By Charlotte Emily Shields
Perhaps the hardest part of writing a historical novel is gathering information about your chosen time period. It can be hard to know where to look or even what you’re looking for.
As someone who’s been working on their own novel for almost a year, I’m past the initial researching stage (however, it never quite ends – you always need to know more!) I’m going to give you my top five tips on how to start researching your own novel.
1. Archives and Libraries
The best places you can look are in archives and libraries. Look in archives that are local to your setting. For example, if your novel is set in Bristol, look in the Bristol archive. You can request documents online and then view them in person. Newspaper archives are also a great way to get a sense of what was going on during that period. For my own novel (about a lesbian couple in 1920s Britain) I found out that lesbianism was never made illegal due to “not wanting to encourage it” through LGBT+ archives.
Look in libraries for books that were either written in that period, for example, if you’re writing in the 1920’s then read The Great Gatsby. Or books about that time period. Local libraries or university libraries are the best place to look. You can also search for E-books or see if there is anything relevant on AbeBooks or Amazon.
2. Research Every Little Detail
In a novel, every little detail is important to ground your reader into your chosen time period. You’ll need to research everything from buildings, attitudes of the time and how places looked, to clothes, vocabulary, accents and furniture. Even how toilets looked! I have a whole page in my notebook detailing what plumbing looked like.
3. Visit Your Settings
If your setting is easily accessible, then you should definitely visit it. If your novel is set in London, then visit London. Go to the hotspots you may mention in your writing. Go down small streets you’ve never heard of before.
Go alone, bring a notebook and write down how you feel. Are you in awe over the architecture? Do you feel anxious because of the crowds? Or at peace in the countryside? Write down specifics such as the type of bird that flies by or if you see someone drop a piece of food.
4. Visit Museums and Talk to Experts
My university lecturer once told me that “for every single subject in the world, whatever it may be, there’s always going to be at least one person who’s going to be a complete expert in it.” To find that expert, search online, email different blogs and ask around on social media – Twitter can be a great source.
Also visit museums, if possible, in the area your novel is set in. Talk to the guides and other museum staff – they’ll be more than happy to help you and share what they know.
5. Create Moodboards
One of the best (and most fun) ways to record all of this research is to create moodboards.
Create certain ones for clothes, furniture and general life. Stick them in your notebook or on your wall above where you normally write. This way, whenever you need to add a certain detail into your writing, you can have your research near you at all times.
Those are my top five research tips for historical novels. However, similar techniques can be applied to any type of writing. Good luck with your work and remember to keep carrying on. Most importantly, enjoy your research – this is supposed to be a fun process, not a tedious one.
About the Blogger:
Charlotte is a 22-year-old student in her last year of her Creative and Professional Writing course at UWE in Bristol. She’s loved reading and writing since she was a child and rediscovered her passion for writing in 2016. She mostly focuses on non-fiction and writes about mental health and political issues. Recently, she started speaking at rallies, has written for the Bristol Independent Mental Health charity and has been running her own blog, Char Emily Writes since 2016. She is also working on her first novel.