Researching your novel – and knowing when to stop!

Woman at the library, she is searching books on the bookshelf and picking a textbook, hand close up

Researching your historical novel is fascinating but it’s all too easy to get lost in your chosen historical period so that you never actually begin to write the story. This doesn’t matter if your hobby is finding out about history but, if you’re working to a publisher’s deadline, you will have to discipline yourself to know when to stop.

How do you stop yourself from looking everything up when you write?

As I write, I do stop frequently to look something up because not knowing a fact can hamper the flow of my writing. If it’s a minor detail that doesn’t prevent me ‘seeing’ the setting and story, I wait until I have several small queries. This might be something like, when matches were invented or was a flint or a spill from the fire used to light a candle? In this case I add something like this to the manuscript to flag up the location of the missing fact.


Highlighting it makes it easy to find at the end of the day when you have run out of creative words and you can usefully spend time filling in research details.

Some writers use this technique to bash out the first draft in three or four months and then go back and fill in all the missing pieces of the puzzle at the end. This definitely doesn’t work for me. I’m a very visual person and I need to ‘see’ what I’m writing almost as if it were on a TV screen.

My general advice would be to write in the morning while you are fresh and buzzing with ideas. When I begin to slow down and feel I’m losing that burst of creativity, I turn to a different task so that I’m still doing something useful towards the novel – in this case, researching.

Another technique I employ if I’m uninspired is to set the kitchen timer for, say, 45 minutes and only allow myself to research for that time before going back to the writing.

What is your research process and where do you find the information?

Document your research. I cannot stress enough how important this is. It saves you wasting time some months later trying to remember where you found a fascinating fact. I make provision for this process in the following ways before I begin my research.

 Notebooks Keep handwritten notes all in one notebook – a fresh one for each novel.

 Set up electronic and hard copy files and record anything you might want to find again later. Note links to useful websites

 Keep separate electronic folders for different aspects of your research. I have folders for subjects such as Important Historical Events, Transport, Political Climate, Fashion, Housing and Architecture, Recent Inventions, Attitude to Women, Medical Knowledge, Education, etc

 Book list. Keep a list of useful books to refer to. You may want to use this as a bibliography at the end of your novel.

Once I’ve set up my folders I immerse myself in my chosen time period, also finding out as much information as I can about any particular aspects of the story such as smuggling, law and order, political events.

When starting a new novel, look for an ‘Aha!’ moment. For example, I discovered Princess (later Queen) Anne escaped after her father imprisoned her during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with Lady Sarah Churchill and an unknown servant. This servant became the heroine of my novel The Painter’s Apprentice, allowing me to link the historical facts to my fictional heroine.

Internet. Start by trawling the internet for a general overview of the period but never forget that anything you read on the internet may not be correct. Always double-check historical facts!

Libraries Once you have your internet overview, home in on subjects you need to find out more about. Spend time in libraries homing in on your subject and check the catalogue because a library may be able to reserve or even buy a particular book for you.

Bookshops If you can’t find the books you need in libraries you may find it in a bookshop.

Amazon Searching for out-of-print and second hand books can lead to finding some gems. Hardbacks are easier than electronic books for research purposes because you can mark them in pencil or add Post-it notes.

 Locations If possible, visit the locations you will be writing about. Historical sites such as castles are particularly rich in information. Note the sounds and smells (eg of a river or the sea) wind direction, the lie of the land (hills, local stone or building materials used for dwellings) If it’s not possible to visit a place, search the internet for photos and read travel blogs written by people who live there. If you’d like to read an earlier post about settings for your novel click here

Museums and art galleries Artefacts and paintings of the day, can be a joy in helping you understand how people lived in your chosen period. Study details of clothing. (How long would it take your heroine to dress in all those clothes? What was the current style of corset and did it affect how she walked and sat down? Did she need a lady’s maid to get dressed? How did she keep warm in winter in such a low-necked gown? Note how small some of the costumes are, indicating that people were often smaller in stature in the past)

Maps. Sometimes you can buy antique maps, especially of towns, on a CD. These are worth studying to see how street names might indicate the businesses located there, eg, Market Street or Sheepdrove. You can identify a particular house your character might have lived in and work out how long it might take them to walk from their home to their place of work and what they might see on their way, eg, the Thames, the Tower of London, a tannery, cattle being herded to market. Discover how fast a horse and carriage could travel at that time and how long it would take to travel from, say, Bath to London.

Old Newspapers and cinefilms These can be a mine of information, not only about historical events, but as an insight into what was important to people at that time. And don’t forget to look at the advertisements!

‘How do you know it’s time to stop researching?’

When to stop will be different for everyone. I begin writing a novel at the sweet point where I have a firm grasp of the time period and can clearly imagine the historical world my characters will live in. I need to know the main settings well enough that I can imagine myself, for example, walking through my heroine’s home and ‘know’ where she keeps the teaspoons!

I think about what the house she lives in smells like (woodsmoke, lavender, wet dogs?), the clothes she wears, the servant structure, if any. What can she see from the window, what time of year is it and what noises might she hear from outside? And, of course, I will already have written a character sketch – not only about the main character’s physical description, but what motivates her and what character flaws work against her achieving what she wants in life.

It’s very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of research but, if you aren’t working to a deadline, it’s a fascinating pastime. And who knows, you might discover something amazing that inspires yet another novel!

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