One of the most common questions I get asked at author talks is about the research I do for my books. It always gives me quite a thrill when readers and reviewers praise the research in my books; it’s so important to me that the characters and the story and setting and the feel of the book all give the reader a sense of being in the right time and place. So, this week, I thought I’d talk about the less glamorous but equally important side of novel research, the desk-bound as opposed to the Parisian research trips!
Making a Start
I’ve discovered that all I need is one book to get started with. A book that is to do with the topic I’m writing about. For The Paris Seamstress, this might have been a book about fashion in the 1940s, for instance. When I’ve finished the book, I always read the bibliography carefully as this will usually give me the names of a couple of other books or articles to look at.
Many of the books I buy are secondhand as they’re actually books from the time period. I prefer hard copy, as opposed to ebook, although ebook is great for the searchability of the text if you’re trying to locate a piece of information later on.
When I begin reading the first book, I take notes on anything that seems as if it might be important. I always note the page number as I will usually have to go back and reread that section of the book when I’m writing about it in my novel. The more books I read, the more I know what exactly I’m looking for and the more refined my note taking becomes.
After reading a couple of research books, I begin to divide my notebook up into topic areas. Within the subject I’m researching, there are always subtopics. For The Paris Seamstress, for example, my research on 1940s fashion was divided up into the subtopics of: Fashion Design Practices, Clothing Manufacture, Fashion Retailing and Marketing, Fashion Press and Magazines, Dresses I Like, Fashion Shows, plus a few others.
I need to read at least a couple of research books first because otherwise I don’t know what my subtopics are. Once I do know, then I take notes for each book in a different colour pen and I write the notes into the appropriate subtopic section in my notebook. At the beginning of the notebook, I have a legend which tells me which colour pen is for which book.
This makes the process of going back and finding the information later, when I’m writing, much easier. When I was writing a scene about Estella’s first fashion showing, for instance, I knew I’d taken notes about what was the ideal number of samples to be shown at that time. All I had to do was flick to the Fashion Shows section of my notebook, scan over my notes, find the note, then the colour I’d written it in would tell me which book I’d taken it from if I wanted to go back to the book to find out more.
I usually do at least some archival research. For the book I’m writing now, I visited the National Archives in Kew, England last year to look up a range of things.
My phone is my best friend in an archive, I don’t have time to take notes about everything and I want to be able to refer to the information later. So I snap a picture of any and every page in an archive folder that looks like it might be relevant.
It means I come away with thousands of photos. When I get home, I print them out and bind them up and then I sit down and read them just like a book. And I take my notes then, using the same process as above.
What I’ve Learned
It’s so important to have a process when it comes to novel research. It’s so important to write down page numbers. There is nothing worse than knowing you’ve read something somewhere and not being able to remember which book, let alone where in the book the information was.
Write everything down. Keep records. When you’re in the midst of a copyedit and the copyeditor queries the historical accuracy of something, you want to be able to quickly locate just what you need to verify the information.