My current WIP is accidentally historical. And current. And possibly a little bit into the future (but that’s a whole other matter).
I normally avoid writing about the past because I don’t like research. Or, I do, but I get so involved I forget there’s a book to write. But my character is 80, so there’s a good chance she’ll have spotted a few events happening around her over the years, and it would be weird for her not to mention them. So I have to know about them. So I have to research them
Things I know I need to know:
- what were travelling funfairs like in the 1950s and 1960s? And if they travelled in the years straight after the second world war?
- how did women make a living/live after the war when their husbands didn’t return?
- what were common placements and styles for tattoos on women pre-1950? I’ve already discovered that the upper classes sometimes had them, which has resulted in a quick rewrite for a character, but I can’t find much info about where they’d have had them.
Things I don’t know I need to know:
Everything else! Honestly, how do you do it, historical writers? How do you capture the essence of the time without turning it into a lecture on ‘How we used to live?’ How do you discover that the central, most important item in that scene was common in 1968 but not 1967? How do you know what things cost and what things people wanted to buy and what they earnt and how much rent was?
Too many questions? Perhaps. Important questions? Well, actually, I won’t really know that until I start writing it properly.
In the meantime, if you have hints and tips, and answers to my questions about widows and tattoos and funfairs, I’d love to hear them!
17 thoughts on “Research: the best and worst of it”
I actually just google “how much did xxx cost in 1932?” It’s amazing what you can find out. And then I look for ways to fudge. Like I have a character who needs to pay the cab fare in 1936. I can’t find out how much that is, so I end up saying, “He tells her the fare and she pays him.” !! LOL. It IS fun, but it can be overwhelming as you say, and I find myself going back and taking some things out because they almost feel forced – like I have to prove I did the research. Just touching lightly on things is best, I think.
Google is amazing, isn’t it, Melissa? I don’t plan on putting much of the research onto the page, but I don’t want to make any glaring errors. Using your cab fare example, I don’t want a poor character to take a cab if it would cost her a week’s wages – I need the context.
Since I wrote this, my aged character has started to tell me about her experiences as a child during WWII, so now I need to know that too 🙄
I’ve only written one historical and I don’t know that I did a great job at getting everything right.
To keep myself from writing a history book instead of a story set in a period, I wrote the story and then added the historical parts. I did end up adding a subplot based on found research that was too interesting for nerd me to ignore.
That’s a great way to write it, Liz – the story should always come first. Then you can jiggle things around to suit the period you’ve written in if necessary.
I don’t write anything historical – or set on Earth – so no research for me for history stuff. Had no idea rich women were getting tattoos back then though. I imagine they were hidden.
Do you have to research a little science instead, Alex?
I think wrists were quite popular for tattoos. Risque enough to be almost on show, but hidden by watches and other jewellery.
Hi Annalisa – I’d venture forth into a second hand bookshop – and get a couple of books from them … just now I can’t think … so good luck – cheers Hilary
Also the library in Plymouth – they’d have some good resources … take a day out! Cheers Hilary
Hi Hilary, I’ve been searching the archive catalogue of The Box, the new museum in Plymouth – so I might be taking an afternoon there. And my character has taken me into her memories of the Plymouth Blitz now. My dad had lots of books about the war and Plymouth, so I’ve got all those to read through as well.
You brought up a good point about capturing vs lecturing on history. One of my minor grumbles is reading a story where the author was so caught up in writing about the history of the time that the story line got lost in an info dump.
Have a creative day.
I’ve read novels like that too, Sandra, and it pulls away from the story. As Elizabeth suggested above, writing the story and then making sure the historical bits are accurate is probably the best way to do it.
I love research, and that’s why I write about what I’m interested in instead of what I know. Your point about not making it a lecture is so valid.
I haven’t usually had reason for too much research, Damyanti – although I keep needing to know police procedure around certain crimes, for my last project and this one. Writing about what you’re interested in is a great tip!
Fascinating project, Annalisa. I’m sure your book will shine and benefit all your readers. I tend to just ask questions of folks in my life for historical knowledge, but I never go back so far as to another historical epoch, pre-Internet even. Smiles.
Enjoy the process.
Me either, usually, Robin. This plot thread snuck up on me!!
I love researching and learning new things, besides being a ancient history tragic, that is my happy place. I am sure you’ll be fine with your new WIP and creating the world your character is in.
My character is falling further and further into the past. I assumed the main part of the story would be her as an 80 year old, but nope, she wants to be young in the 50s!
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