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.
8 thoughts on “Preparing to write a novel: Research and planning”
Hi Kendra, excellent post. Really enjoyed reading it. I think when it comes to history you have to be as accurate as you can if you want your novel be read with respect, so research is essential. I read a novel set in the Uk in 50s where a two pound coin was referred to. That stopped the suspension of disbelief in its tracks! Even though The Blue Suitcase is based on real letters and diaries, I still needed to carry out a lot of research to be able to accurately bring the story to life – the diaries are not detailed about the small stuff of every day life, for example. I also needed to be sure the information in the diaries was accurate. I loved carrying out the research for The Blue Suitcase, though, and had to force myself to eventually stop or I would have been still at it! Like you, when I did stop I had more information than I knew what to do with and had to be very strict as to what was essential to the story and what was not. Interestingly I read recently that crime writer Elizabeth George has a team of researchers work for her, and Margaret Atwood had/has a massive team of researchers (about 20 people, I think, but maybe I made that up??). So, not getting away from it, research is vital if we are to write about things we don’t know and make the writing credible. And hand in hand with research is planning. Unfortunately, I don’t like planning nearly as much as researching and “my plans” are always very fluid, but, as you say, you do what it takes to get the writing done 🙂
I agree that accuracy is vital to having a believable story, and the key to accuracy is research. I really enjoyed reading The Blue Suitcase, and the historical detail it contained. It must have been fascinating research to conduct, and interesting to discover so much about your mother’s family and the ways in which they lived. I can imagine too that it would be difficult, at times, because of what was happening. Have you ever considered writing another book using some of the research you did for The Blue Suitcase?
I’ve heard of writers having teams of researchers working for them, but 20 is a lot! I can’t imagine having an entire staff of people just to help me write my book. Also, I enjoy the research so much I probably wouldn’t want to let anyone else do it for me! 🙂
Thanks you your comment!
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I have a second book in my head ie: what comes next when Antonia arrives in Liverpool– I’ve even started it – but have had so many distractions these last twelve months that its been put on the back boiler – again! So, the plan is to get Killer Shoeshine (or whatever it will be called!) out there first and then enjoy the next couple of years researching and writing – yahoo 🙂
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Hi Marianne, That’s a fantastic idea! I look forward to hearing more about it as it progresses. Researching and writing certainly is enjoyable work. I also am very much looking forward to reading your next novel when it comes out. Are you considering changing the title from Killer Shoeshine?
Another great post, Kendra.
I didn’t have to do a lot of research, instead it was more observation as a lot of my characters were older. I also had to do a lot of planning, as there are ten main characters in TSF. One example was I had to make sure they all spoke the same way throughout the book, as they all had different ways of speaking. So I did chapter plans and character profiles. However, in saying that a lot changed, especially when rewriting – which was when the story came alive!
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That sounds like it must have been difficult at times. That said, it’s very good practice to be able to maintain a character’s speech traits throughout an entire novel. That way the reader always knows who’s speaking without having to think about it. I did chapter plans and character profiles too. How did you find them? I enjoyed the character profiles a lot.
It sounds like your novel has been on quite a journey. That’s great! I do think it’s easy to get bogged down in planning and then not let your story grow its own wings as and when it needs to. Congratulations on your novel! I can’t wait to read it.
Great blog post… I agree in some cases its good to plan and it sounds like you found out some really interesting things in your research…
I’m not a planner, but when writing my first book I did do research into spells and curse beliefs as well as spiritual animals… etc…I found that really interesting…..
I hope you have a fantastic week…
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I think everyone has their own way of going about writing and so long as you get the writing done that is all that matters in the end. I did find with researching that it was very easy to get caught up in, sometimes at the expense of the writing itself.Your research sounds like it must have been interesting. Did you feel it helped you when writing your novel?
Thanks for your comment!