Don’t get lost in the archives: a bit of advice for historical fiction writers

The second in our series of NaNoWriMo posts comes to us from Alison Rattle, whose historical novel THE QUIETNESS comes out in March.

You could be forgiven for thinking, that having written THE QUIETNESS, my first historical novel for young adults, and being in the throes of writing another, that I’m a bit of a history swot. That I have some qualifications in the subject: A degree perhaps? An O-level at the very least? Well, no actually, I have neither. In fact at school, I was a total dunce at history. I failed miserably. Poor old ‘Happy Hutch,’ my unsmiling, dry as dust history teacher, couldn’t interest me at all in his boring renditions of the causes of WW2, who signed what, when and dates, dates, dates…blah…blah…blah. (Sorry Mr Hutchinson!)

I didn’t want to know about all of that boring stuff; it didn’t fire me up. I was interested in social history; ordinary people and their ordinary lives. I wanted to know about all the juicy stuff. What did people use for toilet paper before it was invented? What underwear did they wear? What did they eat and drink? What did the streets of eighteenth-century London smell like? Unfortunately I didn’t get to learn about any of that at school. I loved to visit museums though, and old buildings. I loved to touch old walls and imagine the lives of people that passed through doorways and whose footsteps trod ancient staircases. I read historical novels and now I fill my home with odd relics from the past.

But I’m definitely not an historian. I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, it wasn’t something I deliberately chose to do. It just so happened that the story that spoke to me, the story I needed to write, took place in 1870’s London. And what an amazing experience it was to research this wonderful period of history. Victorian England is so evocative and surprisingly easy to access. As a writer I’m only too aware that the setting of any story, and the characters that inhabit that setting, whether it is in the past, future, present or indeed an imaginary world, has to be real, solid and believable. I had to make my readers hear, taste and smell Victorian London.

Newspaper archives are glorious places to begin the process of research. I spent many hours trawling through yellowing newsprint at the British Newspaper Archives in Colindale, before most of their vast collection was transferred online.  I was lucky enough to be able to handle original newspapers, the pages of which crackled and flaked at the edges as I turned them as gently as I could. You can glean all sorts of fascinating details from a period newspaper. From the language and expressions of the day to the products and services advertised; essential details that can add colour, life and weight to your story. The National Archives at Kew houses a wealth of documents that can shed light on a particular event or subject (in my case baby farming) that you are researching. It is an utter thrill to open a packet of documents that you know hasn’t been handled for decades to have it reveal its hidden secrets.

“Recipe for Avoiding Family Quarrels”, from the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Saturday 28 February 1891. One of the treasures from the British Newspaper Archives.

Maps and photographs are a great source of information and inspiration. They can act as an anchor, drawing you back to the world you’re creating if you ever find yourself drifting away. I kept images of street people, photographed by the Scottish Victorian photographer John Thomson, taped to my notebook. Thomson documented the life of the poor in the 1870s in his work, Street Life of London. These images are very moving and incredibly powerful. I only had to glance at them to be transported back to the dirty, grimy streets that my character inhabited.

Street Doctor, from ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

 London Labour and the London Poor is an invaluable document, written by Victorian journalist, Henry Mayhew. In it, Mayhew interviewed thousands of the London poor, describing in incredible detail their working habits, domestic arrangements and their lives in general. It is available to read online and is a gift to any writer researching Victorian London.

Jack Black, her majesty’s ratcatcher, 1851

The research process can be extremely addictive, but much of what you learn will never appear in your book. Too much historical detail will swamp your story and drown your characters and plot.

It is the tiniest detail that can bring historical fiction to life, not great swathes of historical fact.

5 responses to “Don’t get lost in the archives: a bit of advice for historical fiction writers

  1. Great post Alison – couldn’t agree more – we call it “War and Peace” syndrome in our house, where too much historical fact drowns the story. (Actually it happens in thrillers too, where you know the writer’s spent days finding out about the Wine making industry and they’ve just got to tell you all about it.)

  2. Ha! Such a temptation though, isn’t it? Found myself researching how glass was made in 1850’s, just cos I have a character look out of a window.
    Ugh…

  3. A fascinating post, and one we’ve discussed in the flesh, I think. Dickens himself was influenced by Mayhew’s writings, so imagine what power these first hand accounts have to us 150+ years later! Like you, I’ve written historical fiction, not out of a great need to reveal historical facts, but because the 1880s is where my story occurs. Any kind of writing is escapism, any kind of character a creation, regardless of the era. If my novel ‘ Frost Hollow Hall’ had been set in the 21st century, I’d probably have do research for that too!

  4. I’m looking forward to the book…:)

  5. Pingback: A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein | Writing Teen Novels

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