Five Things: Researching Your Novel

Lucy Ribchester photo by Kuba Kolinski
Category: Writing

The thought of trying to recreate a period in time that actually happened is a daunting one. Researching a historical novel is different to, say, crafting a sci-fi world, because you don't get to play with the rules quite so much. The contemporary monarch was the contemporary monarch, science went only as far as it did. But by breaking the process of research down into bite-size steps, you can start to build the foundations of any historical setting. And after that, imagination is free to take over...

1.  Narrow your period down to a couple of years

This might sound like an obvious thing to do, but it’s easy to think ‘I’m researching the Victorian era’, then find yourself lumped with 63 years’ worth of reading to do. Reading one or two general history books will help you to gain an overview of the period, but after that narrowing it down can help focus your attention on the facts you need to know. The same goes for setting.

2.  Read absolutely everything you can

Novels, newspapers, history books, ephemera, little interpretation boards at the side of museum displays, adverts, packs of cards. If you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself with ring binders of disorganised notes sprouting from every surface of your home. Stick pictures and postcards on your walls, if cinema had been invented by that time watch period films – in short: immerse yourself.

3.  Ask librarians for help

They are golden-hearted people, usually only too happy to lend their expertise. It was a librarian in Bristol who found me a 1910 catalogue from Gamages department store in which I chose Frankie George’s typewriter and camera as well as some other objects that feature in The Hourglass Factory. Another helpful member of staff in the NLS showed me a bibliography of newspapers that in turn led me to an Edwardian guide to journalism for women. Librarians are the researcher’s best friend.

4. Don’t be afraid to talk about your research to other people

It can be scary talking about your book, and I never like to talk about the actual story I’m working on until I’ve written at least one draft and have steeled myself for those weird looks you get from some people when you reel off your synopsis. But when it comes to the general area you’re studying, you never know what might come of mentioning it privately and cautiously when people take an interest. Recently talking about my new project with someone led to me ending up doing a couple of very useful interviews. Also your mum might volunteer to be your research intern, which from personal experience, I can say is a Very Good Thing.

5. Accept that the research will be done in stages and that it is never complete

Even up until the last set of edits on The Hourglass Factory I was discovering new things, slipping in little details (like cheap Edwardian evening newspapers being pink; thank you Mr Edgar Wallace). Accept that unless you are Hilary Mantel you will probably never get it all 100% right.

And one extra…

6. Forget your research and write a story

At the end of the day, what matters is what’s in your characters’ hearts, not whether they are eating the correct brand of soup. The great thing about writing a novel as opposed to a history book is that you are absolutely within your right to make stuff up.  

Lucy Ribchester

Lucy's debut novel, The Hourglass Factory, was published by Simon and Schuster in January 2015. Lucy received a New Writers Award in 2013, and now works as a freelance dance journalist and adult education tutor, alongside fiction writing.