Because I’ve been blathering on so much about my recent research trip, I’ve had quite a few people get in touch to ask how to go about their own research: where to start when researching a novel just seems so overwhelming. Here are my tips.
Daily Life in Another Era – Newspapers, Catalogues and Magazines
For those researching a historical novel, one of the big concerns is getting the detail of the era right. What underwear did people wear in the 1910s, how much did the average person earn in the 1920s, when were doorbells invented, what did people eat for breakfast in the 1930s?
Sometimes it pays to think outside the square. Newspapers, magazines and department store catalogues are often your best source of information for this type of detail. If your novel is set in Australia, you’re in luck. The amazing Trove database has almost every newspaper available for you to search. More than 21 million digital pages in total, some going as far back as the early 1800s.
Look at the newspaper advertisements. They will tell you what kind of products were in vogue at the time and how much they cost. The Situations Vacant pages will tell you about jobs and wages. The Housing section will tell you what people lived in and how much a home could be bought or rented for. Letters to the editor will tell you about the social concerns of the day. The entertainment pages will tell you about the dances and balls and parties and the things people did in their spare time.
Department store catalogues are often available as digitised copies through various library or university databases. They’re also available to purchase through lots of websites. They are a wonderful source of information for detail about clothing, as are the magazines from the era, which can be accessed digitally. I used the New Yorker’s excellent archive extensively when I was researching A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald. Let’s face it, no writer wants to have a man unzipping his trousers when actually he should be unbuttoning them because it was the era before zippers were widely used!
Think about when and where your book is set, look into which newspapers and magazines were published there at the time, and what department stores existed. Then, search the net to see if any of them have been digitised and are available for access.
Daily Life in Another Era – Books
There are also lots of books around that list this kind of information. I always start with Amazon – not because I want to buy the book there but because it’s a great search engine. Just type in “daily life in the 1920s” and see what comes up. I found one of the books I used extensively for Her Mother’s Secret by doing this. Don’t forget to also look at the information Amazon gives you under each title: what others who purchased this book also purchased, and related titles. You can often find a couple of other books this way.
I always make a note of the title and then do my best to buy it from an Australian bookstore. It’s often not possible to do this via a physical bookstore as the titles are often obscure, but Booktopia will sometimes have them. I also prefer to use AbeBooks over Amazon; often the second hand stores AbeBooks lists are Australian stores and many of the research books I buy are second hand library copies as the book is usually out of print.
Researching the Themes of Your Book
To research the different thematic areas of your book, first, make a list of all the different topics. For The Paris Seamstress, I needed information on fashion in the 1930s and 1940s; Parisian ateliers; the evacuation of people out of Paris in 1940; daily life in Paris under the Germans in WWII; MI9, a British Secret Service Agency; the New York ready to wear industry in the 1940s; the Marais area in Paris; and Tiffany jewellery design, amongst other things.
Once you know your topic, take to Amazon again to search. For instance, I typed “fashion in New York 1940s” into Amazon and a whole list of books came up. I checked out the information on each one to see how relevant it was, plus the “related” and “what others purchased” suggestions. Then I made a shortlist and purchased (from Australian booksellers) the books that seemed to best fit my purpose.
Always Read the Bibliography
Sometimes you buy a dud, a book that isn’t what you thought it would be. That’s okay. Toss it. But mostly, the books I buy are just right. I usually only start with buying one or two though, rather than a whole pile. Why?
Well, that’s because, in reading one or two, I can start to narrow my research focus down. What has this book told me and what do I still need to know? Where did this author do their research? ALWAYS read the bibliography; usually, the most relevant books I buy and the best finds come from something that’s mentioned in the bibliography of another book. It’s very unusual if I don’t come away with at least one suggestion from the bibliography, and so my research list grows from there.
If you’re serious about this research business, then start collecting books. I’ve now researched 4 historical novels so I have quite a collection of information about different eras and most especially things like the fashion from different eras. I don’t need to research that kind of thing any more; I just turn to the collection of books I’ve begun to build on my shelves.
Every time I go to a bookshop, I search through the non-fiction section for anything that might be relevant now or in the future. I recently picked up a book called Art Deco: 1910-1939 because that covers the period I often write about. It has lots of great pics of household items, which will come in handy when creating homes for my characters.
In short, be a research nerd like me! Always be on the lookout for anything that might be relevant. And, with each book you write, the more your research skills will improve, until you’ll wonder why you ever thought researching a novel was hard.