Why Historical Novelists Love Research (We Really, Really do!)

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.

This is only a small representation of my research library!

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!

A few of my books about Edwardian and Victorian fashion.

A few of my books about Edwardian and Victorian fashion.

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.)

Some awesome art books

Some awesome art books

The adolescent art model in Rye, 1909

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.

My favorite books about women’s suffrage. That’s Dora Thewliss on the bottom left. Isn’t she badass?

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?

About Sharon Biggs Waller

I'm the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (Viking, Penguin Jan 2014) and THE ORIGINAL HORSE BIBLE (i5 Publishing). Visit me at www.sharonbiggswaller.com.

6 thoughts on “Why Historical Novelists Love Research (We Really, Really do!)

  1. Sharon, I’ve just started a historical novel and am now knee deep in books on 17th century France. Loved the post and your examples!

  2. Thanks so much, I.W.! 17th century France is a wonderful choice.

  3. I’d love to hear about the specifics of research for your CCCers. Do you research exclusively for a time before writing? Do you have a sense of a story before you begin or simply an era, etc.? How do you plan for/schedule this part of the writing process?


    • J says:

      I research as I go. It’s hard to know what you need to know until you need to know it. And it helps keep me in place, if that makes sense.

  4. I love to learn the historical facts and I do the research to try and get it right. Imagine my chagrin when I found a blooper in my first book The Fencing Master’s Daughter, I am posting an article about it myself. Very well written article and beautifully illustrated.

  5. Hi Caroline,
    I start out by imagining the story in my mind. I start thinking about the world my character will live in and how she will look, and then I go in search of the information I need. I’ll start broadly and then narrow down. So I’ll start with the era just to learn what it was like, and then I’ll research smaller details. Right now I need to learn about clipper ships, so I’m on the hunt for books about them. I’m constantly researching, though, all through the story.

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