Tips on researching commercial historical fiction

Tips on researching commercial historical fiction

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Last month, I shared some tips on writing commercial historical fiction. This month, I thought I'd share some tips I've picked up on historical research.

Bear in mind that I'm writing twentieth-century history, so I haven't needed to go too far back. This post is to provide helpful snippets for commercial fiction writers and not aimed at serious literary historians!

When researching historical fiction and gathering facts about a particular time, one of the most challenging tasks is to uncover those minor domestic details that are so relevant to a person's life.

Why is this important? Because it's those everyday details - clothes, food, transport, money - that enable your readers to enter the world of your characters.

Here are a few resources I found invaluable when researching my novels.

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Visit your local library

When I first started researching my novels, my first port of call was my local library and its online resources. You can search your county library database and order books to be collected from your local branch.

Often it can be difficult to ascertain if a particular book is going to contain the nugget of information you need. Rather than go to the expense of buying lots of books on the topic, first see what your library has to offer.

Order in whatever the library has on the subject you're researching. This way, you can judge which books will be of most use to you. When I come across a book I know I’ll refer to again and again, I purchase my own copy.

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Explore museums, stately homes, National Trust properties, etc.

Basically, any places that give you the opportunity to physically see historical objects rather than having to visualise them.

Browsing historic venues, you never know when you’ll come across an interesting snippet of history, a fascinating item or a personal story that will inspire a character or plotline. See below - Dorothea sounds quite a character.

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Imperial War Museum 

The novel I’m currently writing is set in 1921 but refers back to events that took place in the Great War. The Imperial War Museum has been an invaluable source of information. The museum has a permanent First World War gallery. As well as documenting the war, there are lots of exhibits that look at the lives of people back home and the social situation at that time. Exhibits also explore the aftermath of the war and the future consequences to the countries involved.

You’ll read some inspiring personal stories of soldiers fighting in foreign lands and get a feel for life in Britain during the war years.

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London Transport Museum

My first novel in the Iris Woodmore Mysteries series was set in 1920 when the country was moving from horse-drawn to motorised vehicles. Plenty of books mentioned that roads became predominately motorised during the 1920s, but I needed to know specifically about the year 1920.

The London Transport Museum answered all my questions. At the start of that decade, the country was in transition, and there was a big difference between transport in cities and rural villages.

Therefore, I knew Iris would have been able to travel around London with ease via cabs, buses and underground. But there would have been a lot of walking involved when she went back to her hometown of Walden in Hampshire.

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Natural History Museum

Readers will know that one of my characters, Percy Baverstock, works at the Natural History Museum and is a member of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves. The Society was formed in 1912 (and was the forerunner for the Wildlife Trusts that we have in this country today).

Visiting the Natural History Museum, I could see the herbarium sheets, exhibits and paintings that Percy would have worked with in 1920. A beautiful example below.

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The V&A

The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design. You could be in there for weeks. The museum has a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span more than 5,000 years and holds many of the UK's national collections.

It's always a joy to visit the V&A and browse exhibits on fashion, jewellery, textiles, design, architecture, furniture, photography, sculpture, painting, glass, ceramics, books, theatre and performance.

I try to stay focused on researching clothes of the 1920s, but I'm easily distracted. I frequently end up in the spectacular jewellery rooms.

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Museum of London

Another favourite. The Museum of London tells the story of the capital from its first settlers to modern times with interactive galleries that immerse you in 450,000 years of London's history.

The museum also has a permanent suffragette exhibition, which inspired events and characters in The Suffragette's Daughter. And enabled me to describe the suffragette medals that Iris inherits from her mother. You can read more in My inspiration for The Suffragette's Daughter.

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Delve into The British Newspaper Archive

The British Newspaper Archive is a partnership between the British Library and Findmypast to digitise millions of newspaper pages from the British Library's vast collection. It contains newspapers from 1603 to the present day from Britain and further afield.

You can lose days browsing the archives. One of the features I like is the advanced search that lets you search by article or advertisement. I've gained valuable information by reading accounts of criminal trials. And by seeing advertisements of the day, I've been able to add authentic detail to a plotline that appears in my third novel that involves peddling fake pills. See my post on 1900s secret trade in illicit abortion pills.

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Read diaries and autobiographies

For authentic details, it helps to read personal histories of the period you’re researching. I love books like Nella Last’s War. Starting in September 1939, Nella Last, a middle-aged housewife from Barrow, wrote each day for the Mass Observation project. Her diaries created a unique record and insight into life in Britain during the Second World War.

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A final word of advice. Don’t get so bogged down in research that you stop writing or stop enjoying developing your characters and plot. It’s fiction, after all. And you can take it wherever you want to go.

The Suffragette's Daughter introduces a new sleuth for a new era.

Available from Amazon and bookstores in ebook, paperback or audio.

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