I’ve heard it said that there are writers who write as the story comes to them, uncertain what will happen next, and then there are those who plan and outline to varying degrees. While I like the excitement which goes along with not knowing what will happen next, I am, usually, a planner. This is because planning gives me a greater sense of control over the work, to shape and guide it as needed, and when the going gets tough (and it most certainly will) an outline will never fail to point you back in the right direction.
That said, I also think there is such a thing as over planning your novel to the point of not listening when changes need to be made for fear that your ‘plan’ will be disrupted. However, with historical fiction it is especially important to know what direction you’re moving in so that you can do your research ahead of time.
Prior to writing The Forest King’s Daughter, I did a lot of research. Even after I started writing, I often had to go back and check some detail of daily life. I’d begin writing a scene where a character is adding jam to their porridge and then I’d have to ask myself ‘did they put jam in their porridge back then?’ The answer is no, not if you were a poor crofter. Sugar was a luxury (hence the special lidded box Mrs Johansson keeps her sugar in on a high shelf). Even as late as 1905 Vilhelm Moberg wrote about his father bringing home a block of sugar and giving everyone a piece of it as a special treat to celebrate the peace with Norway (Moberg, When I Was a Child, 1956). Also, their porridge was made from barley, not oats. I often felt I could not complete a scene without knowing, for certain, if such a thing existed at the time. This made writing the novel exceedingly difficult, especially as it was the first novel I’d ever tried to write.
But I knew this before I started and still felt I had to write it–needed to write it. As Truman Capote once said, “There is no agony like having an untold story inside you.”
So, how did I deal with this? Preparation. Before even beginning my research I started to outline my characters, their stories, their lifetimes and, of course, the novel itself. I drew up spreadsheets containing births and deaths of fictional characters and what historical events had taken place during their lifetimes that may have affected them. Some of this history was unknown to me so I located world history timelines, European historical timelines, lists of inventions and when they came out. Then I needed to begin reading about these things, deciding what research I needed to do and how I would achieve this.
There was no easy answer. I didn’t have any research experience and had no idea where to start. Someone said that the best place to start was to read books from the same place and time period as your novel will be set. Okay, easy enough. I did that, paying careful attention to attitudes, customs, ways of speaking etc. I then began reading historical texts, looking at old photos, paintings, reading ship passenger lists and old emigrant diaries (thanks to Norway Heritage, www.norwayheritage.com ). I contacted historical societies, visited the place in Liverpool where the emigrant ships departed from (the ships docked in England before continuing on to America), went to specialist libraries and generally tried to immerse myself in that time and place. I typed and filed as much as I could so I had something to refer to when writing. I used my story outline and my great grandmother’s itinerary as guideposts. I made a lot of mistakes and wrong turns, but I came back and tried again, because I’m very stubborn. And eventually I got there.
Photo of a painting of an emigrant ship leaving port from Liverpool Maritime Museum
Statues of emigrants on display at Liverpool Maritime Museum
Sunset over the Mersey, would it have looked the same then?
Did I use all of the material in my draft? No. I couldn’t have used it all even if I had wanted to. If I did, the novel wouldn’t have made any sense. In fact, it would no longer even be a novel, just a collection of facts and historical impressions. So, was all of this research necessary? I think so. If I hadn’t done the research I wouldn’t have known my subject, my characters or the place they called home and so couldn’t have written the story.
How about you, have you ever written something which required you to do research? If so, how did you approach the research? Did you enjoy it, or loathe it? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please feel free to share using the comments box below.