I have written books set in Kent during the time of Charles II and Oliver Cromwell (The Gypsy Crown); set in Scotland during the tumultuous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (The Puzzle Ring); in Renaissance Venice and Versailles in the time of the Sun King (Bitter Greens); in Germany during the Napoleonic wars (The Wild Girl); and in Berlin in the time of the Third Reich (The Beast’s Garden).
With each novel, I have had to totally immerse myself in the place and the time, being careful to remember when spinning wheels were invented; when windows began to have glass in them instead of a flap of ox-skin; whether one drank out of pewter mugs or crystal glass; who wore underwear and who did not; and what use they had for the contents of their chamber-pots.
Bitter Greens was particularly tricky, as it moves between two timeframes and two distinctly different worlds (Venice in the time of plagues and witch-hunts, Versailles in the time of high-heeled ballet and wigs).
All my books were research-intensive. In some cases, I spent years doing the reading I needed. I think research is one aspect of writing a novel that should never be skimped. Gustave Flaubert once wrote that ‘God is in the details’. What he meant is that it is in the small details that a world is brought to vivid life … and getting these small details wrong can break the spell of enchantment a story casts over its readers.
A writer must know intimately the world in which our characters move. We must understand how they think, how they feel, what they wear and eat and drink, what gods they cry out to in their despair and how they cast wishes. We have to make the invented world of our story feel so real that our readers believe in its possibility. The only way to do that is to be deeply steeped in the time and place in which our story is set.
Yet writers can sometimes struggle with the burden of research. They don’t know what they need to know, they don’t know how to find it, and they don’t know how much they should do. I get asked the same questions again and again, and over time I have developed my Top Tips For Effective Research:
Researching can be one of the most difficult, time-consuming and exhausting aspects of being a historical novelist, or it can be one of the most enjoyable. For me, it is always the latter. I love researching. It’s reading with a purpose. It’s a journey of discovery in which you find all sorts of hilarious and heart-rending things that will help make your novel an extraordinary reading experience.