Research–The Delight is in the Details

I love research.  I can spend days—even months—surrounded by books and articles and dusty magazines, avidly soaking up information.  Most of this doesn’t get into my books, but I feel that by immersing myself in my story world and by knowing every aspect of it, I will be able to immerse my characters in it, too.  That I will be able to create characters and a setting that feel very real, even if I don’t use all the details I glean.


One of the reasons I love Downton Abbey is because it makes the fictional world seem so real that visiting Highclere Castle, where it was filmed, was like stepping back in time.

Because I especially love the details.  I’ve never been much a one for remembering specific dates (after ten years and three books with Henry VIII, I still can’t remember the exact dates of his birth and death—thank goodness there are some things we can depend on Wikipedia for).  But I love to know what life was like—how food was handled and what fabrics were made into clothes.  What time people woke up and how often they bathed.  Where the silver was kept and what the roads were like.

But of course, I can’t put all of these things in a book.  The purpose of historical fiction is to tell a story, so those details must be used to move the story forward and to set the scene.  If they’re extraneous, it’s entirely possible they have to be cut.

But that doesn’t stop me from loving them.  And being surprised by them.

I read dozens of books while researching MANOR OF SECRETS.  Books about life in a country manor, about what it was like to be a servant, about the history and politics of post-Edwardian, pre-War England.  And I struggled with the darlings I had to cut or not include at all.

Things like a popular cocktail of the day rather loathsomely called a Bosom Caresser—made from brandy, milk, raspberry (or pomegranate) syrup and a raw egg.

Or the belief that birds killed during shooting weekends should be allowed to “ripen” for several days before being cooked and consumed.   I leave those details to your imagination, though Jean Rennie offers a rather horrifying account of trying to cook a gamey game bird in her book Every Other Sunday.

An hour could be required to get a lady ready for the evening.  She could use white powder on her face and blue crayon to emphasize the veins at her neck, temple and cleavage (this indicated sensitivity).  Straight hair was a sign of obstinacy, so curling tongs were essential and false hair was often added to provide volume.

There was a strict code of conduct for any lady paying calls on female friends and neighbors.  Only after being introduced in a neutral zone (a ball or another person’s house) could a girl be invited to call.  But on the first visit, she could only leave a card with the footman.  The second visit, she could be announced and perhaps invited to take tea, staying only fifteen minutes.  She could remove her coat, but not her hat.  And so on.

The kitchen of a large country manor would have separate larders for raw meat, cooked meat, and vegetables.  There would be a still room for making drinks, jams and baked goods, and a separate scullery where vegetables were prepared, birds plucked, fish filleted and all the dishes were washed.  There would be a butler’s pantry, a silver safe, an ice room, a dairy (for churning butter and ice cream) and a laundry.

Downstairs in a strictly-run household, meals were preceded by what some servants called a “Pug’s Parade”, where the upper servants lined up according to precedence (butler, under butler, housekeeper, cook, etc.) and processed to the servants’ hall for the meal.  After the main course, the senior servants would go to the “Pug’s Parlour” for dessert—lesser servants might get fruit, but no cakes or tarts or other sweets except on special occasions.  And meals (unlike those at Downton Abbey) were often conducted in silence.  But of course, a silent meal is deadly boring in a book, so I broke that rule, as well.

In 1911 (the year MANOR OF SECRETS is set), the Ballets Russes came to London and after Nijinsky’s first performance, it only took a week for all the whites and creams and pastels to disappear from Harvey Nichols (a luxury department store) and be replaced by the purples and reds that became the height of fashion.

The garden of Hardwick Hall--close to Chatsworth and originally owned by the same person.

The garden of Hardwick Hall–close to Chatsworth and originally owned by the same person.

An estate like Chatsworth in Derbyshire employed as many as two hundred sixty people, including two rabbit-catchers forty-four woodmen, fifty-five gardeners, forty indoor staff members, five electricians, two full-time florists and a resident fireman.

However, forty percent of the population of Great Britain lived on the poverty line and most working class families got one meal a day.  In 1911, Parliament debated a National Insurance scheme that would help those most in need by taxing income and employers to pay for some medical care and sick leave, as well as an unemployment benefit.

So is it any wonder that Janie, the kitchen maid in MANOR OF SECRETS would do anything to keep her job—a guaranteed roof over her head and three meals a day?

And with her entire day being taken up by calling cards and multiple changes of clothes, how could Charlotte do anything but imagine a life beyond The Manor’s walls because she had no way to experience it?

Historical research is full of surprises, which is part of what makes historical fiction so much fun to read.  Read between the lines, and sometimes you can get a glimpse of those devilish details.

What are some of your favorites?


About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her

8 thoughts on “Research–The Delight is in the Details

  1. Rebecca says:

    I love this! This post initially caught my eye when I saw the picture of Highclere Castle, having visited it earlier in the year. The details you just mentioned that you’ve found researching are so interesting, no wonder you had a had time cutting them back! Hearing all the research you did for Manor of Secrets makes me even more excited to read it because having experienced your writing, I know you always go above and beyond to research, making even the little details sparkle. I’m off to see if my library plans to get a copy in – I sure hope so!

    P.S-I can’t believe it was in 2012 Gilt debuted! Time flies, huh?!

    • Time does fly, Rebecca! And I hope your library does plan to get a copy of Manor (though I’m not sure what Australian exports are going to be like). I’m so glad you got to visit Highclere, too–it was a highlight of my trip last year, especially seeing all the little details (like artwork) that I missed watching the show and now notice all the time!

  2. Katherine, this is wonderful! One of the reasons we love to read historical fiction is for exactly those kind of day-to-day details of real life which are so hard to pick up from non-fiction books without doing massive research (thank you, authors, for doing it for us!) This is why it’s so important that authors try their best to get it right — because readers are counting on them to be accurate. Can’t wait to read “Manor of Secrets” for more!

  3. kkittscher says:

    I can see now why your books are so rich and good! This was really fun to hear about. Have you ever read HOME by Bill Bryson? I have a feeling you’d love it, if not.

  4. margaretskea says:

    Hi Katherine, interesting that your title was the ‘delight in the details’ – it was your title that caught my eye, for a reason that’ll be obvious below. I too am obsessed with getting details right – I believe that if you strive to get details right your readers will learn to trust you even when something you have written seems unlikely. If you are caught out in a clearly wrong detail however you may have lost a reader for good. So good for you to spend a lot of time on research – I believe we owe it to readers to seek to get as close to our periods as we can. Doubly interesting to me that you ended with the phrase ‘devilish details’ – I ran a workshop on writing authentic HF and the sub title I chose was ‘Why the devil is in the detail’ – to reflect the dangers of inaccuracies. Now you see why your title (with such a subtle difference from mine) attracted my attention. Thanks for your insight.

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