05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Researching the Victorians

I’ll take any excuse to buy more books, and nowadays research is my main book buying motivator. By grabbing every promising book on 19th century history that I come across in used bookstores or charity shops, I've assembled a useful little library of books on British and American history over the years. Though I've recently become more reliant on the ease and speed of internet research, I still love the ability to reach for a book and thumb through an index to find the answer I’m looking for.
Three of my favorite basic Victorian era research books are Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Judith Flanders’ Inside the Victorian Home, and Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace’s To Marry an English Lord. For anyone wanting to get a feel for the era, these books are highly readable, well-illustrated, and full of useful information.

When I started writing my Whitechapel Wagers historical romance series, I already had a good basic grasp of the late 19th century time period, but I made sure to collect all the research books I had about Victorian era London and the Jack the Ripper investigation specifically. I love having research materials nearby when plotting and drafting. I also conducted plenty of internet searches on specific topics related to my stories, such as nursing, charity institutions, and the Metropolitan Police force during the period.

I find maps to be particularly useful and grounding when I’m writing, and luckily many historical maps are available online. I did create some fictional street names in my stories, but I also used real street names, and I had to know in my mind where they were and the distances that my characters would travel to get from one location to another. A map of 1888 Whitechapel still hangs on the wall next to my desk.

Travel itself became another research rabbit trail. As I was writing, I realized I didn't know enough about hansom cabs, which were the Victorian version of our modern yellow taxi cabs. My characters use them throughout my stories to travel from one part of London to another, and I needed to know the various parts of the cab, how one entered, communicated with the carriage’s driver, etc. 
One of the great dangers of research is the possibility of getting lost in it. A history book usually isn't a light read, and you can get drawn into chewing over facts and following rabbit trails—one book or fact leading you onto the next. All that time spent researching tidbits for your novel can sometimes hold you back from the writing itself. While the past is a pleasant place to get stuck, when research slows down your writing time, it can become problematic.

To stop myself from getting sucked in, I now go ahead and draft my story and make a note of anything I want to research during revisions. In the past I've used file folders, index cards, and Word files to collect research notes. Now I rely on Google Docs, Simplenote, or Evernote to quickly capture research information online. But the hands-down most useful writing and research aid I've found in recent years is Scrivener. Because of its binder-style structure, I can maintain folders with notes, images, and snippets of research that are visible and easily accessible in the sidebar of the same window where I’m composing my draft.

As a visual person, being able to grab images of clothing, maps, cityscapes, and art to inspire and inform my writing is essential. I've found Pinterest to be a boon in this respect. Not only can a search provide me with useful images, but I've created my own Pinterest boards for each of my books. It’s like an online scrapbook that I can refer to during the draft process and then share with my readers once my book is finished. I've now linked to each of my books’ Pinterest boards from each book’s page on my website.
I love to share research tidbits and learn from other writers. I may not have an answer to a question about 19th century London, but I will likely have an idea of where to look.
If you do research, do you have any tips and tricks you recommend?

Learn more about Christy Carlyle here.


Judith Ashley said...

I don't often have to do any research but when I do, I just ask someone I think knows the answer - if they don't they usually know someone who does. I've used the phone book (yep, the paper one) to find people. Online research? So far with 5 full length novels completed, I've only looked online once.

But then I write contemporary romantic fiction that honors spiritual traditions that nourish the soul so there isn't a lot I would need to research.

I do admire you and other historical authors because you do the research and your stories are authentic and can be relied upon to show the reader what life and customs were like then.

Diana McCollum said...

For the novella I'm currently working on, I've done quite a bit of research online. I've used State web sites for flora and fauna, NOAA for weather, and State fishing sites. My heroine was growing coral to be placed in the Atlantic ocean off MA coast. Well, coral doesn't grow there. So I had to change that part of the story. I check a lot of facts with the internet. Great post.

Sarah Raplee said...

Interesting post, Christy! One thing I do in researching contemporary stories (when I don't know a person to ask) is to visit work settings that figure prominently in my stories.

For example, in one manuscript three important secondary characters work in an Indie bookstore/coffee shop. Several scenes take place there where they interact with the hero and heroine. I got permission from a coffee shop manager to hang out and ask questions of the staff in order to understand how things would be done and any jargon (handwashing sink, rosette) they would use on the job.

It was fun!

Maggie Lynch said...

I also admire historical authors because there is soooooo much research to do unless you are a scholar in the time period already.

I do research for my contemporary work even when I write about places I know (e.g., Portland and surrounds)because, like you, I want a map at my fingertips and I have to put any made-up places on that map.

I also research occupations. In Expendable, my hero has to repel down a cliff and a helicopter rescue is one to save the heroine. Though my hero would know how to do all this (being former Marine and with special forces), I didn't know exactly how to do it. So...research.

When I first conceived my YA fantasy series I did a lot of research about myths as they related to specific areas of the world. I was fairly well-based in Celtic myth, but each of my books takes place in a different forest around the world and I wanted to reflect the myths of that region. So, fun research.

You are right about getting pulled down the rabbit hole. I can EASILY use research as an excuse not to write.

Christy Carlyle said...

Thanks, Judith, Diana, Sarah, and Maggie, for your comments! It's so interesting to hear the various ways you use research (or don't really need to) in order to write your stories.

Even if it doesn't all go in my book, and it usually doesn't, I think research is a great way to ground me in my story.

For my second book in a new series for Avon Impulse, I've actually started a journal of images, snippets of facts, etc. that inspired me for each chapter—some of it is research, some of it is character inspiration. As a visual person, it's been a real boon to my writing.

Thanks again!