Invisible Research

So. The book is out, getting some great reviews, (hooray!) and people are asking questions about the research aspect of writing an historical novel. I thought I’d do a little post about it, because, in answering those questions and watching people’s eyes widen, it’s becoming more and more evident that a high percentage of the research I’ve carried out will never be noticed.

 We all know that information dumps are ghastly; they cause eyes to glaze over at best, and at worst they make the reader grit his or her teeth because they feel they’re being lectured to instead of entertained, but research is a necessary part of writing, whether it’s historical or not. I’m currently writing a Mythic Fiction series, (contemporary) and that has required checking song titles against the date of the flashback for a 1980s school disco scene; the clothes the girls would have worn; who was ‘hot’ in the media and might be emulated; who was considered geeky (and not in a good way.) I have also spent time looking up a certain type of small power boat: the construction materials; the layout beneath the deck; the removability of furniture; the engine capacity and so on. Tidal and geographical information has also been checked, as has the effect of lightning strike on the human form and on stone, and various other things that will, hopefully, weave through the story without even being noticed. Including how to make crack cocaine in a spoon, and what it smells like … let’s hope my computer is never taken away by the police and searched!

For Maid of Oaklands Manor the research has had to be even more intensive. Since the opening chapters are set in the spring of 1912 it’s only polite to at least mention the Titanic, which required a certain amount of fact-checking so it didn’t feel re-hashed; I also had to look into the politics of the time in order to be able to drop bits into conversation and then move quickly away; naturally there was the more obvious clothing, etiquette and speech to check; and a certain amount of war knowledge was necessary, covering both the second Boer and First World Wars. (For Lady of No Man’s Land this research has intensified, and become far more focused on trench warfare and the field hospitals in France and Belgium.)

However, as the title of this post suggests, it’s the invisible research, that only I know about, that allows me to look at the finished manuscript and feel I’ve done everything I can. Things like the weather during a given time of the year: I can write confidently about an outdoor fight on New Year’s Eve, in a drizzly rainfall, knowing no-one is going to turn around say, “wait, there was heavy snowfall in Cheshire that year!” If I say the area had endured a wet and windy summer in 1912, you can bet that’s the truth and not just a convenient reason to have fewer picnics and outdoor parties than usual!

 I checked the dates of birth of all my main characters and confirmed their significant birthdays fell on the days of the week I’ve said they did; I ensured there was a rail service on a certain day of the year, to and from particular destinations; likewise with a steam packet travelling to Germany. Flowers are another important detail, no matter how brief the mention – you can bet someone out there is an expert and will soon have something to say if you have the wrong flower blooming at the wrong time of the year in the wrong conditions, or any combination of the above. 

For all the people who will read a book and simply accept what the writer says, there’s still that small number who will happen to know if it’s correct and on whom the smallest mistakes will grate. This post is in no way a grumble about that, in fact it’s a shout out of respect to those people; everyone deserves to be immersed in the story they choose to read and, as writers, it’s our job to keep them there and not have them pulled rudely out by inaccuracies. Which is why we try our very best to ensure the details are as close to correct as we can possibly get them. There might well be slips, but if we do everything we can to secure the big facts in place with the little pins of invisible research, we’re going to write with more confidence and lessen that chance, and hopefully increase the enjoyment of whoever picks up our work to read.

If you enjoyed this post please leave a comment below or on the Facebook link.

Maid of Oaklands Manor is out now in e-book. Published by Piatkus Entice (little, brown book group) and available from Amazon and iBooks at £2.99.

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6 thoughts on “Invisible Research

  1. I hate it when some information that you know cannot be true drags you out of a story and this can happen even when you don't know all of the facts about the era or place that you are reading about. I am loving this book and appreciate that it is not simply a story that could be set in any era but is quite time specific and current events are woven into it.
    I like the inclusion of the Titanic disaster and the information about the war and how it affected everybody. I know how hard you have worked to get your facts correct – but it has so been worth it and makes for a fantastic read.
    Circumstances have forced me to read this book in chunks rather than in one go, but I often read more than one book at a time so that in itself is no problem.
    What is a problem is that I don't want to come to the end and leave the characters behind as I am getting so engrossed in their lives. Well done on your debut novel – and I can't wait to read more

  2. Like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, research should be 90% invisible. In Hannah’s War I spent a day on the web finding out what the interior of Blenheim bomber was like – only needed the information for one sentence, but couldn’t write it until I was sure.

  3. Exactly! You have to feel confident in what you’re saying or it’ll be painfully obvious. I love it when a reviewer mentions the research in the context of it blending right in with the story. I feel my job is done then!

  4. Thanks for the article! I’ve researched disco and Regency eras, too. It’s annoying when you want to use something that came in a few years later, but my sense of honesty won’t allow me to push the limits without reason. The late 70’s (my setting) was difficult, as readers balked at some of the norms, so I learned from that. If the author is truly unaware of an obscure anachronism, that’s fine, but there’s a certain responsibility when you choose to write in a specific historical period. It’s no different than matching your noun and verb. Many readers know their history, and a detail out of place is grating and takes them out of the mood of the era. Imagine reading “head games” in a Regency!

    • Haha! Quite! And yet those anachronisms are legion! I usually find that enough poking around will yield what I want, even if it’s not my first choice. Re; the school disco stuff, although I loved the songs I picked in my first draft, by the time the book was released I’d had to move the time on a few years and had to choose all over again. Of course, people’s attitudes had also changed in that time, as well as their clothes, so a big re-write was needed, but I found some great songs in my ‘new’ time 🙂 I was recently reminded of a status update that said it was time for a coffee break as I’d found myself wanting to insert the words: “total knob-head” into my turn-of-the-century novel! 😉

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