Thursday, March 24, 2011


I spent last weekend helping my dh to wallpaper a room. It was really fiddly because we had to match up a swirly pattern of birds and leaves, and a few times we messed up (ok, mostly it was me, but still ...). The whole process made me think about the backgrounds in our novels though and how they can sometimes be just as difficult to get right. Like Susanna said a while back, we might require maps in order to imagine where the characters are exactly and if we can’t find real ones, we have to make them up and draw them ourselves. Also photos of places help, or actual visits to see what it’s like there, and lots of factual reading to make sure everything is correct. Often, I make up family trees for my fictional families as well so that I’ll remember who is who and I spend hours trying to imagine what they’re wearing. It’s all in the background, but important.

For my current wip, I had to do quite a lot of background research, some of which was very boring (dry tomes full of facts I didn’t actually need), but other parts were great fun. The story is set in 1750’s Scotland, so that justified a visit to the Highlands to tour the areas where I’d decided my story took place. And I got to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes, going around ancient castles, since they might serve as models for the one in my novel. What could be better?

I also spent an afternoon at a Highland folk museum where they had built up houses original to the period I was writing about. Seeing these firsthand was invaluable and made me adjust several scenes in my novel which hopefully made them more authentic. Without going there, I might not have realised just how much you reek after just a few minutes of sitting by a real peat fire in a smoky hut or the fact that the doors were so low even I had to bend down to enter (at 5’3” that doesn’t happen much!). And if I’d never seen a real “shieling” hut, I wouldn’t have had known how uncomfortable it must have been for a six-foot-plus male to try and sleep in there.

I’m quite an impatient person and normally I don’t enjoy research much, I just want to get on with the story. I feel as if descriptions of any kind hold me back and prevent me from moving on to the interesting parts, like character interaction, romance and adventure, but I know they’re necessary. So I’ve reached a compromise with myself – I do a little bit of general research first (since I write historicals, I have to know about the main events of the period obviously), then I write a draft version of the story with very sketchy descriptions and after that I finally do the research and go back and complete the background details. This stops me from being jolted out of the flow, which can be so distracting. It also allows me to be more specific in the kind of background research I do, because by the time I’ve written the novel in draft, I’ll know exactly what I need to find out.

This might sound like a chaotic way of working, but somehow, it all comes together in the end. How do you do it? Do you do all your research first or are you impatient like me, leaving most of it till the end?

Please come back on Sunday to hear from Liz.


  1. Great post! I love hearing how you come to writing your novels. Especially as I have just finished The Scarlet Kimono...

    Research, Hmmmm. Well, I am only on my first novel so I can only go by how I have worked with this one. But, I pretty much wrote the book out, and then went back for the research in my later drafts, pretty much the same as you. I see what you mean, I think if I did it as I went along, I would lose the story and not be able to fully be 'in' it enough to actually get the novel written from start to end. So I think going back afterwards, to fill in the gaps, as it were, is the most productive way of doing it. For me, anyway!

  2. Christina, I'd have loved to tag along on that Scotland research trip. I've never been, but have wanted to go there since I can recall.

    I write historicals too. My current one is set in 1787 in western NC (present eastern TN), during a particularly tumultuous time. I did as much research as I needed to in order to create a detailed plot outline, while I was finishing up the last novel. But the finer research goes on all the while I'm writing, since I write rather slow. This is my third late 18th century novel, so I know the very general stuff of the period. I have about four more books I need to get through during this first draft writing process, which I expect to last the rest of the year. The research should be done by the time the first draft is written, but I'll keep at it if I stumble upon more good sources. Just got a packet in the mail from a researcher back in NC, in the county where my story begins, whom I met on line, and can't wait to dive into it. Even so, I've already written all the scenes in that particular location, using my best judgment and what sources I'd already found, as to what the town would have looked like. I'm eager to see how close I came to the reality, but it shouldn't be a problem to tweak the details. Let's hope, anyway!

  3. I have great admiration for authors who write historical fiction! I can't imagine all the research that is necessary, whether you do it before, after, or during. I discover my plots as I go along, which means I'd have to have a good working knowledge of the period in advance. Perhaps that's why I write contemporary fantasy!

    Very occasionally I'll decide I need to know something, and I interrupt my writing to look it up on Google (or wherever). The research rarely takes very long, though, so I don't usually lose the flow in doing that.

  4. Thanks everyone, great to hear how others work!
    Lucie - glad the same method works for you, I just sort of fell into doing it this way. I really hate being interrupted in the middle of a story.
    Lori - love the sound of that research packet, you never know what you're going to find! I do genealogy as well, so love finding snippets of interesting information about certain places/eras.
    Seabrooke - maybe I should try contemporary or fantasy, sounds much more relaxing :) Although I'm sure it's just as difficult but in different ways.