Saturday, 19 July 2014

Doing Your Homework
In order for stories to be convincing, writers often undertake research and, in the case of historical fiction, that research is essential to set the time and the place for the reader. To date, for my short stories, I have researched stalkers, hoarders, homes for unmarried mothers, real life kidnap stories......the list could go on. I was able to do all that at the click of a button via Google and hope that the odd references here and there throughout the stories are accurate enough to make the characters and plots credible.  

But what about a much longer piece of fiction, where accuracy and authenticity have to be sustained over a whole novel? My WIP is set in two decades, the late 1940s and the end of the 1960s, and the subjects I will need to find out more about will include:

  • rural village life in 1948, life in service
  • rationing and the black market after the war
  • Italian Prisoners of War, their POW camp in mid-Wales, Italian family life in 1960s
  • unmarried mother and baby homes
  • travelling to the continent in the '60s

I have been thinking about how I should go about this. How much is too much? Where is the best place to go? When is the best time - before writing, as you go along or after a rough draft? I think there are two kinds of research:

  • Background research - setting the time and place, details about social issues, customs
  • Spot research - finding out small pieces of information as they arise in your writing
As well as on-line sites, there are community resources to help:
  • the local library
  • historical museums where you will find books, documents, newspapers from the era, maps, together with photographs of people and places from the time. These will help take the reader back in time and add credible details to the novel.
  • art galleries displaying paintings of the era will give information about clothing and styles, colours and typical homes
  • elderly people who can give you anecdotal and personal details 
Advice from writers about research seems to be that you will end up with more facts and information than you can use so deciding what to leave out is as important as what to include. Authentic dialogue seems to be a particularly difficult feature to get right in historical fiction, too, because language is continually changing. Perhaps here newsreels or film footage could help.

I have just finished Pattern of Shadows by Judith Barrow and am now reading the second book in the trilogy, Changing Patterns.  This is what Judith wrote about her debut novel:

'Pattern of Shadows' was inspired by my research into Glen Mill, a disused cotton mill in Oldham, Lancashire, and its history of being the first German POW camp in the country..... When I thought about Glen Mill I wondered what life would have been like for all those men imprisoned there. I realised how different their days must have been from my memories of a mill and I knew I wanted to write about that.'

The story is set during World War 2 in the North of England. It explores many themes - working class life, German POWs, Conscientious Objectors, bigotry, hospital life  - but, above all, it is a love story of its time and place thanks to accurate but unobtrusive research.  I can highly recommend the novels and can't wait for Honno to publish the third book.

What have you researched for your writing? How do you record it? Do you have a list of questions you want to answer?

Thank you for reading my blog. I'd love to hear about your research. 
You may follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and I have a Jan Baynham Writer page on Facebook.


  1. For my first published novel, Escape to the Country, I did 26 years research living on a farm and another 3 working in accounts ;-)

    1. Writing from experience - the best way! :-) Thanks for commenting, Patsy.

  2. I think it can be very easy to start doing a lot of research and get bogged down by it - or become so interested in it that you can't stop - and either way this may prevent you from ever actually writing!

    I read very little historical fiction so don't feel qualified to comment on what is too much, or too little really, and I certainly couldn't write it!

    I personally like to do what you refer in your blog as 'spot' research.

    Thanks for a great blog post Jan, very interesting! :)

    1. Thanks, Samantha. Isn't it funny? I love historical fiction and already I find I like writing stories set at different times. Am looking forward to hearing and reading more about your novel-in-progress. :-)

  3. I do my research as I go along, I have researched WW1 and 2, steam trains, railway building, autism, strokes, how juke boxes work, canal boats.......

    1. A wide range of topics, Wendy. Thanks for commenting. :-)

  4. Hi Jan, thank you so much for including my novels and my words in your blog. I am flattered to say the very least.It's true that ninety per cent of any research done isn't used, but it's there, in your head (or should I say'my head') as I write. Before writing both books I immersed myself in the time, the era, i wanted my characters to live. I read, I Googled, I interviewed people who knew what it had been like (and this part was a joy because they were all older people whom, loved to talk about their youth).I was lucky with the POW camp as there is an association involved with Glen Mill and I got to talk to them. I have files divided into various sections: what was in the news at the time, cost of living,the clothes worn, food, music,films, toys etc etc. For Pattern of Shadows I was also lucky enough to chat to retired nurses (one gave me her little book that all nurses had at the time) and two ex POWs I have five of these files as there are three novels that have been in a drawer for a long time and probably will stay there. I think that the bottom line is to find something/ a time/ a place/ a person, that interests you and absorb all you can. Knowledge is never wasted. My WIP is the last of the trilogy which, hopefully, will be out summer of 2015 and is set in the late sixties. Dare I say, I won;'t have to do quite as much research as 'I was there' - and yes, I do remember it.Good luck with your novel. If you need any help/feedback/ support you know where I am. All the best

    1. Thank you, Judith. It was interesting to read that you 'immersed' yourself in the era first and that you were able to draw on a number of sources for your information. It must have been fascinating to have been able to interview people from the time and how they liked to chat and reminisce for you. I like the way you sorted your research into different topics - a tip for me to follow perhaps. :-)

  5. Thanks Jan for highlighting Judith's books. I must read those. A writer on t.v. once said she watched films from the period she was writing about to get a feel for the clothes, transport, hairstyles etc. I thought that was a good tip. Looking forward to hearing more on your novel. xx

    1. Thanks for the tip about watching films from the period, Sue. Yes, do look out for Judith's novels. I'm sure you'd enjoy them. :-)