It may or it may not amaze you to know that I get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of historical subjects all the blooming time.
I am, after all, in the eyes of the public a walking encyclopaedia. So I can, can’t I, just open a crack in my brain and let some of those years’ worth of research just pour out, right? I mean, it doesn’t cost the would-be novelist anything, not like an investment of time or study for understanding…and it’s just easy for me, right? And I’ve got nothing else on my plate, right?
Or, often and often, I shall be reading the responses to a question of research and I’ll find that many say they were reading such and such a well-researched tome full of the details of the fabric of daily life, but it didn’t help their story, it wasn’t a priority, so they ditched it.
And now the whinge. Sorry, folks, that’s not good enough!
You want to know why I know so much, on so many subjects covering the breadth of politics, the military, trade, exploration, the Navy, the daily life customs, the scandals, the interlaced relationships between families across the country, it’s because I read. I read everything. And I don’t put it down just because it might not be germane to some diddly plot point I want for a novel.
Yes, sometimes it’s a hard slog. Some books much sloggier than others, I can assure you.
But you never know–on page 254, there might be some footnote or some paragraph which entirely throws open your understanding of secret societies and their history in Prussia in 1812,which are going to play into the next novel. And nobody but me knows about these, because no one else has stuck it all the way through the current tome on Napoleon and Berlin. (Not sure I blame them entirely.)
I know all this stuff because I have sat for days and weeks in research libraries, reading whole volumes of newspapers and magazines from the early 19th century. And pretty boring many of them were too. But because of this, you may believe me when I tell you that popular serialised fiction in Austen’s period was every bit as gagging and twee as pop fiction we could produce today. The only difference is the vocabulary. It’s just as badly-written, improbable, and silly, otherwise.
If I want to know what they wore, I pore over portraits of the period, in museums. I study their maps. Their etchings.
This is how it works: I do the work, I get the pay-off.
Because here’s the deal. When you trouble your sorry-self to read a whole biography, an entire history, you’re going to be learning heaps more than just what did the leather dying process smell like in 18th century London, or why did Castlereagh shoot Canning in the thigh, or some such small detail. You’re going to gain the very weft and warp of another world’s existence.
You’re going to pick up a narrative about how they spent their evenings, where people from one part of town liked to congregate, what kind of fabric came in cheap that year, why did red and pink dyes suddenly become affordable after 1805, what the public opinion on the state of the king’s health was, who was cousins with whom, whether the weather was bad or brilliant and how that affected the crops and were there bread riots. You’re going to begin to get it. To gain some broader understanding of another era, another epoch’s choices and lives–the very fabric of their lives. What they had for brekkies, and when. Everything! And then you’ll know.
And when you go to write it, therefore, all that wider context, that breadth and depth of knowledge is going to show. It’s going to be there, quietly, in understated details and comprehension of mores and attitudes and will spare many a reader the agonies of emotional and real anachronisms which are the bane of so much history and historical fiction.
So, to put it bluntly. Do your own work. You want to write a good historical novel and receive the plaudits for it? Put in the work. Do it. And don’t look for it to be handed you on a platter. No, the internet isn’t the brilliant research tool they promised, but lots of university libraries now have their collections on line, as do museums and the British Library.
You want to fill your head with the gems of past lives? Do it. No excuses. For through that doing, you shall build a palace of wisdom to the heavens. But you have to earn it and there are no shortie-cuts.