Historical Research - what do I need to know?
By Rebecca Mascull
By Rebecca Mascull
By the time I started planning my second published novel, Song of the Sea Maid, I’d been writing novels for over a decade. Yep, I’d written a few novels before The Visitors was published. And in that time, I’d taught myself to research, write and edit historical novels. So it wasn’t time wasted…
So, what did I learn? The first thing I had to get my head round when writing about a different historical period to the one I’m living through, was research. The question is, what do I need to know? When I first started out, I was writing a novel set during the Second World War. I thought at first that I basically needed to know EVERYTHING, that if I knew EVERYTHING then I could pick and choose what I wanted to put in the novel from the EVERYTHING I knew. A fine ambition. And in those days, I had quite a bit of time to try to achieve that ambition. It was before I had my daughter, and I’d given up teaching for a year to see if I could write this historical novel. So, I set about finding out about WW2. And, of course, I realised pretty quickly that it would take me the rest of my life to find out about one little part of WW2 and I still wouldn’t finish it. So I set about narrowing down what I really needed to know and I started to dismiss all the stuff I’d love to know but just didn’t have time for.
I refined this process over the years and it’s saved me a lot of time and a lot of money in book buying, I tell you. When I started planning Song of the Sea Maid, one of the first things I did was to write a list of all the areas of knowledge I’d need to look into in order to write my character Dawnay’s story. She’s an orphan, born in the 1730s, who becomes a scientist, travels to Portugal and beyond, then makes a remarkable discovery. So, what did I need to know about? My list started something like this:
Then I thought – wait a minute here – you can’t just learn everything about the C18th and everything about science. So, I narrowed it down. Dawnay was born in the 1730s and the story follows her through into the late 1750s. That narrows it down a bit. And what science is she going to practise? Well, she’s mostly concerned with the big question: where do we come from? So, there’s palaeoanthropology for starters. Don’t need any books on molecular chemistry then. But what did scientists know about palaeoanthropology in the C18th, if anything?? So, I added a new one to the list:
- Scientists in the C18th
Then, I realised that Dawnay was not just any old scientist in the C18th, but that rare breed, a female scientist. Society was different then, of course it was, anyone knows that. Women had it tough, tougher than today. So, another one for the list:
- Female scientists in the C18th
So, you can see how the process of research becomes about an act of refining. Funnily enough, once I continued this list with all the other things I needed to learn about – for example:
- The age of sail
- Portugal and Menorca
- The Seven Years’ War
- well, that’ll do for now, as I don’t want to give the whole story away…Anyway, once I’d written my list, I realised that it was all very well knowing all this stuff, but what I really wanted to know about, where I really wanted to start, was not actually street life in C18th London or what C18th gentleman knew about fossils BUT actually, I really wanted to know about Dawnay. She was the whole reason I was writing this story, her story. I wanted to create a character that I cared about (in fact, she was already there in my head, arms crossed, feet tapping, waiting for me to get the hell on with it – and she’d be most annoyed at the suggestion I’d ‘created’ her – characters are like that. A bit uppity and full of themselves, once they get going.)
So, I didn’t start with all the details of C18th life, such as what knickers C18th women wore (though this is rather fascinating: the answer is none). Instead, I let Dawnay tell me about herself – a bit of channelling, as it were – and it soon became obvious that what ruled her personality was her obsession with science. She had a scientist’s mind, she saw the world through the lens of science. So, one of the first books I read was Richard Feynman’s autobiography, all about what he was like when he was a kid, the way he saw the world, how he fixed people’s radios and tried to improve the communication system in the hotel that was his first job.
I’m no scientist and I don’t have a scientific brain, so I was learning what it’s like to be one. It was the most valuable research I did, as it allowed me to climb into Dawnay’s mind. I had my gal. Now I could place her, a bit like a chess piece, into her era – into C18th London – and watch her walk around in it. Now, what were C18th streets like? How did she get around? What did she wear and eat? How did she talk?
And I was off. That’s where the fun really starts…
In the 18th century, Dawnay Price is an anomaly. An educated foundling, a woman of science in a time when such things are unheard-of, she overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher.
Against the conventions of the day, and to the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries - not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.
Read my review here.
About Rebecca Mascull
Rebecca is the author of The Visitors 2014 & Song of the Sea Maid 2015, both published by Hodder & Stoughton. She lives with Simon & Poppy.
Find Rebecca on her website, Facebook page and on Twitter - @rebeccamascull