Novelist, or historian?
The line becomes a bit blurry when you’re writing historical fiction.
But one piece of advice that really stood out to me at the Stockholm Writer’s Festival came from hist fic author Jenny White.
And she said:
“Your research should be invisible. It serves to make the setting in your time period believable for your reader”
Now this is very, very good advice. Mainly because it’s one of those insanely simplistic things that makes so much sense you have no idea why you hadn’t thought of it yourself.
Your novel isn’t about the clothes your characters are wearing, or how they speak, or the colour of the walls.
Your story is about your characters. And, in the words of Jenny, history happens as an interaction between these characters.
That means your research is your backdrop.
Imagine that your story is a stage.
The historical research you do is just determining the props you have on set, whether the back wall is covered in ivy, or paintings, or tapestries, or nothing.
You shouldn’t be drowning your work in research.
It’s awesome that you know that your characters won’t have washed more than once in a month, or that they had a specific kind of ale for breakfast, or that they only grew to an average height of 5 foot 7 inches, but if you start overwhelming your readers with factoids of exposition, they’ll get bored and they’ll put your book down.
Sam was taller than most men his age, standing at a height of 5’6″
Sam was just tall enough to smack his head on the doorway as he walked, cursing, into the inn.
When you’re thinking about your research, think about the things that are necessary to your story. One way of doing this is writing your story and researching only the pertinent parts afterwards by leaving yourself a breadcrumb trail of notes. For example, taken from one of my outline documents:
Another way of doing it is making a list of The Big Things and then googling the small things as and when they crop up.
The Big Things:
- Speech & language
- Houses and homes
- Law and order
- The landscape
- The roles of men, women and children
- Identity and forms of address
- Measurements (feet, yards, time)
- Work, wages & money
- Food and drink
- Illness and medicine
You should also know what was happening in the shoulder years around your period of time. For example, a lot of what’s going on today is because of ripple effects of things that have happened in recent years (think about how airport security has changed, or how climate change has prompted huge movements towards recycling). So it’s good to know what context your characters will be speaking in.
Wikipedia has a great tool where you can see what happened in each year, which makes this process a lot quicker than you would expect.
- Your research should be invisible in your writing: think of it like a backdrop
- Either google the big things first and work on the small things as you go along, or work on it all as you go along. Everyone has their own style – find yours.
- Give yourself some context, so you know what your characters would in terms of what has happened in their lifetimes.
And check back in as I take you through how to check off those Big Things in the easiest way possible.