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Research – reality or virtuality?

Twelve years ago, when my editor, Rosemary Cheetham at Orion Books originally asked me to write a series set in the Second World War in London, I was delighted because I was actually living in London at the time. Plus I had countless museums, libraries and World War Two ‘attractions’ within easy access. The research would therefore be relatively easy, I thought. And relatively speaking it was. I had great days out at the Imperial War Museum (wading through French naval history books in search of ships moored up in Toulon harbour in Nov 1942), at the Florence Nightingale Museum (where I found a terrifying wartime matron on whom I based the character of the indomitable Sister Morris) and the Concert Artists and Actors Club in Soho where I met the wonderful Mary Moreland, who had sung and danced her way through the war.

Twelve years on and I am once again researching the Second World War, this time for the fourth novel in the Lavender Road series. This time things are completely different. I am not living in London but nor do I need to take lots of days out on research errands. This time (unlike twelve years ago) I have Google, Wikipedia and the internet. At the click of a mouse I have the whole wartime world and its dog at my fingertips.

It’s so much easier. Or is it?

As always, the problem with research is knowing what you need to know. The amount of information I found last time was daunting enough, this time it is overwhelming. One click leads to another and soon I am awash with detail, recollections, personal histories, eye witness accounts, reports, military lists, lists of battles, bomb sites, casualties, I could go on and on (and often do …!)

How can I possibly remember it all, let alone include it in my book?

The truth is I can’t. Nobody could (at least not if the resulting novel was going to be remotely readable).

The trick is not to worry about forgetting things. Just having known them briefly is often enough – enough to add a tone of authenticity. A tiny appropriate detail here or there adds so much more than reams of facts. Atmosphere, a sense of reality, of being there, is what historical novelists should be striving for. My method it to take an overview of the period, enough to let me find a really compelling story, and then I can focus in on the details I need. Which is why I am off to Italy tomorrow (at least that’s my excuse!) to find the one thing the internet can’t give me – a real sense of the place and the people.

It is important to get the details as correct as humanly possible but even the most meticulous and comprehensive research won’t make up for a lacklustre story or unbelievable characters.

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5 thoughts on “Research – reality or virtuality?

  1. lesley gillilan on said:

    Yes, this is great advice. I too am researching elements of the war for a novel partly set in the 1940s. I love the research (my latest trip had me crawling around in the belly of a Lancaster bomber on a museum airfield in north Lincolnshire), but I sometimes think it’s an excuse not to write. This morning I was trying to write a scene in which a post-war train creeps through Plymouth – a city which was almost flattened by bombs in (excuse me while I just check google) 1941. I thought, I’d see if flickr could offer any pictures of Plymouth, seen from a train, in 1948 (at approximately 7.20am). Three hours later … that scene is still not written!

  2. Reblogged this on DH Hanni.

  3. What a relief to read this! I’m knee-deep into research for my first novel and I’ve experienced the Pandora’s box effect on reading one nugget on information leading to more which leads to more until I’m just too overwhelmed and think I’ll never be done.

  4. I like this Helen. I’m doing research myself at present and know what you mean about being overwhelmed so it’s comforting to hear you say about just absorbing rather than trying to remember everything!

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