Timelines, Killer Details and Thank God for Google: Researching Historical Fiction by Catherine Czerkawska

So many reference books ...
Those of us who write historical fiction will be well aware that there are various ways of setting about it. There’s no single right or wrong way and the volume of research needed will vary not just according to how well you know the period, how immersed you are in a particular time and place, but will also depend upon the kind of fiction you’re writing, and reader expectations too. One reader’s unacceptable anachronism may well be excused by another reader who is happy to focus on the story rather than the detail. Most writers know their readers, know what they want and I’m not about to argue with that.

Personally speaking, I do masses of research. In fact I have to persuade myself to stop, give myself permission to get on with the writing, because there’s a part of me that enjoys the research too much, especially going back to primary sources: letters, contemporary accounts, old documents of the kind where you have to ‘get your eye in’ even to read them. It’s justified procrastination. But sooner or later, you have to write the book.

The book in question is a new novel called The Jewel, all about Robert Burns’s wife, Jean Armour, due to be published next spring. So you set the research aside, and immerse yourself in the world of the novel. Then two things happen. You realise that you have to go easy on what’s included. Historical research informs the novel, informs the way the characters behave, but if you try to put in everything you now know, the novel will suffer from great indigestible chunks of fact for fact's sake. At the same time – paradoxically - it's only when you begin to write that you discover all the things you really need to know, but that have somehow eluded you.

My favourite Jean and Rab:
Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie
When I was planning this post, it struck me that there are three key points to researching historical fiction. Well, in truth, there are lots more, probably as many as there are writers. But these three issues always loom very large for me, so it’s worth sharing them.

I think of them as Timelines, Killer Details and TGFG or Thank God for Google.

When you’re researching something that really happened, even if you’re going to allow yourself to make up all kinds of things that might or might not have happened, timelines are vital. Knowing your dates. And I don’t just mean what year something happened, but what time of the year something happened – and what else was going on at the same time. It is amazing how often knowing precisely when something happened in relation to something else gives you an interesting perspective on your subject: one that may even be counter intuitive. For example, it soon became clear to me that Jean didn’t actually fall pregnant for the first time in summer, even though the imagination loves to conjure pictures of outdoor dalliance among the mountain daisies, but in the middle of a damp, chilly, Ayrshire winter. Which immediately makes you wonder about the how and the where of it, especially at a time when houses were crowded, privacy was at a premium and both parties knew that her parents disapproved of the poet to the point of paranoia. I have plenty of ideas about the how of it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I think! 

Time and again, the juxtaposition of dates and events either explained something satisfactorily, or threw up a conundrum that served to make the story more interesting.

Alongside these timeline issues though, are what I like to think of as killer details. These are more likely to come from primary sources: statistical accounts, parish records, surviving letters; and it’s vital to go back to them wherever you can. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite like seeing the real signatures of your protagonists, and knowing that the people you are writing about were once there in the flesh, holding a pen, making those marks on that particular piece of paper. (OK, I admit it, I shed a tear when I thought about that one!) There’s the fact that in another document, the word ‘child’ suddenly becomes ‘children’ long before the babies in question were born, suggesting that the midwife must have heard two heartbeats. There’s a contemporary description of the internal geography of an alehouse that allows you to ascertain the truth or otherwise of a particular piece of gossip. There’s the sudden realisation that you have - serendipitously, and while looking for something else - come across the details of another birth that has significance for the plot you want to construct. These are small details that may seem insignificant but they add authenticity. And the excitement of discovering them is incomparable.

Jean lived in a room here. So did Rab - on and off.
Finally, there’s Google. Thank God for Google. Take the tiny, unimportant example of Ballachulish slate. I live in a house – a listed building - with a Ballachulish slate roof. (You can see something similar in the picture above.) This kind of slate is no longer available except in reclaimed and reconditioned form although substitutes are generally used. For a small and relatively unimportant detail in the story, I found myself assuming that Jean Armour’s father – a prosperous Ayrshire stonemason - would have used Ballachulish slate, especially on the houses of the wealthy. But rereading the chapter, it tripped me up. Just how old is Ballachulish slate? When did they start quarrying it? In the olden days before Google, I would have had to go to the library, look it up and waste precious writing time checking when the quarry was in its heyday and how likely it was that an Ayrshire stonemason and building contractor would have had his roofers using it some thirty years before our own house was built. Or - more likely - I would have deleted Ballachulish altogether and reverted to the simple word ‘slate’. Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. It was a minor detail. But in terms of authenticity, all the Ayrshire builders I know have used the description Ballachulish slate. So, it turns out, might Jean Armour's dad. Thank God for Google in dozens of small but interesting ways.

So those are my three important issues. But of course there are plenty more. If you're writing historical fiction, or even considering it - what's the most important challenge for you? 

Even more research books...

