Friday, 5 April 2013

Researching for Historical Fiction

When I began writing I followed the mantra spouted by so many wise owls who guided the tyro author, “write what you know”. It was a rule that urged aspiring authors to write about their own experiences and world. Such authenticity would inevitable result in better and more distinctive writing. I believed it.
I began writing modern day stories of kitchen sinks, crime and humour but never seemed to find that extra fizz that elevated the writing or the story, or indeed this author. Somehow the available palette seemed limited and the settings too parochial.

I felt such a fool when it suddenly and belatedly hit me that Hilary Mantel did not actually live in Tudor times, Bernard Cornwell never served with Wellington’s army against Napoleon and George Macdonald Fraser was never a Victorian cad. These wonderful historical fiction authors were not writing of what they know, rather they knew of what they wrote. Research was their secret for opening up the whole of human history for their storytelling. It brought authenticity and insight, it released the imagination and brings confidence to the writing and storytelling.

I decided to ignore the wise owls and began to explore historical fiction as a way to tell compelling and human stories. I had a story in mind, the characters beginning to take shape, all I needed was the right setting and time to place it. So I researched. And I found Aden in 1965 and the seeds of my novel The Open Arms of the Sea began to grow and flourish. Four years later it emerged as a real live book.

I am a novice historical fiction author but I share some of the observations and insights into research that I have picked up along the way. I will say from the outset that I am far too young to have served in Aden in 1965, I have no military background or connections and have never visited Yemen. The resulting novel is all research and imagination.

It’s the story, stupid

No matter how much research you do, how thorough, how insightful, it matters not a jot if you don’t have a good, well told and compelling story, characters who are human, engaging and believable and that they all exist in an enthralling place and time that smells, sounds and feels as well as looks. You are not writing historical fiction but a fiction historical. The story always comes first.

Wear your research lightly.
Exposition and research chunking is a death knell to good storytelling and the urge to cram in too much of your recently acquired historical knowledge and insight is to be resisted at all costs. If it doesn’t flow naturally in the narrative and writing style then it doesn’t go in. A good 95% of what you discover and learn through your research should never find its way to the pages of your novel, only the 5% that oils its narrative wheels.

Good research improves your writing.

I promise you it will. Good and thorough research establishes a solid and strong knowledge framework which gives the author one of the most precious and influential gifts for good writing – confidence.

Research can be a turn-off for writing.

I think you have to have a genuine interest or enthusiasm for the time and place your novel is set. Writing a novel can take a long time and you have to be prepared to maintain your writing verve throughout. Research can reveal that your chosen period is not as interesting as it once seemed, or that it is a saturated period market for novels or your story can find no foothold in its time. If you don’t maintain your interest in the history then the energy and buzz of your writing will soon pale. Research is about proving you have chosen the right history as much as supporting its fictionalised story.

So what research did I do for The Open Arms of the Sea?

A lifetime love of watching war films certainly helped. It has certainly been the constant backcloth of knowledge against which everything else has been added. A literature degree at university gave the fiction cells a stir that churn still and an interest in modern history was always there too. Practically, of course, there were the usual research routes. Wikipedia and Google for basics but always treated warily, library, newspapers/journals of the time and novels set in the chosen period are all standard research fare. My genre and chosen period of 1965 in Aden offered up a few more research avenues such as Regimental reports, soldiers' diaries and memoirs. One area that provided really great help was photographs of the period and place – no better way to get an instant feel for a wide range of cultural minutiae – dress, vehicles, foods, street scenes etc.

What should I have researched that I didn’t?

My own friend and colleague network. It was a great Doh! moment when following the publication of The Open Arms of the Sea I discovered that two people in the same village as me actually served in Aden, albeit in the late sixties and a work colleague also served on the Aden Defence Ministry desk during the crisis. The lesson learned is to check out one’s networks for any possible insights. Because I was writing alone I kept my project secret. More fool me. I have also learned that my network contacts also include a university lecturer specialising in the Stuarts, another who has written learned texts on Medieval Britain and an ex-headmistress who was taken from Alderney by the Germans as a teenager and imprisoned in Germany for the duration. History is everywhere if you look for it. Even old history.

And next?

I’m working on a story set in the SOE and France during the Second World War. Interesting times and people. Deceit, deception, courage, action and some romance thrown in. A secret world. Research, as always, a challenge.

By Jasper Dorgan


  1. Well said, Jasper. Having just finished a novel with a historical thread, I understand every point here. Have to say I do love the research element though, find it fascinating, and have enjoyed spending time with Druids and Romans over the past few months. But I agree that write what you know gets very boring, very quickly!

  2. Jaspar, your blog posts are so well-written and so thought-provoking. More please!

  3. Read with interest - thanks for sharing