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Imagining the Past: the Purpose and Pitfalls of Research

The best historical novels act as a portal for time travel; they immerse you not just in the sights, smells and sounds of the past but give you an insider’s view of an alien world. If you don’t believe me, try reading my current fave Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller. How does a new writer set out to emulate this impressive conjuring act? How much research does it really take?

Even if you set your book in the recent past, you will probably have an urge to fact-check (when exactly did people start using Bumble, or saying Brexit?) But if you’re writing about a more distant time, even one within living memory, you may have a compulsion to verify every tiny detail of the setting and craft it into a fully-functioning alternative reality.

When I embarked on a first novel about wartime pilots, I plunged straight into the research; military history, social history, fiction, memoirs, aviation manuals, newspapers. Unluckily for me, literature about the second world war is almost infinite and so this reading went on for years. It easily became a displacement activity for writing and served mainly to cram my narrative with unnecessary detail. And the fiction I produced always felt inferior to the original sources. Far from helping me to enrich my novel, research was stopping me from writing a good one.

"Because it’s not the changes in clothes or gadgets or street-scenes that really matter, but the way that people act and speak and think."

So, with the next project that became my debut novel The Conviction of Cora Burns, I took a different approach. Don’t get me wrong, conventional historical research is still vital as a source of inspiration for character and plot as well as in providing a firm grip on setting. But it should not result in decoration. A glimpse into the detail of your historical world should only be there if it is unfamiliar or surprising to your characters. Why would Cora Burns notice or comment on something that is, as she would say, ‘bleedin’ obvious’? A few period details, I have realised, go a long way. And anyway, the physical world is merely the surface of Cora’s reality; it’s what is going on inside her head that is really interesting.

And this is where a novel has unique power to describe the past. Because it’s not the changes in clothes or gadgets or street-scenes that really matter, but the way that people act and speak and think. Even within a generation, commonly held opinions and human interactions can change profoundly. And beliefs generally become more different from ours the further back in time that you look. The past really is a foreign country.

Once I had at last realised that the reader is primarily seeking an emotional connection to the past, I worked on digging into the feelings and mind-set of my 19th century characters and I began to see the parallel universe they inhabit through their eyes. I learnt, importantly, to trust readers’ imaginations. They have, after all, probably seen the same TV adaptations of Dickens and Bronte as me.

So my Victorian research aimed at a more psychological understanding of the era, particularly through studying visual sources. By luck, the 1880s is first time in human history for which there is a record of how the world actually looked. New dry-plate camera technology produced the earliest candid street photographs such as this one from Newcastle.

The crispness of this image makes you feel that you can almost step up and talk to these long-dead Tynesiders; the stoic old couple who must be as old as the century; the gobby costermonger in her plaid shawl. But it is the seated girl, her face slightly blurred, who captures your heart. She is selling drinks by the glass on an uneven barrel-top, and she looks worried. Perhaps she has been crying. But no one is helping her, nor even paying her any attention, and she can’t be more than seven. This Newcastle is a place as foreign to us as Mumbai. They do things differently there.

Research will helpfully colour the background to the scene in this photograph. Excellent recent history books will give you an understanding of how the poor survived in Victorian cities; contemporary documents like advertisements will supply the detail (what is the beverage for sale from those bottles?) But only your imagination will tell you what it is that the little street-seller wants but presumably cannot have. And so, her story begins…

Carolyn Kirby is the author of The Conviction of Cora Burns, which was published in March 2019 by No Exit Press in the UK and Dzanc Books in North America. The book has received great praise from reviewers and journalists. The Sunday Mirror called it “a great historical novel with bite,” and it was chosen by The Times as an historical fiction book of the month. You can follow Carolyn here.

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