My historical novel The Physic Garden is still available
in paperback and as an eBook from most outlets.
If you want to see my first 'take' on Rab and Jean, you can read my play
  Burns on the Solway on Kindle and on most other eBook outlets too.
The Jewel is scheduled for publication next spring.
Watch this space!
Catherine Czerkawska


Wendy H. Jones said…
I don't write historical fiction but I found this fascinating. Attention to detail is so important. Yet the reader may skip over small facts. That makes it even more important as they are learning as they read. Thank you to you, and all historical facts Ction writers, for the hours you spend researching the smallest details.
Chris Longmuir said…
You've hit the nail on the head (pardon the cliche) Catherine. I'm in the middle of a historical crime novel and have done masses of research, but as you say, it's the ordinary things that trip you up, and the dilemma of what to put in and what to leave out. Plus the fine detail in events that happened is often missing. You get the large picture, but not the small one. I'm wrestling with the royal visit to Gretna munitions factory in 1917 at the moment, and trying to puzzle out which areas they visited and what they viewed, and would they be in a particular spot when I wanted them to be there. Not simple, because the munitions factory was 9 miles long, stretching from Dornock in Scotland to Longtown in England. On the other hand, if I can't find the fine detail it's doubtful if any of my readers would know either.
JO said…
I love historical fiction, but (as a pedant) can be hugely irritated if I spot something that looks wrong - I have even been known to scuttle off to Google and check things. But the best writers somehow drop in all the detail without my even noticing, so i can just wallow in the period without feeling that someone needs to remind me of such details as the discomfort of corsets!
Bill Kirton said…
Spot on as ever, Catherine: the fascination of research, the serendipities, the discoveries that change the course of the narrative, the constant need to police the terminology and double-check our presumptions about how our characters lived, their customs and conditions - they add up to a completely different writing experience than when dealing with contemporary situations. At present I know more about carrier pigeons than I need to, I'm wishing the railways had come to Scotland earlier than they did and I'm wondering whether Scots called one another 'Big Man' in 1842. I love it.
Umberto Tosi said…
So true. If it weren't for Google the research I did for Ophelia Rising would have taken me several times as long and cost a pretty penny in expenses for travel to various libraries. I'm always surprised at the extent of basic source material available free on the Net, even though often one has to pay to see more than an abstract. One anomaly of researching historical fiction I found ironic: basic research can turn up material that contradicts today's prevailing wisdom about how things were during a particular era in this or that place. This presents a dilemma. Incorporating accurate details then make a story more authentic, but risk seeming implausible to some many readers, unless I included footnotes or other explanations that would be cumbersome. In any case, I opt for the surprises. Now, I've turned to science fiction - still demanding research, but in the creation of a future context, not an historical one.
Thanks for so many interesting comments! Chris, I'm really looking forward to your new novel. Bill and Umberto, you're so right about our presumptions and the way in which this kind of detailed research can overturn them. And then you have the dilemma of whether to make things accurate at the risk of being challenged. I've had that experience, but like Umberto, I tend to go with the surprises, and hope that readers will have a rethink. One of my most interesting 'finds' in the course of researching this novel was an early Scottish novel by John Galt called The Annals of the Parish. If you read it without realising that it really was written some 200 years ago, you would think that it was a modern and even faintly anachronistic re-imagining of late 18th century Ayrshire. But it's all authentic and quite frequently hilarious.
Mari Biella said…
Great post, Catherine. When I was writing The Quickening, I was anxious to get the details about the period right - anxious to the point of paranoia, I'd say. Yet as a reader I'm often happy to overlook the odd anachronism or mistake, simply because I'm reading fiction, an imaginative work, and not a factual one. And in my WIP, anachronism is actually a fundamental part of the story itself, for reasons that I can't really go into without entering spoiler territory. Will readers get it, or not? Time will tell, I suppose...
Dennis Hamley said…
This rang so many bells, Catherine. Yes, it's wonderful to find the 'killer detail when you least expect it. I've sometimes left ridiculous hostages to fortune when I set myself narrative puzzles which don't have to be solved until later. I continue with a sort of Panglossian confidence that an answer will come. In the Joslin de Lay novels I had no idea who the sinister pock-marked man following Joslin from France to Wales was, nor did I know why I made Joslin's father's last words be 'The blessed St Ursula.' They just came! When I started researching Welsh history for the last in the seires, The False Father, I still had no idea. And no google to help me. And yet, suddenly, they they were, staring me in the face, both problems solved, more elegantly than I could have dreamed. It was really was if they had been waiting for me, especially as I realised that Joslin's pursuer was a real live flesh and blood character, not a figment of my imagination, and that I had shared Joslin's misunderstanding of St Ursula's significance so that the answer came as as big a surprise as it was to him. Looking back, I think that was a good thing, because we neither of us knew what we were talking about! It's even beter wen you find afterwards that a piece of unchecked speculation turns out to be actually true after all.
Lydia Bennet said…
Great post as ever Catherine. I'm always meticulous researching my plays, which have been about local history, and especially getting the language of the period right. It's odd how, when to avoid the clunkiness of cramming all your research into the play/novel (because it's so interesting!), you take most of it out, there's a kind of homeopathic memory of it permeating the result, more than if you'd done minimal research and just put that in. The killer details are those which bring a time or place alive to writer and reader. People don't really change that much, you look at Tollund Man and he could be someone you see in Sainsbugs.
I do agree about the 'memory' being there. Fascinating, isn't it? Even though you take out a lot of the details, to avoid the clunkiness, the sense of them remains, and does permeate the whole thing.

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