The Joys of Research

by Sara Burgess.

One of the reasons I love writing is trying to recreate that idea in my head so that any readers can become immersed in it. Authenticity is really important to me, and so is description. Without those you just have a series of actions. So people have to be placed in a scene, they speak in a certain way, they have certain things around them. Sometimes, if the world one recreates is an aspect of the current one we inhabit, certain historical features might be important, and need to be right.

The second novel I got stuck with is on the shelf because part of it involves a police procedural aspect. At the time, I didn’t have the stomach to go all out and investigate what one needs to include to make sure it isn’t a shocking travesty of what would happen. It would really pain me having the wrong rank described, the wrong procedure being applied, because it detracts from the realism.

Suspension of disbelief, in my view, should not apply to every day matters. The writer should take a bit of care to avoid their readers being distracted by cries of ‘that is wrong,’ or ‘I can’t believe that,’ or even worse, having them have to put your opus down to go and check for themselves what you should have checked in the first place. I want my readers to keep my book glued in their hand for as long as possible. I want them to live and breathe my story. I want my story to stay in their heads, not my mistakes.

My third novel, the one I am currently working on, arose out of my obsession with a story that is best known as an entry in compendia of true life hauntings. That already sets it in a niche area as not everyone bothers with such trivia. There is a handful of creative works inspired by this real life historical story of some of the things that took place in this house, but they all concentrate on a particular couple of years when the hauntings were reported to the world in a national newspaper. Once I started researching, I found such a rich tapestry of characters and interactions between them, that the wider story must be told.

The house in question was only in existence for seventy seven years. Its first owner built it in the same year that Charles Dodgson took a trip on an Oxfordshire river with a little girl called Alice, law was amended to make robbery punishable by flogging, Queen Victoria’s second daughter got married, and the predecessor of ‘the Flying Scotsman’ took its first journey on the London to Edinburgh Eastern line. The house ceased to exist in the same year that we went to war with Germany. Whilst none of these events has anything to do with my story, they definitely set the scene and give the flavour of the era. And by this time it would probably have been a household name, at least to the readers of a certain national daily.

In order to bring my story alive there are two sorts of research necessary for what I describe as historical fiction. The first is the actual understanding of what happened. Perusal of sites like Ancestry, and census records tell me when people were born, married and died, when they had children, what their names were. Searching out local newspapers tell me other things, as some of the Victorian characters were people in the local eye in respect of their professions and were helpfully written about in the local papers.

Many joyful hours poring over Google Earth gives me a feel for the place, or at least what it looks like today. I have yet to make a pilgrimage in person to the area, and believe me, I will go there. I want to breathe the air on the lanes they would have walked. See the horizon from their vantage point. I am deeply saddened that the house is no longer there and I envy those who live in the dwellings that have been erected on its site. And it has to be said that I am indebted to the handful of fellow obsessives who have written their own books about what happened, and set up websites, for they are the richest source of the actual story. I have read them all, natch.

The second type of research is more general. What kind of wallpaper would they have had in 1893? What was it like giving birth to a child in 1862? Other questions I have needed answers to included; when the fire service started, what men’s facial hair fashions were like through the ages, what was the livery of a maid in a country house, when tinsel was invented, what an Edwardian Christmas entailed, when did common houses get indoor bathrooms, what is the correct name for a horse pulled vehicle circa 1870, a smattering of Victorian and Edwardian slang, when did Sunday schools start, which were the nearest schools to the towns, how much did things cost, how is an Anglican christening performed. It is no good me guessing about any of these things. It has to be correct. It has to be said that the expansion of one’s general knowledge in the search for authenticity is a welcome bonus.

It is also natural to consider what these people would have been doing when huge national events took place. How did the First World War affect them? Did any of the characters have strong opinions about the death or crowning of a monarch or rise or fall of a politician? How did the financial crash affect things?

Of course it is what you do with all this knowledge that then becomes important. My priority is keeping the story at the forefront but having an eye on all this detail for the background. You could say it is a palette for the setting. One does not want it to overwhelm or bury the story in a historical fact book, but to ignore it would create such an anodyne, worthless, half-baked affair that it wouldn’t be worth bothering with, neither as a writer nor a reader.

The final thing I would like to mention is something that has been a source of pure joy and unique to this story. In my thirst for knowledge on this topic, I have come across, thanks to fellow obsessives, research gold dust. It is possible to read the real life diaries of at least three of the personalities in the story. Not only do I have there the actual voice and words of the people I am writing about, but their first hand description of what they did. There is much that I make up between the lines, but to be given such authentic material is priceless.

WHEN I actually finish this, I hope my readers will agree that it has been worth it. And if any writer baulks at the idea of research, just do it. It adds a polish if you use it wisely, and gets your readers as fascinated as you are, and it will make you a demon at pub quizzes.

3 thoughts on “The Joys of Research

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  1. Speaking as someone who is allergic to research, I found this a very encouraging piece. Thanks, Sara!

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