17 Jun 2015


'The moving story of a young girls emergence into adulthood at the end of the Victorian era. I was particularly impressed by the authors ability to get inside the thoughts and feelings of a deaf-blind girl who, her temper fuelled by frustration, finds herself increasingly isolated until her world is opened up thanks largely to the friendship and tutorship of a young hop picker.'

- A big fan of Rebecca Mascull's The Visitors today I'm honoured and delighted to welcome Rebecca to Pen and Paper to talk about research in Song Of The Sea Maid on the eve of the publication of her second book.

When you sit down and read an historical fiction, with any luck you get swept away in the story and lose yourself in the fictional world. But just like the familiar image of a swan gliding on the water, there is likely to have been all sorts of work going on under the surface. My second novel, SONG OF THE SEA MAID, is set in the mid-C18th and I researched for a good year or more before I even thought about writing the first sentence. Every writer is different, and not all novelists do it that way, but it works for me. It's not only the planning and thought that goes into creating new characters, plots and settings, but with an historical novel, of course, there will be historical fiction to be done. To render an historical period convincingly, a novelist needs to know the obvious, everyday things like the food people ate and the clothes they wore, to the more obscure corners of the narrative such as how one would light a lamp in a cave in 1755.

So, how do we go about it, this historical research business? Here's your handy 5-step guide to how to research an historical novel:

[1] Read some books.
  • Books written about the period
  • Books written during the period
The Adventures of Roderick RandomA simple Google search will reveal a plethora of books about your period. Your challenge is to narrow them down to those that will be must useful to you (as well as those you can afford!) Visit libraries too, of course, to borrow books. and don't forget to read the writing that was produced in the very time you're researching. For SONG OF THE MAID, I read novels by Samuel Richardson and Tobias Smollett and non-fiction by Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, to name but a few. It gives you the contemporary writing style, yet also affords an insight into the prevailing opinions of the day.

[2] Visit some places.  

There's nothing like walking into a house or garden built or created in your chosen historical period to suffuse you in the atmosphere of that lost world. For SONG OF THE SEA MAID, I visited Fairfax House in York, an C18th town house, and learnt a lot about period d├ęcor, furniture and even toilet arrangements! I also based the kitchen in which Mrs Applebee cooks Dawnay's first proper hot meal on the kitchen at Fairfax. I looked at C18th menus in that kitchen and used them to find out what people Mr Wood's class would have been eating at that time. 

I also visited Dr. Johnson's house in London, another C18th museum, and learnt about wood panelling in the front room, the noise of traffic outside, the books on the shelf and the square spiral staircase leading up to the attic. 

All these details brought the era to life for me in a way no book about the C18th could do in quite the same way.

[3] Go to specialist libraries and read old documents.

I visited the Caird Library at the Greenwich Maritime Museum to look at and handle original C18th documents about a sea battle near Menorca. Seeing that yellowed paper of letters, diaries, books and maps is a precious experience, to touch and hold something an C18th person has touched and held in their time, as well as getting the information from the horses's mouth.

[4] Make a picture wall.

Once you have all your material, you can start blue-tacking stuff up on your wall, so that every time you walk into your study or work area, you can stare at the images of dresses and streets and ships, and walk into that period before you sit down to write.

See some of my C18th picture wall here:

[5] Build a time machine.

Oh, if only!


Rebecca Mascull's second novel SONG OF THE SEA MAID is published June 18th, Hodder & Stoughton.

You can pre-order here 

in hardback:

or e-book:

- Rebecca Mascull, June 2015.

My thanks to Rebecca for what I'm sure you'll all agree is a fascinating and insightful post.


Gina said...

Certainly sounds well researched but also to have been enjoyed by the author. That's for the share!

brandileigh2003 said...

Ah yes, the time machine

Kelly said...

What an interesting and informative post! Historical Fiction has been one of my favorite genres since I was a teen (and that's many, many years) and, while I knew it involved much research, I enjoyed learning just how much goes into getting all the "little things" correct.

Thanks to both Tracy and the author for sharing this with us.

Brian Joseph said...

This is such an interesting and enlightening primer on historical research for fiction.

Visiting the specialist libraries as well as visiting places relevant places sounds the most intriguing.

I love the comparison to the swan comparison.

Sherry Ellis said...

These are all good tips. Yes - a time machine would be most helpful!

Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer said...

The research sounds like fun. Thanks for sharing

Literary Feline said...

I think the part of being an author I would like the most is the research. Especially if it involves history. This was a great post. Thank you for sharing!