I’m looking at a web site called English Historical Fiction Authors. Its audience is authors who write period historical novels. The various posts are written by the authors themselves. So, you can learn about how ice cream was made in the 18thcentury, what pieces of furniture would have been found in an upper-class hoe in the 16thcentury, who the Lord Proprietors of Carolina were in the 17thcentury, the friendship between the British Saxon Osulf and one of Charlemagne’s sons; and similar kinds of really detailed information. If you want your period novel to show authenticity, you need authentic historical details.
I don’t write historical novels. Mine fall into the more contemporary genre; actually, they’re set a few years ahead of our own times. So, I don’t have to be concerned with a lot of historical detail, like what Osulf really thought of his friend Charles a thousand years ago.
But it doesn’t mean I’ve escaped the research yoke. Far from it.
I do two kinds of research for my novels. The first is the reading kind – books, articles, web sites, blogs, even social media. The second is the foot-power kind – research by walking around.
A section of A Light Shining is set in Tuscany and Umbria; I’ve never been but I almost went in 2007, and had read so much and studied so much that I had the map of Florence memorized. For Dancing Priest, I had so many books and travel guides on Edinburgh and the University of Edinburgh that I could have opened a travel library. That’s the reading and study kind of research.
And then a crucial scene in Dancing King happens in Southwark Cathedral; I’ve been there three times, walked around, bought and read the guidebook, took pictures, and talked with the nice lady in the gift shop. I stood in the pulpit and looked at where people would be sitting in the nave. And that hill in downtown San Francisco where Michael Kent rides his bike in Dancing Priest? I’ve walked up that hill.
Walking-around research is extremely valuable. You see and feel what the streets look like, you peer into windows, you see a barrister’s gown and wig on sale for 550 pounds, you notice how Essex Street slopes toward the Thames River. A pub in London may superficially resemble a pub in St. Louis, but if you sit long enough, you begin to notice the differences.
Both kinds of research are critical, even for a contemporary novel.
On the bookshelf above my computer sit the guidebook to Buckingham Palace; four volumes of Peter Ackroyd’s history of England (the fifth is to be published later this year), a guidebook to London, a book entitled Crown, Orb & Sceptre which will tell you everything you want to know about every coronation in English history, a history of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, a booklet on the royal line of succession, a guide to Southwark Cathedral, a brochure about the guards associated with Buckingham Palace, and related books. I turn to them often.
I been to England five times in the last six years, and every trip has been both vacation and research. Whatever place we visit – the British Museum, Canterbury Cathedral, the Museum of London, All Hallow’s by the Tower Church, the Imperial War Museum – I buy the official guidebook, which is always packed with information. I see art exhibitions to enjoy the exhibitions and to imagine what they would be like in a novel. I take photos of favorite paintings.
And I take walks. I’ve walked London’s South Bank countless times, along with Piccadilly, the City, Westminster, Hampstead, Pimlico, Belgravia, Mayfair, the Temple, Lambeth, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road, the West End, and Spitalfields. I’ve walked Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury, and Windsor. Every walk is research.
I pay attention to contemporary British artists and writers. I read novelists like Paul Kingsnorth (Beast) and Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). I read contemporary British plays. Contemporary literary culture provides a take on the pulse of the country and insights you can’t get from non-fiction.
It’s not just the historical or period novels that demand research. Contemporary ones do, too. And I think I’d rather eat ice cream in 21stcentury England than what the Georgians considered ice cream in the 18thcentury.
Top photograph by Gaelle Marcel viaUnsplash. Used with permission.