Location Research To Write Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell
I’ve met historical novelists who are proud of the fact that they don’t go to visit the places they write about. If you can write successful books without having to do that, then good for you. Personally, I love to go to the places I’m researching. Walking the same streets as my characters helps me bring my stories alive.
A good ten years ago, when publishing advances were a lot more generous, I spent a wonderful two weeks in Australia, researching my book Prison Ship, about a boy sailor who is transported to New South Wales in 1801. I went in the middle of the Australian winter, when flights were at their cheapest. I stayed with a lovely lady who usually rented a spare room to academics. (A friend recommended the University of Sydney accommodation office, who were happy to put me on their books.) Staying with a local is much more sociable and a lot cheaper than a hotel. You have company and you can cook, which saves having to eat out on your own.
My landlady, Bobbie, also introduced me to friends who took me to see places I would never have thought to visit. Best of all, when I went to explore the bush outside Sydney, I spent a very anxious three or four hours completely lost and got a good four chapters out of that. I loved standing at the Rocks in Sydney at sunset trying to imagine what it would have been like two centuries before. A chat with a friendly lady in a bookshop led to an introduction to one of the curators at the New South Wales State Library who kindly volunteered to check my book for historical accuracy.
For Powder Monkey and Battle Fleet, the first and third book of that same series (and for considerably smaller outlay), I visited HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool and HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Just being aboard these surviving ships from 1800 was the best thing I could have done to get my imagination going. My trip to Trincomalee probably inspired a good quarter of the book, which is not bad for an afternoon’s nosing around.
I went to Moscow this time last year to research my latest book (due next year) and was surprised how cheap it was to go. It’s not a big tourist destination and going in October meant a modest outlay of around £250 for a return flight from the UK (if you’re from Britain you need to spend another £150 on a visa, too). Through friends of friends I also managed to find a family who were happy to have me to stay and that saved a fortune on Moscow’s infamously expensive and ramshackle hotels. Museums were fascinating but, not being a Russian speaker, I was unable to make use of libraries and archives. Still, being able to walk around the Kremlin, where my story is set, and the streets of central Moscow, was absolutely invaluable. A lovely woman I met there told me a fascinating story about her family that ended up providing a major plot twist in my novel.
Berlin is also somewhere I’ve visited to write about for my novels Auslander and Sektion 20, both set in the 20th Century. It wasn’t as expensive as I feared. I managed to stay with people who volunteered to rent an apartment or share theirs for one or two weeks. This was much cheaper than a hotel and, again, I saved a lot of money by cooking rather than eating out. When I shared an apartment on a second visit, my landlady introduced me to a friend who became the inspiration for the main character in my novel.
Berlin is also brilliant for libraries and archives. Almost all the librarians spoke English (handy for me as I know about three words in German) and many of the libraries had a very good supply of rare and very useful English language books.
My own instinct is that any historical novel will be improved immensely and made considerably easier to write by a visit to its location. Being there will fire your imagination and give you leads you would never have had if you’d just stuck to library books.
Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
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Writing Historical Novels