Our resident agony aunt, Dr Darwin, answers a common question – how do you research historical fiction?
Dear Dr Darwin,
Everyone says “research till your eyes bleed” – you did in your post about cultural appropriation – but when I Google, all I can find is the information I know already, repeated in a million places. And the same things show up time after time in historical fiction too. Where do you start looking for the real stuff? And how do you know when you’ve done enough?
Mystified of Melbourne
The internet seems to offer vast amounts of knowledge, but so often it’s just repeating the same stuff for every writer in the world to pick up. Even if you find substantial and authoritative sources, the job of historians is to synthesise and generalise; what you need is the particular, individual materials of your world and characters. What’s more, historians are always making an argument about historical change, but humans are usually more conscious of what’s the same around them. So I suggest you don’t think of collecting historical facts, but acquiring stuff to build with.
Let’s imagine that your novel is set in the sixteenth century, among the Galician herring-fishers of A Coruña. If there’s a book with that title, then it and its bibliography are of course your starting point, although you need to be sure that the fact-tail doesn’t end up wagging the story-dog. But what if there isn’t such a book?
First, don’t despise Wikipedia. Read it critically, particularly in subjects with fierce partisans, but link-hopping can give you a sense of the terrain and contexts, and the references point towards more scholarly sources. Spanish Wikipedia (via Google Translate if necessary) will have larger entries on things which are specific to Galicia, or women’s rights in 16th Century Spain, while the behemoth English Wikipedia may do better on herring shoals or Catholicism. But be careful: Wikipedia can be a rabbit-hole of procrastination, plus if you don’t go any further for material you’ll be using some very tired historical signals.
Image searches will find buildings, old maps, clothes, transport, technology and material culture, and form a portal to the specialist websites too. The street-plan of a town usually persists for centuries (street names are a giveaway), as do rivers and often canals, roads and railways, so Google Streetview and Google Earth are super-useful. That’s not to say getting your feet on the ground if you possibly can isn’t crucial, for the light and the scents and those things you didn’t know you were searching for. Ideally, you need both.
Beyond your basic Googling, those individual, particular stuffs are best found in academic articles and papers drawing on primary sources: use Google Scholar for decent, peer-reviewed sources, and the few pages it lets you look at may be enough. Then there are the primary sources themselves: your period’s own letters, pictures, diaries, court records, census returns, church registers, newspapers, plays, annals, non-fiction and novels. Project Gutenberg has original literary texts and translations and the British Library has digitised many older books: a 19th Century travel guide to Northern Spain, complete with engravings by Daumier, was a vital find when I was writing The Mathematics of Love.
A local library may give you access to the scholars’ tools: JSTOR and other collections of scholarly journals, authoritative encyclopaedias, digitised newspaper archives, and the full online Oxford English Dictionary for those old meanings and usages of words. Librarians love a chance to help you dig deeper, browsing shelves can turn up useful books, and you should be able to search the catalogue from home; if you find a book further afield, they should get it for you through inter-library loan, though it can take a while.
Most universities offer library membership – at a price – to alumni and non-students, and specialist archives and research collections are often deposited there. Specialist museums – the National Railway Musuem, the Imperial War Musuem, the V&A – all have libraries, while the National Libraries are there for all their citizens, if we can’t find what we need by other means.
The local county library and records office should have primary sources and the archives of local newspapers, companies and important families, as well as research and articles by the legion of passionate local amateur historians.
The UK National Archives at Kew (formerly the Public Record Office) and its national equivalents have digitised amazing amounts of what they hold, and have online guides for researchers. Most archives and libraries will have a copying or digitising service, at a price, if you can’t get there.
You may only need to read the whole of a few, central books, but consider buying those new or second-hand; for all others, be ruthless with indexes and skimming. But remember that highlighting, cutting-and-pasting or using a pen-scanner tells you nothing unless you make useful notes alongside (e.g. “CLOTHES: children” or “FAITH: Old acceptance vs Jesuit questioning”) as your own personal index. To make notes you have to process the information, which implants it in your brain far more effectively than cut-and-paste; it also helps the information loses its tethers, in Rose Tremain’s phrase, and become “what you know” in the “write what you know” sense.
Note that when I say “books”, I don’t mean others’ historical fiction, much as I love it. Using their work for research is like doing art history by looking at pictures through someone else’s glasses: pre-shaped by another brain.
Specialists, in my experience, are usually delighted to talk about the subjects they love, provided you approach them courteously and un-demandingly, and thank them generously. Specialist websites are probably vital though they can be a bit hit-and-miss, and how they’re built affects whether they play ball with Google Translate. Specialist groups are also wonderful – the historical re-enactors, the local history groups, the obsessive collectors of material culture, the devotees of a particular historical figure. But remember “your book, your rules”: specialists do not have authority over your fiction and it’s up to you what you use, discard or change.
And that, really, is how you decide when you’ve done enough. Don’t ask if you know everything now, but whether your book is yet the best act of storytelling you can make it? That “best” is about how convincing your story is, and “convincing” includes factual accuracy but then transcends it. Yes, just around the next website is a fact which will (naturally) make your book a bestseller, or save you from readerly scorn. But stopping researching, then forgiving yourself for what you didn’t do, is necessary to getting your book out there at all. You are not writing a history book, and your job is not to persuade the reader that you’ve done your homework, it’s to persuade the reader to enter your fiction and forget, temporarily, that it’s not true in the historian’s sense.
Finally, I guarantee that some day you will need to revisit your research. Even if you don’t need permission to quote something, revising and rebuilding can call on things that you discarded, and what if you want to develop another project altogether? So in this, though perhaps in no other way, you must work like a historian:
- make it crystal clear in your notes which words are the source’s, and which are your paraphrase, condensation or take on them;
- never download, photocopy or make a set of notes without recording full details of the source, including page numbers; you could even use referencing software like EndNote
- never talk to someone without making sure you have full contact details for them;
- never, ever let a book, website or article out of your hands without recording how to find it again.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now, and her forthcoming memoir, This is Not a Book about Charles Darwin, will be published in February 2019. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.
Image: Scholar at his Desk by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631.