The joy of research
Half the fun of writing an historical novel is all the research you get to do. If you’re like me, you have to be disciplined about it though, since the temptation to convince yourself that research is almost like writing is one of the finest procrastination techniques known to author.
Research seems to take two main forms – in my limited experience. The first is the kind of reading or scouting that just help you feel your way through the vague ideas knocking about in your head. You fancy writing about someone living in Queen Victoria’s court? You might start just by reading about Victoria herself and visiting Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Or perhaps your interests lie in Russia. In which case I suspect you’ll be reading some Simon Sebag Montefiore before too long. This kind of research helps immerse you in the world you want to write about and sparks new ideas to add to the ones that first captured your interest.
But before long, you need to get specific, especially if you’re looking at something as large and unwieldy as a war. You have to make some decisions about your characters, their lives and experiences. From there, you can start to narrow in on the books, museums, websites and locations that will help add the sort of factual colour that brings the greatest historical writing to life.
I have discovered a third sort of research, though. The sort that you stumble across without really looking for it and only afterwards do you wonder how you got by without it. I was lucky enough to experience this third kind earlier in December when a couple of friends emailed me a link to a BBC story that they thought might be useful. That story was about a new website that maps all the bombs sites in London during the Blitz.
Called the Bomb Sight project, the website was created by a team at the University of Portsmouth using information previously only available at The National Archives. As well as bomb census maps, the site includes photographs and memories from the period, along with information on the type of bombs that were dropped in specific locations.
To be honest, it’s the sort of website that is worth a visit, even if you’re not researching a novel set in the Second World War. Anyone living in London is going to do exactly what I did and automatically look up the streets they know. For instance, a road I used to live on in the southwest of the city took two direct hits from high explosive bombs. I had no idea. Before I began this research I’d heard the big stories about the area around St Paul’s Cathedral and the devastation around the docks, but this map provides a bird’s eye view of just how much of London and its surrounding area came under attack.
But for me, the site is much more than an interesting glimpse into the past; it’s the sort of research that is going to prove invaluable as I try and ensure the accuracy of the landscape upon which my characters interact.
Check out the Bomb Sight website.