A Recipe for Research
By Catherine Hokin
Being from the North of England, I am firmly of the belief that all meals can be substantially improved by a liberal slathering of gravy or custard. Pour it on, bring some more should be my family motto. Sadly, anyone who read the first draft of my first novel would be forgiven for thinking that motto applied to the way I used my research.
We’ve all read/written/wept and run away from it: the novel that turned into a thesis. (Writing that sentence, I’m imagining it underscored by a howl from a fifties B-movie). It’s easily done. No one writes historical fiction unless they have a passion for research of the most convoluted kind. There is, however, a huge difference between sharing what’s needed and, let’s be honest, showing off.
The tips below are intended to move you out of PhD territory and into the cracking read your idea is. It’s mine, it’s not definitive, but it is based on an awful lot of research…
The Good Stuff
Start with a purpose and a plan. Your novel isn’t about the Wars of the Roses, or about the American Civil War. It’s a spotlight on an aspect, an event or a character inside those parameters, and that’s your starting focus. Start too wide and you’ll literally lose the plot.
Get organised. Whether your system is notebooks or post-its or files, be able to find things – you can waste a lot of time trying to dig up that great note you made on that thing you mustn’t forget 3 months after you made it.
Check your sources. Whether it’s primary or secondary material, know if there’s an agenda. If something sounds odd, check what other sources say. Same if there’s a conflict, which frequently happens. None of that is bad, it’s actually what you want as long as you use the discrepancies carefully – hopefully they lead to the gaps where your story takes root.
Let those gaps speak. We often know what was done, it can be harder to find out why, or by who, or how they felt when they did/didn’t do it. That’s where your story lies: the facts are your skeleton; a good writer gets down inside them.
Immerse yourself. You need to know everything about your period. Walk its streets and hear its sounds and taste the life there so it becomes bigger than your real world. Watch films, read novels, listen to music, look at paintings, set up a Pinterest board. If you can travel there, that’s great but it isn’t essential – places change dramatically so you’ll be back to the sources anyway.
Keep doing it. Research is an ongoing process – after the initial immersion period you’ll still need to go back for details as your story progresses. Sometimes you don’t know what you need to know until the plot takes you there.
Know when to stop. You’re a writer, at some point you need to take the plunge and write.
Which leads neatly into…
The Stuff that will Weigh You Down
The rabbit holes. At some point you’ll turn into Alice, endlessly falling. Ask yourself: do I need to know all this or have I got side-tracked? Then ask the better question: will my reader care? Climb out, and repeat.
|Down the Rabbit Hole — Valerie Hinojosa.|
And closely linked to the above – remember, just because you know something doesn’t mean that your reader should. If you can’t help yourself, task a beta reader to check where they got bored, where a quick explanation turned into an essay. Where the story stopped moving. Think about how endless exposition can ruin a film by breaking the tension and apply.
And closely linked again – just because you know something, your character might not, or should not. We have the benefit of hindsight and Google – an ordinary girl in occupied Paris in 1941 wouldn’t have a clue what was happening in Germany, she might not know what was happening in France. A soldier wouldn’t necessarily know the bigger picture. Communication in the past was slow and easily disrupted – which is why we like setting our novels there.
Do not play fast and loose with the facts. This should be in red. If something happened on a given date, it happened on that date. If someone died before you want them to do something, hard luck. There’s a huge difference between finding a gap and working something plausible into it, and making the impossible up. If in doubt please ask me my views on the recent Mary Queen of Scots film – no one I know will listen anymore.
Remember you’re not a historian – people are reading your story to be entertained (and sometimes to check what they know/thought). Get things wrong and you risk their trust; bore them and they won’t come back.
So, there you have it – love your research but use it sparingly. It’s the seasoning to your work not the sauce.
(Bad puns the author’s own).
Blood and Roses
The English Crown – a bloodied, restless prize.
The one contender strong enough to hold it? A woman. Margaret of Anjou: a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, shackled to a King lost in a shadow-land.
When a craving for power becomes a crusade, when two rival dynasties rip the country apart in their desire to rule it and thrones are the spoils of a battlefield, the stakes can only rise. And if the highest stake you have is your son?
You play it.
Pick up your copy of
Blood and Roses
Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose debut novel, Blood and Roses brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories which have been placed in competitions (including 1st prize in the 2019 Flash 500 ShortStory Competition) and published in iScot, Myslexia and Writers Forum magazines. She blogs monthly for TheHistory Girls and is represented by Tina Betts of the Andrew Mann Literary Agency.