The undeniable value of “being there”

Historical research is tricky. For a start, no matter how much you try to research place, language, food, clothing, money and surroundings, you will never actually be there. You can’t go back 100 or 300 or 1000 years to know what it was really like. Even the best historians are making educated guesses. But as a historical writer, you know that details are important, and they are what brings your story alive for your readers. Yes, characters and plot are important, but the social restrictions and rules of the time can impact your plot more than your characters can – just look at Jane Austen writing about her own time and how little women were allowed to say and do.

So what is the solution? Firstly (obviously), you have to immerse yourself in the era. I have two strong ideas for new historical novels and I know the research for each, if done properly, will take a couple of years. But if you can actually go to the place, no matter how changed it might be, you could well gain enough to add that extra “real life” detail to your story.

As an example, my current novel is set in 1665, and part of it takes place in a certain forest in England. I have spent countless hours on the internet, downloading photos, maps, and huge amounts of information. But until I actually went there last month, I truly had no idea (I realised) about the varying landscape, the plants and how they grew, the insects, birds and animals, and simply what the experience would be for my characters walking from Point A to Point B. Now I really feel I can revise this novel one more time and give it what it needs.

But I also know this is often not possible. What is my fallback? One option is to read historical novels by other writers so I can see how they did it (as an example, not for plagiarising). Another option is travel diaries and photos that people post on the net and on YouTube – often very informal and real. I would also seek out lesser known books, such as self published local histories and videos, as well as the visitor information centres and what they offer.

Letters by people who lived in the area in the time you are researching are a bonus – people wrote far more letters than we do today. So are diaries, and novels written at the time (post 1750 perhaps). Novelists in earlier times wrote far more description than we do today.

You may have other suggestions that you have found useful. If so, please do post in the comments!

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