Thursday 27 November 2014

Research, Research, Research!

How long does it take to know everything about a historical period, do you need to know everything?

Recently I’ve been acquiring more research books as it’s easy to go onto Amazon and order a second-hand, out of print eighteenth century journal or biography for 0.01p with £2.50 postage, too easy in fact as the research books, collected over the past three years or so are piling up.
The thing about research is I love it, a bit too much. It takes a while to read a doorstop of a biography or a journal written using language from the eighteenth century, especially if I want to underline certain parts in pencil and stick post-it arrows here and there. And then there are the lectures I’ve discovered on YouTube recently. How long will it take to watch all of those? And how long will it take to read those blog posts I find when searching for content to share for the Historical Novel Society? It’s not just watching and reading, it’s absorbing and processing the content, and converting it into what I need to use for my novel.

Essie Fox gives some great advice in the above video from 'Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained: from myths & the occult to fairy tales & the Gothic', a panel session at the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September; with Professor Diana Wallace, Essie Fox, Kate Forsyth, Jessie Burton and Deborah Harkness. Essie says:

‘…one of the most vital things…when you come to tell a story…is that you have to wear that research lightly at times…and it’s almost like homeopathy…you condense it down and take the essence of what really matters to your story and the themes perhaps that you decide are important to your story…’

What an analogy. The Merriam Webster dictionary says:

Homeopathy is a system for treating illnesses that uses very small amounts of substances that would in larger amounts produce symptoms of the illnesses in healthy people

A degree in eighteenth century history would be helpful. Wouldn’t it be nice to instinctively know what my main character’s mother, a widow in early stages of mourning should wear when she goes to visit the Duke? Would she have a ‘best’ mourning dress and what would she wear on her head? If only an eighteenth century version of AA Route planner existed so I could estimate how long it would take a stagecoach to get from somewhere near Bath to somewhere in Surrey. And would my main character stay overnight at an inn en route, would it be appropriate for her to do that alone? (from memory I think Jane Eyre did it...)

A dear friend of twenty-three years reminded me recently (hello there Johanna!) that we did history at university as part of our French and Italian degrees, that we wrote quite a few lengthy essays on all sorts of subjects, ranging from Mussolini’s worship of Hitler to how the French Revolution came about (at least I know about the eighteenth century in France). At the beginning of each term, we were given a list of essay choices with titles of books to use for research. The trouble was you had to get to the library quickly as there were only one or two copies of each book, and the usual suspects would rush to get them (not us unfortunately). So we’d usually end up writing the essays no one else wanted to write, through the night before the deadline, sharing the same books and meeting every hour or so for tea, biscuits and cigarettes in the kitchen. So I've 'kind of' done this before, I have extracted information from various sources to produce lots of essays, and my dissertation (where most of the sources were in Italian). So why shouldn’t I be able to do it for a novel? Thank you Jo for reminding me of this (and see you next week for our pre-Christmas catch-up, hopefully with a glass or two of Prosecco;-))

If you 'd like to watch any other videos from the HNS Conference, you'll find them here

My post on the Historical Novel Society Conference in London, 2014:

A previous post on research:

Do you get lost in research?