History is a Mystery: but not for long - by Wendy H. Jones


I've been thinking a lot about history recently. Scottish and Naval history in particular. You may ask why an author of contemporary mysteries is worrying herself about all things historical, especially when it involves the Royal Navy. Let me explain. I do have a Naval background as I was in the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service for six years. I will now miss most of the story out to cut to the chase, I am now writing a new series based on a real life naval surgeon in the early 19th Century. My chap just happened to be from Scotland so I feel we have a lot in common. However, this is not what my post is going to focus on - I want to talk about some of the research than can be done when considering writing books set in the past. Whilst what happens in the past is a mystery to us, it all becomes clear when we dive into the research. So, what sources can we consider? 

My first piece of advice is this - you can go down many rabbit holes when you start researching as there are numerous sources you can use. In the interests of word count - this is a blog, not an article - I will share only a few here to get you started. Some you may have thought off, others maybe not. 

  1. Books. This may seem obvious and at first glance it is. However, widen the scope of what you are reading.
    1. The era
    2. Customs
    3. Social history
    4. Fiction books set during that era
    5. Fiction books written during that era not only gives you an idea of what they were reading then but also allows you to explore dialogue and words used.
    6. Poetry books
    7. Books about the jobs people had. In my case I am reading books on Naval history and also about medicine in the 19th Century. If your character is a mechanic, a midwife or a coal miner  what was it like for them then. 
    8. The politics of the time.
    9. Class system.
  2. Newspapers. These are a rich source of information and can be accessed either through local archives or the national newspaper archives online. 
    1. national newspapers
    2. Local newspapers
    3. Free newspapers
    4. Adverts - these can tell you a lot about the social norms of the time. I have a copy of a local Dundee newspaper from VE Day. Now, they may have been celebrating VE Day but it would appear that the good folks of Dundee were extremely worried about constipation if the adverts are to be believed. The reason I am telling you this is because it may be something that was an issue or something to do with the diet they were eating. Things like this may be worth exploring. Adverts also provide you with a guide to prices during that era. 
    5. You may also want to access newspapers abroad if your character will be travelling or you want to see how the political or social situation in other countries impacted on the UK. Or, you may be writing a historical book set in another country.
  3. Photographs. So much information can be gleaned from photographs such as hairstyles, fashion, weight, height, etc. You can access photographs via local archives, museums, art galleries, stately homes, The National Trust, and collections in national libraries such as The National Library of Scotland, The British, Library or equivalents in other countries. 
  4. Maps. These are fascinating as they allow you to explore terrain, distances, the layout of villages, towns and cities. Cities and towns change over time and it is important to ensure you are using the correct layout. It also allows you to explore ways in which your characters would travel and how long it would take them to get there. Let's face it Dundee to London in six hours wasn't going to be possible for my chap in the early 1800's 
  5. Dissertations and theses. Not only are these interesting and can give you a good grounding in the era and your area of interest but they are useful for primary sources via the reference list. 
  6. Diaries. If you have diaries from your characters that is gold dust but any diaries written around that time are useful for insight into the social norms of the time. I cite the book Diary of an Edwardian Lady as one example.
The best place to start your research is by asking librarians and archivists. They will be able to point you in the right direction and before you know it you will be knee deep in research and living in a completely different era. You will also be having fun and your life will be the richer for it. Now, if you will excuse me I'm off to board my ship and set sail for the 19th Century. 

About the Author 

Wendy H. Jones is an award-winning, international best-selling author who writes adult crime books, young adult mysteries, children's picture books and non-fiction books for writers. She is also a writing and marketing coach, runs the Writing Matters Online School and is the CEO of Authorpreneur Accelerator Academy, The president of the Scottish Association of Writers and hosts The Writing and Marketing Show podcast. 


Eden Baylee said…
Hi Wendy, great post. Research is a double-edge sword for me. Sometimes, it can lead to so much fun that I forget I'm supposed to be writing!
Enjoy your week, eden
I really enjoyed this post, Wendy. Your lists are very helpful. I've often found myself having to research unexpected things as I go along. Halfway through a novel that featured people sailing across the Channel numerous times, I realised I didn't know nearly enough about boats and sailing. Museum websites are also good places to look, especially for pictures.
Eden's point is a good one - I've also got completely stuck in the research phase occasionally.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Thank you both, I’m glad you found it useful. I have been looking at this anyway so I thought I would share to help others.
Paula R. C. said…
A great article thank you so much for sharing it.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Paula, thank you for letting me know you found it useful.
Fran Hill said…
Some great tips. My current novel is set in 1976 so not exactly historical (although some teenagers might think so ...) but there are some things in your list I wouldn't have thought of pursuing for my research.
Reb MacRath said…
Well done, as always, Wendy. Sometimes the research can impact the storyline by unearthing little things we'd never have guessed: from the existence of a strikingly modern-sounding weapon to the presence of a famous person in a city at that time. You've written one of the best primers I've ever come across.
Ruth Leigh said…
Great stuff, Wendy
Wendy H. Jones said…
Fran, there’s a school of thought that anything before 30 years ago is considered historical fiction although I think the classic answer is 50 years. This means the first 10 years of my life are considered history. Glad you found the article helpful.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Thank you, Reb, high praise indeed. I agree sometimes it’s the little things that trip is up.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Thank you, Ruth. Glad you liked it.
Great idea - research is wonderfully interesting, and you're very observant to urge us to include adverts - I happen to have my Mum's cookery book from just after the War (1939-45 war) and the adverts in there are wonderfully evocative of that period (were I to need to know more about it for a book).

Just realised I have written Historical Fiction - Baby, Baby is set in 1984-88 ...so if they take 30+ years, it's no longer be 'contemporary'! What a frightful thought - feels like yesterday!
Wendy H. Jones said…
Clare, yes, cookbooks are also a fabulous resource as it gives a good idea of what people were eating at the time. I didn't realise there were adverts in cookbooks, so thank you for that. I feel frightfully old when they say that anything over 30 years is history.

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