Friday, 11 May 2012

Getting Historical Fiction Right


I have no formal training as a historian although I have a great love of history – social history in particularly.  To write a historical novel, a great deal of research must be done, of course, and some weeks ago, while I was researching the Victorian period for my next book, it crossed my mind that there might be better ways of searching for precious details of life in 1850.  Wasn’t I just rummaging as one rummages through boxes in an attic?  Surely real historians managed to research in a more organised way?  This fact here.  That one there.  Filing.  Collating.


Quite by chance, I heard about a one day course at the University of London called How to Get the History Right in Your Historical Fiction – a Workshop for Authors.  What a treat.  And as luck would have it, the date of the course fitted right in the middle of a promotional tour in London for my latest book Road to London .  The timing was perfect.
Senate House

Senate House was the venue - a rather magnificent white building around the corner from the British Museum.  Inside, it suffered from the Rabbit Warren Syndrome but, luckily, the course tutor had stuck arrows on the walls at crucial points and we soon found our way to a small lecture room on the third floor where twenty writers were to spend the rest of the day.

 
Simon and willing writers
The morning session was taken by the course organiser, Simon Trafford, an academic who made us all feel welcome and took us through the essential tools and techniques of researching.  He talked about access to resources on paper through University Libraries where access and borrowing rights can be expensive.  However, we all pricked up our ears when he explained how access could be made by taking up much cheaper membership of scholarly societies.
Online access to resources is a great time-saver for authors – particularly those who live outside of London. The majority of local libraries offer free access to the Oxford Reference Collection Online at home to all ticket-holders and free access to many scholarly resources is available through library membership.
Historians traditionally prefer to view original written primary sources but with the rise of digital storage, surrogates have come into their own in printed editions, microfilm and electronic editions.  Projects such as Early English Books Online, Old Bailey Online or Historic Hansard Online make them infinitely more accessible.

1790 Parlour - one of the room settings in Geffrye Museum
Our afternoon session began with a fascinating lecture by Eleanor John, Head of Collections and Exhibitions at the Geffrye Museum of the Home where collections of furniture, objects and paintings are set in a series of period rooms from 1600 to the present day.    Eleanor explained how researching wills and inventories of household contents can give a vivid impression of how people lived in a certain period in history.  Unfortunately, small, everyday items with little monetary value were rarely recorded.   A visit to this museum is a must for any author writing about a domestic situation.


Elizabeth Chadwick, author of the The Time of Singing and many other novels, was our last speaker and showed us how she researched her historical novels set in the mediaeval period.  She recommended belonging to a re-enactment group where that’s possible and relevant.  She belongs to a mediaeval group, dresses up in costume and generally had a great deal of fun while learning a  good deal about the period.  She showed us an ‘authentic’ mediaeval cooking pot which she has used at home (by way of research) and found it to be not only non-stick but of such a good design that it is possible to lift it off the heat without getting your fingers burned – something you probably couldn’t find out from secondary sources!



Valuable chatting
The one day course was invaluable.  It demonstrated how to access many wonderful resources and provided an opportunity to meet with other writers and discuss the challenges of our profession.  We were all hoping to make researching more thorough in order to write historical fiction with a sense of authenticity.  
A splendid day!

14 comments:

JO said...

Thank you for this - I'm glad you had such a good day. I'm off to see if my local library can help with online links at home, and then work out when I can get to London to visit the museum.

Christine Donovan said...

Lee Jackson - author of London Dust & other detective novels - has a wonderful site http://www.victorianlondon.org/
Good luck. The hardest part I found was eliminating US imported expressions from my language. It was a nightmare.

Richie Brown said...

Thanks, this was an interesting article. I'm looking to create a series of stories set *somewhere* in Britain *around* 1820 and will remember some of the tips you've outlined.

mary hooper said...

Thanks, Barbara. I did a course here, too, but mine was about accessing information from all the little-known libraries throughout London. Terrifically interesting - and I now have a purse full of library cards ready to research the next book.

Book Maven said...

How wonderful! I wonder if they'll repeat the course?

Mark Burgess said...

Very interesting, Barbara, thank you. Another recent online resource (for those that haven't come across it already) is the British Newspaper Archive:
http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Although you have to pay for access, you can search for free.

Linda B-A said...

Sounds like an excellent day. We are so lucky to live in a time when so much material is so freely and easily available. Have just been looking at Early English Books Online and the newspaper archive Mark suggested, and both look fantastic resources. I've used the Old Bailey Online in the past and it was almost too good - everywhere you looked there was a new story to tell...Thanks for such a useful post.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Thanks to all for your informative comments. Your mention of the Victorian site is invaluable to me ad I write my next bookd - thanks, Christine. London University does plan more day courses, Mary. This was only the first of several that they hope to do.

Lydia Syson said...

What a great course, and a very inspiring account of it too. Fingers crossed that the 'Academic Spring' that has now started - aiming to liberate access to research through a boycott of pay-wall journals - will have a real and rapid impact. Meanwhile, the Wellcome library is a very useful resource for those outside London as membership gives access to a host of other electronic resources through its website.

Lydia Syson said...

Ps The Voice of the Shuttle is well worth checking out if you're working in the 19th century (as it were) - I can't seem to cut and paste the link though. Sorry.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Many thanks, Lydia. That site will be really useful to me.

Astrid Holm said...

Thanks for the great post barbara, it was a very useful day and I really enjoyed meeting with other historical writers and hearing about their enthusiasms and challenges. I could have listened to Elizabeth Chadwick talk about the medieval
period all day!

Jane Stemp said...

I can recommend this site which has the Victoria County Histories online, journals of the House of Lords and House of Commons, maps (both the early ordnance survey and other historic maps pre-1800) etc etc etc... http://www.british-history.ac.uk/

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sigh! One of these days something like this will be offered where I live. Must check out the Council for Adult Education web site. You never know. I envy writers who can travel for research, but failing that it would be great to know of some web sites such as those mentioned here. My local libraries and the State Library have some great connections, but not, I think, that one.

Loving this blog!