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On Research For Writing My Historical Novels, by Mary Nichols

Historians will tell you to go to primary sources for your research and that, of course, is ideal but it is not always possible and, for the kind of books I write, not really necessary. I am not trying to educate my readers, though it is a plus if they learn something they didn’t previously know and it interests them. I want a believable background for a story.

Before the days of the internet it was done through books. It still is to a great extent. The shelves in my study are crammed with books I use for research.

First of all there is the invaluable Oxford English Dictionary and then there are those of general interest, used for background.

There are social histories like The English: A Social History 1066-1945 by Christopher Hibbert, A Social History of England by Asa Briggs,  a much-thumbed penguin edition of Chronology of the Modern World 1763-1965 by Neville Williams, Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain and many more. There is the huge and almost unmanageable Chronicle of the 20th Century put together by Longman and, almost as big, Chronicle of the Second World War. It is important to remember when using the latter, or any similar book, that the date on which the event is recorded as happening is not necessarily the date on which it became known to the general public.

Then there are several costume books. One I use a lot is Costume 1066-1966 by John Peacock.  Knowing how people travelled is a must, so my shelves contain books about different kinds of transport, how they were made, timetables and fares. Being particularly interested in railways, which once covered the British Isles, run by many companies, I have a big selection of those. There are books about sailing ships, how they were sailed and how long voyages took. There were ships for exploration, pirate ships, ships deporting prisoners to America and Australia, war ships and so on.

Geography is another important area for research. The books I have in this category have all come into my possession because of a particular story I wanted to write. Guide books are only marginally useful, contemporary travelogues are more helpful. You can get a feel of the geography of a place by visiting it but the way a town looks now is unlikely to bear much resemblance to what it looked like a hundred or perhaps two hundred years ago, or sometimes even in our own lifetime, come to that. How many of us have gone back to the scene of our childhood and found ourselves unable to recognise any of it? It requires a leap of imagination to picture it as it was in the period we want to write about. I find pictures and maps from the time much more helpful, although, having said that, a location visit can give you a feel for the place and might tell you if a particular view you want to include would be feasible. It’s easier to stick to a place you are familiar with, which is why so many of my books are set in the English countryside and East Anglia in particular.

I use my local library a lot and I have always found librarians very useful in helping me find what I am looking for.

The internet is now a great source of information too, but some of it needs taking with a good pinch of salt. It is not a good idea to use only one source but to study several and, if still in doubt, go back to books and authors you know and trust.  Sometimes I contact the creator of the site and ask questions, and this works with some. You soon come to realise if they know what they are talking about.

There are also fiction books; particularly fiction written in the periods about which I have written. Some of them are hard work to read but worth it to gain a feel for the time in which they were written and the way people spoke. Once I have a feel for a time and place, I go back to classics such as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens.


Mary Nichols’s author website:

Mary Nichols’s bio page


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The Summer HouseThe FountainThe Girl on the BeachEscape by Moonlight     Shadow of the PastClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. T. Sara Rothe #

    “I am not trying to educate my readers, though it is a plus if they learn something they didn’t previously know and it interests them. I want a believable background for a story.” These are two of the most helpful and straightforward sentences I’ve read concerning writing historical fiction. Thank you!

    April 18, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    Good guide on how one author stacks her shelves with general research materials related to the time periods she’s interested in.

    April 19, 2013

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