Seven Questions for Historical Novelists (Cecilia Peartree)

Someone recently reminded me that I had contributed a series of blog posts on the topic ‘Historical Novels: How much research is too much?’ to an online event, the Edinburgh ebook festival, seven years ago. As I’ve written a few historical novels since then, among other things, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the questions I asked some writers of historical fiction as part of my preparation to write the blog posts, and to find out whether my own answers might have changed in the mean-time.

My grandmother in Edwardian dress

The idea for the topic of too much research sprang from my attempt, much more than seven years ago, to write an epic novel of the English Civil War. I say ‘attempt’ not because I didn’t finish the thing, but because I felt it was overloaded with research to the extent that the end result was probably more or less unreadable. Certainly I came up against all the questions listed below, and have encountered them again over the years. Incidentally one of the items on my lengthy writing ‘to-do’ list is to have another look at the above-mentioned epic novel and see if anything can be salvaged from it. 

In the meantime, here are the original seven questions and my latest answers to them. 

Q: How much time do you usually spend on researching for historical novels as opposed to writing them? (if it’s possible to quantify this, as a ratio or percentage) 
A: This varies a little from one novel to another, but essentially if the novel is part of a series then the initial research will often take quite a bit longer for the first one than for the rest, particularly if all the books in the series have a similar setting. Occasionally it becomes evident before or during the first draft that I really need to visit a new place - Rye and the Royal Military Canal, York railway station etc - and look at the topography. For the first novel in a series, I would say the research can take just as long as writing the draft, but for the rest this is dramatically reduced, perhaps less than a quarter as long. 

Q: Do you carry on researching as you write and even after you’ve finished the first draft (or the last one)? 
A: Absolutely. The three writers I asked about this seven years ago were unanimous in their agreement too.

Q: Do you have trouble stopping your research and starting to write? 
A: Not really – I do enough to get started and then do more as and when required. I always have gaps in my knowledge that unexpectedly need to be filled, e.g. types of fishing boat, length of time it takes to get somewhere. 

Q: Have you ever felt as if you’ve over-researched and should have stopped sooner? Do you think it’s possible to over-research? 
A: Yes, it is possible, but I don’t tend to do it now unless I get really carried away by the history and go off on a tangent. I usually worry more about under-researching, especially as I have recently discovered that a friend who was once a history lecturer has been reading my historical novels. 

Q: How do you decide how much research to incorporate in your final novel? For instance, would you add an odd paragraph just to give information even if it’s not really essential to the story? Or have you ever been tempted to do this? 
A: Maybe – as long it doesn’t overwhelm the story. Ideally it would be blended into the plot in a cunning way that didn’t make it seem like research… 

Q: What if you do some research once the novel is almost finished and you find it throws a different light on what you’ve written? Would you make substantial changes to incorporate your findings? 
A: It depends on how glaring the different light is and how important to the plot the change would be.

Q: Do you have a favourite period of history to write about, and are there any specific problems associated with this? 
A: I’ve written about several periods of history and found problems that were specific in each case.

Regency – a crowded field in which it is easy to go against reader expectations of one kind and another.
Edwardian era – hard to escape the looming shadow of WW1.
1950s – this decade is I think one of the most difficult to write about. It’s paradoxically too close to the present day and not quite close enough. It can be hard for younger readers to accept some aspects of characters’ attitudes and opinions, and yet people mostly don’t feel nostalgic for these years as they do for the 1940s for example. It’s sort of trapped between WW2 and the swinging sixties.

The heritage railway at Bo'ness


Umberto Tosi said…
Your questions (and answers) hit home for this author of the historical novel, Ophelia Rising, at work on its sequel, Thank you. My responses line up with yours. I found your previous post illuminating as well. I discovered that the "research" isn't separate, but intrinsic to the creation of characters, their choices and experiences, to my surprise -- and sometimes resistance. My notions started out as blurry images that came more and more into focus as I delved into what to me was the new territory of the past, as chronicled by historians before me, bless them.
Griselda Heppel said…
Really interesting post, thank you. I'm glad you feel it's possible to over research because I've heard some writers say you can never do too much... which is daunting because how would you ever stop reading and start writing?

And yes, the ghastly possibility of finding out late on that something crucial to the plot is an anachronism! My book The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst depended on a library with an upper gallery, reached by staircases from below. Apparently this kind of library didn't exist in England until about 20 years after the book is set, though there were a few on the continent. I decided the owner of the library just happened to be much travelled and advanced in his thinking...
Thank you for your comments, Umberto and Griselda.
Another thing I find, that I hadn't thought of before writing the post, is that the amount of research required is often out of all proportion to the importance of something in the story! I realised that only this morning while trying to find out a couple of things for a mystery set in the present day (how to contact someone in prison and cat quarantine arrangements in the UK and elsewhere). Both mentioned in chapter 2 and perhaps never again!
Wendy H. Jones said…
As I am dipping my toe in writing historical fiction this resonated with me. Thank you. Helpful in the extreme

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