One of my favorite things about writing historical fiction is the research. I know this sounds a lot like homework, but stick with me, I’m not as crazy as I sound. To a historical novelist, research is like going on an archeological dig. Instead of soil, we sift through photos, museum archives, and books until, finally, we unearth our story’s elements. Historical details, minor or major, can provide an exotic backdrop, give us new insight into our characters, and even spin the tale in a direction we never considered.
Whenever I order a new book, I wonder what treasures are waiting for me between those covers. I’m happy to say I have many, many books. I have a few on my Kindle and I’ve checked out some from libraries, but I prefer to have my own copies, which, yes, can be expensive, but I like to see them on my bookshelves, lined up, waiting to provide assistance. And during the copyedit phase, I can go back and check my facts right away.
The more obscure the books the better. How illnesses were cured in the 18th century? That’s for me. A book of Edwardian and Victorian fashion plates? Grabby hands. I even love encyclopedias. A complete history of the social life in Victorian England? Overnight shipping, please!
For A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, I wanted to know what it was like to be an art model, so I found an actual art model’s handbook, which talked about the issues models face. And then I found another called MODELING LIFE: ART MODELS SPEAK ABOUT NUDITY, SEXUALITY, AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS, and what really amazed me was the cover. It’s a group photo of an art class, taken in 1908, a year before my story takes place. The teacher and his art students (all male) stand around their art model (a nude female about my character Vicky’s age). I felt like I was looking at my characters. So remarkable. And then I found an astonishing image in a book I bought about the English village of Rye. It was of a young female art model, about Vicky’s age, posing nude. For all of those who say an Edwardian teen would never pose nude, I say ha! Here it is the proof. (That’s another thing research can do: provide evidence.)
I also wanted to learn about how girls were treated in the Edwardian era and how the suffrage movement fit into their lives. Were there teen suffragettes? Yes. Dora Thewliss, the baby suffragette, was only 16 when she was arrested and sent to jail. And what about the fashion? How was that changing? And what did it say about society? It turned out that upper class women wore clothes that required servants, so lower class women had a different kind of style. But women of all classes were starting to choose more comfortable clothing, such as the tailormade, a play on a man’s suit.
All this I learned from research, and all of this provided me with the pieces I needed to bring Vicky’s life together. So yes, research is fun. And I can’t wait to get started on my next project. I’ve already started collecting books. My latest find? LADIES OF THE FIELD: EARLY WOMEN ARCHEOLOGISTS AND THEIR SEARCH FOR ADVENTURE. I wonder what I’ll dig up?