Reading for Research by Wendy H. Jones

This month on the blog I was going to write about researching your books in the real, rather than virtual, world, then realised my podcast on the topic was coming out the same day. If this interests you then you can listen to The Nuts and Bolts of Researching Your Novel.

As well as being out and about doing research and having lots of fun in the process, I have also been doing a lot of reading and having lots of fun in the process. I feel this leant itself to a blog post about reading widely, not only for enjoyment, but to help you get background for your book and to steep yourself in the world of your characters. Whether fact or fiction, there is always something to be found in the pages of a book. 

My character, Thomas Graham, having sailed around the world in the Royal Navy, found himself in China in the early to mid 19th Century where he died and was buried. So, some of my reading has been about China to get a flavour of both China and Hong Kong during that time. When reading fiction one thing that needs to be borne in mind is that it is fiction and some facts can be wrong. However, my first choice, China by Edward Rutherford, I knew was going to be well researched and factually correct, having read his previous books. If you are looking for books on England, Russia or London, I can highly recommend Sarum, London, and Russka. Edward Rutherford is an outstanding writer and his books are a prime example of how you can bring history to life and make it accessible.

My next choice, An Insular Possession by Timothy Mo is an odd mixture of fact and fiction which is often, quite deliberately, separate and yet it works. The book is about the foundation of Hong Kong and again my character spent several months there. In a complete aside, I spent two years there myself. My character was a Doctor in the Royal Navy and I was a nurse in the Army. It's a small world. This allows me to get a flavour of Hong Kong and the effect this would have on a young man from Scotland. It is rich in detail and builds up my background knowledge and helps me to get a sense of my character. 

We are back to China with he next one, with a non fiction book - Thomas Cochrane and the Dragon Throne. This is the true story of a young Scottish Doctor who travelled to Inner Mongolia in the late 19th Century and set up the first Western Teaching Hospital in Beijing, or Peking as it was then known. Whilst my character died in the middle of the 19th Century it still gives me a flavour of what it was like to be a westerner in China at the time and what medical care was like. Although treatments may have moved on during that time, the speed of change would not have been so great as it is today. So, I am confident that much of what it contains will be useful, although I will carry out more research to be sure. The other thing about this book is that the Doctor was a Christian, as is my character, so it gives me insight into the way a young Christian man of the time may have thought, acted, and lived his life. 

Next up is a quirky book called The ITN Book of Firsts, by Melvin Harris, which is absolutely fascinating. Any writer of historical fiction should have a copy of this book as it can stop them committing a faux pas or not including something which was around long before you thought it would be. It covers things such as steam (did you know steam power was first harnessed in 150 BC in Alexandria in Egypt), photography, cars, aviation, motion pictures and so on. It also contains a log chapter called Gee Whizz which is short paragraphs covering many different firsts. Seriously, there is so much information that you could include a quirky fact in your book and would be spot on. I absolutely love this book as each chapter is jam packed with facts. There is an index at the back and if you look something up I am sure it will be included somewhere. 

So, I hope my whistle stop tour through some of the books I am reading, will have convinced you that it is well worth reading a wide variety of books for your research, and whetted your appetite. Don't get so engrossed that you forget to write though. That is always the danger. What about you? What books are you reading, or would recommend, for those researching their own books?

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. She is currently writing a series of historical fiction novels based around the life of a 19th Century Surgeon in the Royal Navy. 


Joy Margetts said…
I might have just purchased a book because of this blog!
Wendy H. Jones said…
Now which one would that be 😁
Those books sound great! I can't wait to read more Viking books... I love research, but you're right, it can take up all your time!
Reb MacRath said…
Terrific post. Background reading is one of the parts of the job that I love the most.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Maressa, glad you enjoyed the post and enjoy your Viking books even more
Wendy H. Jones said…
Thanks, Reb. Background reading is the best.
This is really good advice, and it's always fascinating to see how other writers do their research.
Re the Book of Firsts - I was browsing through some reviews on Goodreads earlier to see what other people thought of a book I've been listening to lately, and I noticed one reviewer complaining about historical inaccuracy, with one of their examples being 'ice wasn't invented until the 18th century'. Really?! I think they could probably have done with the book you've mentioned , Wendy (not sure it would go back far enough in time for that one), although needless to say some other reviewers soon piled in to put them right.
Peter Leyland said…
Just doing research Wendy for my book, provisionally titled The Companionship of Books, and have now got a stack of paper a few inches thick with what I think is all I need to know before starting. I have also listed the sections to be covered from the pages which are also on screen! The problem is when do I reach the cut off point and start writing??? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

Thanks for your post which got me thinking
Wendy H. Jones said…
Cecelia, that’s a great example of where you get called out. The Book of Firsts is a fabulous book.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Peter, that is the danger. All the very best with your own research.

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