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Research Books And Inspiration For Historical Novels, by Stephanie Cowell

I have been accumulating research books, or consulting them when they are very rare, since I first began to write historical novels. In the late 1980s we still had many used book shops in New York City with wood shelves too high to reach but by ladder, shelves often sagging with the weight of books and with that definite smell of wood, dust, old paper, old bindings. Each new book was an enchanted encounter.

I have published five historical novels and have more in draft than I’m willing to admit. Each began with a history book: a rare volume on Elizabethan London printed about 1894 with a red binding, which I found I don’t recall where; a biography with fragile pages of a 17th century English archbishop, which was waiting for me in a very small shop for very little money; a small book with leather covers and gilt-edged pages by Marcus Aurelius, discovered in a cold, empty New England book barn where there were tens of thousands of books and the footsteps of one lone browser…me; the original 1665 book on the early microscope by Robert Hooke (Micrographia) in the New York City Arents Collection; one of the thirteen extant copies of Shakespeare’s 1609 sonnets perused and almost wept over at Yale (was this William Shakespeare’s own copy perhaps?); and the rather astonishingly heavy Victorian Godey’s Lady Book printed in 1848, given to me by a friend, in the pages of which I found a sheath of very dry flowers and leaves, almost colorless (who pressed them there?).

I bought more books by catalogue in the 1990s: newer books but on rare subjects, such as a history of English workhouses or the Glastonbury Tor. I bought books on my travels. On my trip home from England I bought twenty-seven books. That was before the planes weighed your luggage or perhaps the weight allowance was higher. I gasped with delight when I found a map of Elizabethan London.

Then came the fabulous internet and every book I ever dreamed of waiting in some shop in Arkansas or the Cotswolds for me. I ordered How Shakespeare Spent the Day. I ordered an old book on the daily lives of French artists. Now my husband has given me a Kindle and I have found to my extreme delight a number of books on 1860’s Florence published in that time and all for free. One has a list of banks and food shops of the period and where you can hire a donkey cart.

When I finish a historical novel, what happens to the books? Well, I give some away sometimes. I truly recall giving several away which I had used for my Monet novel so I do not understand why a huge pile of them still weigh down the top of a file cabinet in the den. My books on the Brownings are scattered all over the house but my English history books are mostly in one whole shelf. Sometimes I wander from room to room touching the book spines. I hear the books murmuring softly, “When will you write me? There is a story waiting within my pages!”

I tell them, “Perhaps 2013 will be a good year for your story!” I know they are patient books, though they do grumble in their dusty way, and that they know that I truly love them and will come back.


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

Stephanie Cowell’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     EquinoxAcceptable Loss

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. This was lovely to read. So full of “forward-looking nostalgia”, which I found positive. Rather than getting lost in the cliche of regretting progress, Stephanie Cowell sees opportunities in new appliances and products that facilitate our backward looks in a happy way, without decrying what we have become.

    September 14, 2013

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  1. Month In Review (September 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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