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09 May 2018

Researching your historical novel: 6 Key Points

by James Hall From Our Students

James Hall took our London based novel-writing course in 2012, and his debut novel, The Industry of Human Happiness (Lightning Books), is set in the murky backstage world of late-Victorian theatreland. It lovingly depicts the early years of recorded music in turn-of-the-century London.

James offers us some insights on how he approached the research for his book, a key question for anyone writing historical fiction.

One question keeps cropping up from friends and family members who have read proofs of my novel, The Industry of Human Happiness: how much research did you have to do?

The novel’s about technology, you see. Well, it’s about a lot more besides, but the story is set against the backdrop of the birth of recorded sound and the invention of the gramophone. On top of this, it’s set in a period of time – the late 1890s – when the world was undergoing rapid societal and cultural change. I had to get the details spot on. So the answer to people’s question is a very simple ‘yes’.

These questions have made me reflect on the writing process and the research that I undertook. This being my debut novel, I genuinely don’t know whether I spent too much time researching or too little. But I do know what worked and what didn’t. So here are my six points on the role of research in novel-writing.

1. You’re writing historical fiction not a dissertation

In other words, do your research but don’t become a slave to it. I remember saying to Anna Davis in the pub on the first night of our course in 2012 that, as a journalist, I found it very hard to write a sentence in my novel that couldn’t have actually happened in real life. This was a fundamentally wrong approach to the creative writing process. I’m sure I wasted time getting past it.

2. Beware the cul-de-sacs

During the research period, it’s far too easy to go down an interesting but fundamentally useless side street on the internet. There’s no point in investigating the history of Sioux moccasins when you’re writing about bee keeping, fascinating though it may be. Be disciplined. Only research what you think you’ll need.

3. Sometimes a great piece of descriptive writing – one that conveys a sense of place or colour or smell – can tell the reader more than a period-specific fact.

4. Get your facts right

There’s no point in spending time researching if you end up getting things wrong. Not only does it waste time but it will also undermine the trust of any readers who notice. Of course, we all will get things wrong occasionally, but guard against it.

5. Don’t just learn history, experience it

If you’re writing about the 1920s, for example, read books from the period rather than books simply about the period. What kind of language do they use? How do they feel? What do they look like? Try to do things and see things as people from your era did. Visit houses. Look at pictures. Touch items from the era. Hold them. Weigh them. Hell, sniff them if you want. That satisfying turn of phrase will be worth the strange looks.

6. Don’t assume that things have always existed

Everything was new once. We may be used to seeing records and turntables, for example, but in the 1890s they were new. People wondered what these strange black discs were. They were wary. “Eh? They play songs? You’re mad!” Research the provenance of things. Where applicable, imagine seeing them and reacting to them for the first time.

But the main point about research goes back to the age-old iceberg theory: only show the tip of what you know. Don’t show off. Less is more. Ultimately, research is all about knowing stuff with confidence. Then letting go.


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