I have no formal training as a historian although I have a great love of history – social history in particularly. To write a historical novel, a great deal of research must be done, of course, and some weeks ago, while I was researching the Victorian period for my next book, it crossed my mind that there might be better ways of searching for precious details of life in 1850. Wasn’t I just rummaging as one rummages through boxes in an attic? Surely real historians managed to research in a more organised way? This fact here. That one there. Filing. Collating.
Quite by chance, I heard about a one day course at the University of London called How to Get the History Right in Your Historical Fiction – a Workshop for Authors. What a treat. And as luck would have it, the date of the course fitted right in the middle of a promotional tour in London for my latest book Road to London . The timing was perfect.
|Simon and willing writers
Online access to resources is a great time-saver for authors – particularly those who live outside of London. The majority of local libraries offer free access to the Oxford Reference Collection Online at home to all ticket-holders and free access to many scholarly resources is available through library membership.
Historians traditionally prefer to view original written primary sources but with the rise of digital storage, surrogates have come into their own in printed editions, microfilm and electronic editions. Projects such as Early English Books Online, Old Bailey Online or Historic Hansard Online make them infinitely more accessible.
|1790 Parlour - one of the room settings in Geffrye Museum
Our afternoon session began with a fascinating lecture by Eleanor John, Head of Collections and Exhibitions at the Geffrye Museum of the Home where collections of furniture, objects and paintings are set in a series of period rooms from 1600 to the present day. Eleanor explained how researching wills and inventories of household contents can give a vivid impression of how people lived in a certain period in history. Unfortunately, small, everyday items with little monetary value were rarely recorded. A visit to this museum is a must for any author writing about a domestic situation.
Elizabeth Chadwick, author of the The Time of Singing and many other novels, was our last speaker and showed us how she researched her historical novels set in the mediaeval period. She recommended belonging to a re-enactment group where that’s possible and relevant. She belongs to a mediaeval group, dresses up in costume and generally had a great deal of fun while learning a good deal about the period. She showed us an ‘authentic’ mediaeval cooking pot which she has used at home (by way of research) and found it to be not only non-stick but of such a good design that it is possible to lift it off the heat without getting your fingers burned – something you probably couldn’t find out from secondary sources!
The one day course was invaluable. It demonstrated how to access many wonderful resources and provided an opportunity to meet with other writers and discuss the challenges of our profession. We were all hoping to make researching more thorough in order to write historical fiction with a sense of authenticity.
A splendid day!