It's a big treat to welcome to The History Girls today someone who has helped to make historical fiction mainstream once more - Tracy Chevalier. She has written on subjects as diverse as Vermeer, Blake and Mary Anning and may one day write about cathedrals and/or prime numbers.
Over to Tracy:
When have I done enough research to start writing an historical novel?
When have I read all the studies relevant to my subject; sought out diaries, notebooks, letters, ephemera; visited locations and soaked up their atmosphere; talked to experts and taken classes; read books and newspapers and magazines contemporary to the period; found information on the internet from passionate lovers of the subject; looked at paintings, drawings, etchings from the period; visited museums; watched people weave, or quilt, or make hats, or paint.
The short answer? Never. There are still books about Vermeer on my bookshelves that I feel I should read – yet I wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1998!
In fact, as I look over my books I spot one or two for each novel I’ve written that I really should have read, and probably never will – though I keep them, just in case. They are my dirty little secret.
There are always more sources that might help me. I could seek out that expert who can explain all about the best straw to use when making a bonnet or how to take apart a Victorian grave:
|Photo credit: Panhard|
or how to milk a cow or make cheese. I could read more attentively, take more notes, review those notes more often. It is never enough.
In general my research for a book takes place in four stages:
• the specific subject I’ve been inspired by: a Vermeer painting, the fossil hunter Mary Anning, the Underground Railroad in pre-Civil War America
• the general feel of the place and time: 17th-century Holland, 15th-century Paris, 18th-century London, Ohio in 1850
• the very specific details that arise from plot demands: How do you make a hat? What flowers are blooming in Ohio in September 1850? What do you see when you walk from Soho to Bedlam in 1793 London?
• the hands-on stuff, where I do what my characters do: make a quilt:
|Tracy's first quilt Photo by: Jacob Chevalier Drori:|
find a fossil:
|Photo by: Jacob Chevalier Drori:|
or weave on a mediaeval-style loom.
The reality is that there is never enough time, or space in my brain, to do absolutely thorough research. There is the efficient use of time to consider, for one thing. Annie Proulx once gave an account of going to see a knife maker while researching her novel That Old Ace in the Hole. She drove eight hours to see him – twice – and got really interested in knives. The result? Two sentences in the book. I could not do that: I don’t have Annie’s strength of character.
Instead I am always hoping for the perfect research day where I get exactly what I need in a condensed amount of time. It happens rarely: most of the time I get bogged down in the wrong book, or look through an archive and am uninspired. But just occasionally I have a charmed day, and think, “This is what it’s all about.”
In Burning Bright, my novel about William Blake’s neighbours, one of the families is from Dorset, where women make buttons in their spare time. At the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester I found a 1971 pamphlet on the 18th-century Dorset button cottage industry. It told me a lot, but I really needed to see some of those buttons. At the end of the pamphlet the author mentioned an antique dealer in Lytchett Minster who sold Dorset buttons. 35 years later, would she still be around? I went outside, rang Directory Enquiries, then her. Indeed, she still had Dorset buttons; she even gave talks on them. I drove over to see her, heard the talk, and bought a couple of buttons, as well as a button-making kit so I could make one myself. A good day’s research. More like that, please.
More recently, I was in Ohio to research The Last Runaway, my new novel about an English Quaker who moves to America and gets involved with runaway slaves. Since she ends up living on a farm, I wanted to visit one run along 19th-century lines. Luckily there is a substantial Amish population in Ohio. They don’t use electricity or engines (also no buttons, and no contraception). Their farms are distinctive for the endless laundry hung out, the buggies parked in the yard, the fields full of horses needed to make up for lack of engines, and the kids running around in bonnets and wide-brimmed hats. A perfect example of a 19th-century farm.
But the Amish are a closed community – I couldn’t just wander up and poke around. However, if you find the right connected person, the world opens. A local historian introduced me to a local farmer, and soon we were pulling in to the farm of an Amish family he knew. The farmer’s wife happily showed me around and answered my many city-girl questions. I was shocked by how huge the barn was, and how much hay was stored. I squelched through the pig sty, holding my breath (the farmer’s wife went through it barefoot). I admired the horses, the cows, the chickens, the pantry lined with preserved fruit and veg; noted the bare walls of the house, and the girl at the sewing machine with a huge pile of clothes to mend. Mostly, though, I simply looked, and smelled, and drank in the truly strange surroundings, trying to preserve the feeling so that I could place my character in it and make her feel it too – that profound sense of alienation. I could never have thought it up. My book and my heroine took a great leap forward that day.
|Photo credit: Ian Lamont|
Research only takes me so far, however. It is wonderful, the best part of the process of writing a book, I think. And yet, it never quite reaches the mark. After a while, when I’ve read a lot of books, taken a lot of notes, been places and talked to people and gotten my hands dirty with quilts or fossils or cemeteries, I find I am still searching for something – that imprecise something. The thing moving out of the corner of my eye. The paragraph I read over and over and don’t quite understand. The bibliography listing primary sources I just can’t get to. The article in an obscure journal I manage to track down and discover doesn’t tell me anything. I look and read and sew and breath in pig shit, yet the itch is not scratched. “If only I could find just the right book to fill this gap,” I think. “The article that explains exactly what I need to know.”
|Research notebooks Photo by: Jacob Chevalier Drori:|
When that thought grows loud enough to overwhelm what I’m researching, I know it is time to set aside my notes and start writing. For the book that will explain exactly what I want to know? That is the book I must write.
PS. A traffic accident meant that I missed the launch of The Last Runaway but Tracy kindly sent a photo so that we could feel we'd been there:
|Tracy and a quilt. Photo by Jenni Buhr.|