Researching Your Novel (and how Horrible Histories can help)

Filed under Better Writing.

What BubbleCow learned from Horrible Histories For a number of years I worked alongside writer Terry Deary, helping him to research a number of the Horrible Histories titles. This is what I learned from the master…

The key to effective research is to know what it is that you need to know!

It is essential to recognise that there are two types of research: General and Specific.

General Research

This is all about gathering a wider knowledge of the subject of your novel or book.

  • Read general books: Start with outlines and histories of the period (topic) under study. Get a feel for the key events of the time. Read books at all levels. Children’s history books are often a good place to start since they will give you a nice overview.
  • Read ‘real’ history books: The next stage is to read some serious history books. Find out who the key historians are in the area of your research and read a couple of their books. Good history books will have loads of references to the sources that the historians used in their research. You can use these references to find more history books.
  • Beware of the Internet: At this stage you are still probably gathering a deeper knowledge of the subject area. You may find that the Internet is not the most helpful tool at this stage. This said, I often found Wikipedia a great place to clarify details.
  • Make notes: This is very important. As you read, make notes of the key points and, most importantly, write down questions.

Specific Research

Having gathered a general knowledge you will now be ready for specific research. This is all about answering the questions that will help with your writing. However, the key is to be specific.

Let’s say you are writing a scene set in London in 1867. You have a young couple walking down a street at night.

You could ask:

‘In Victorian Britain what did a London street look like at night?’

This would be fine but it is very hard to answer. Where would you begin? You would be very lucky to find a website or book that would give you the description you needed.

OK - let’s change the question to:

‘In 1867 what did a London street look like at night?’

This is a more specific question and therefore easier to research. You might do a google search on ‘London streets 1867’. This might pull up some useful information.

An image search I did produced this picture:

The picture shows lampposts, but your general research should have told you that gas lighting was introduced into London at some point during your period. Since you can’t be sure what year the picture was produced, you can’t be sure that gas lighting was being used in 1867.

So the question now becomes:

In what year was gas lighting introduced to London?’

A google search on ‘gas lights London introduction’ brings up this Wiki page:

If you hit Ctrl F you can bring up a search box in your browser. Now type in London and keep scrolling through.

Soon you get to this paragraph:

The first public street lighting with gas took place in Pall Mall, London on January 28, 1807. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, and the first gas company in the world came into being. Less than two years later, on December 31, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas.

You would now be able to confidently describe gas lighting in your novel’s narrative. Though this might not be the full answer, since you are not sure just how widespread lighting was by 1867, you can see the process.

The key to effective specific research is good general research. The hours spent reading will give you the knowledge you need to ask the correct specific questions.

Sources to answer good specific questions include:

  • Google: This is the number one search engine for a reason. The key is to be creative with your search terms. Time spent learning advanced search terms and techniques will be well spent.
  • Books: You may find that there are whole books written that will answer your question. Type ‘London gas light’ into Amazon to get the general gist.
  • Professionals: It sometimes pays off to be cheeky. Don’t be afraid to contact key professionals that you think might be able to answer your questions. Many will be more than happy to help a writer.
  • Friends: Don’t forget you real and internet friends. If you have a question than ask people if they can help - you never know.

What tips would you add?

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