In this series of blogs, I am going to try to formulate how I go about research and the sources I use. I was asked yesterday which I enjoyed most – the research or the writing. What a difficult question! It probably works out equally. I could not contemplate writing any kind of novel without research. Research must not drive the book, it should be incidental to plot, seamless, adding texture, not overloading and distracting the reader. They say something like 80% of what you discover from research never makes it into the book.
Of course, all novelists do research, so I hope this series of blog posts will be useful to all writers. How many of us have read something so inaccurate that it makes us wince? In one recent book, written by a New Zealander, I read about a sixteen year-old who had recently got her car licence and was driving around London on her own, without so much as a lesson. Some simple research would have revealed that no one gets a car driving licence in the UK until seventeen, unless severely disabled. Nor are you allowed to drive around on your own without passing a test.
Books & Newspapers
- As obvious as it seems, nothing compares to reading contemporary accounts of the period. This is more difficult the further you go back in history, but from the 18th century onwards, it becomes relatively easy.
- I start with Google Books and Project Gutenberg – both free resources of full text books. If I want to read about life on the Australian goldfields, what better way than finding a 2 volume travelogue and account of different goldfields written by a British pharmacist with acute observational powers.
Sometimes the whole text is not available but just snippets. Those snippets may prove to be gold dust or suggest whether the book is worth ordering from a library or even buying. With request fees at £10 from the British Library, this can save you money.
Fiction adds flavour to research – so I love to read fictional books set in the place, no matter what era. The Australian Trove Newspaper Database recently began a book club with links to a novel set in Adelaide in the 1890s. My current WIP is partly set in Adelaide twenty years later -had the mores of the 1890s changed significantly by WW1? I suspect not too much. I can have my heroine reading the book and reflecting on it, perhaps.
Not all countries offer free access like Australia to online newspapers. The British Newspaper Archive offers various subscription rates for weekly, monthly annual access. You can read a sentence for free – big deal. I did find that taking out a free monthly trial to FindMy Past gave me access to the newspapers for free. Libraries sometimes have subscriptions to the British Newspaper Archive or at least the Times online via their electronic resources. Check if your library does offer this with membership. You may be able to access these through your local university library as well. I’m lucky enough to have access to some resources being an ex member of staff, but I physically have to visit. the campus.
Not all newspaper have been digitised. This week I had to go up to Grimsby to read the newspapers on microfilm. If I hadn’t done this, my new book would have contained serious errors. Up until then, I had relied on someone having listed all the bombing raids on Grimsby in a Facebook post – he got some of the dates wrong. I now have to rewrite a couple of chapters. I also wanted to know how those raids were reported – the answer – was not. I suspected that might be the case but was interested in what they did include and the inference they put on it. The librarian kindly said ‘why not look at our newspaper cuttings’ and promptly found me articles published 15 years after the events with first hand-accounts. Gold, yet again.
Even the adverts in newspapers are useful. What was on at the cinema that week, which cafés offer tea dances, how much are clothes selling for? So much information to get lost in and not enough hours in the day, so selective use is vital.
Next time I will discuss the use of images in research.