with the 2nd century, so if you have any more suggestions, please chip in.

Some Good Places to find things out:

  • The location. Usually requires several visits, especially if it’s in a nice place.
  • The library – the best books will have lists of further reading at the back, and libraries can get hold of almost anything for a small fee. Try the children’s reference section, too – children want to know sensible things, like what people ate.
  • The internet (but see ‘not so good’ below). Check out your library website. Most public library tickets give access to swathes of online reference material for free, including…
  • …old newspapers
  • Archives – again, try the local reference library for sources.
  • Museums, restored period homes etc.
  • People who were there (if there are any left)
  • Contemporary literature, paintings, recipes, music, dance – what were people enjoying at the time?
  • Maps – old and new, because rivers change course, and coastlines shift …
  • Specialist groups and local history societies
  • Re-enactment – this can include both public events and private experiments with WOAD in the kitchen
  • Ask an expert – more below.

And some not so good…

  • Other novels
  • Wikipedia – always cross-check! Links to sources are often useful, though.
  • Memories of school - what you think you remember!
  • The internet. Anyone can set up a website. Enthusiasm and confidence don’t always mean accuracy

Asking the experts

Some people – especially crime writers, it seems – are adept at finding specialists who can help them get their facts straight. Others of us research our unpublished novels without talking to anybody because we are too embarrassed. (Though I really thought I’d got that Latin ending confirmed…)

Armed with a publishing contract, I’ve since plucked up the courage to consult some experts and one or two others have got in touch. All have been both kind and helpful, but do bear in mind that some people receive a lot of requests. Guy de la Bedoyere makes some good points about this on his website – which, incidentally, is an excellent source of information on Roman Britain.

At the risk of stating the obvious, if you do find a helpful contact, do what homework you can beforehand. Having some background knowledge will help you to both focus your questions and understand the answers. If the person has written a book about their subject, it’s courteous to have read it beforehand – but don’t pretend you have if you haven’t. It shows. And finally – take notes, or write everything up straight afterwards.

The camera never forgets

A good camera is essential for those of us with the memory span of a gnat. It can also save a lot of time. Provided the staff don’t object, taking photos of those long information panels in museums means you can read them at your leisure on the computer.

Sooner or later, though, you have to put the research aside and write the story. In the last post in this series, we’ll be looking at how fact and fiction work together – and I’ll be explaining why research is like underwear.

This post is copyright RS Downie, 2009. No reproduction of this material is permissible without the author’s permission.

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Related posts:

  1. Writing historical fiction 1 – creating your historical world
  2. Writing historical fiction 3 – using fact in fiction
  3. Writing historical crime novels – interview with R.S. Downie
  4. Writing historical fiction – reviews and links
  5. Writing Fantasy Fiction

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One comment on “Writing historical fiction 2 – doing the research

  1. Pingback: Writing historical fiction – reviews and links at The Crafty Writer

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