Friday, September 4, 2009

Research to a New Groove

“In 1806 Calcutta was at the height of its golden age. Known as the City of Palaces or the St. Petersburg of the East, the British bridgehead in Bengal was unquestionably the richest, largest and most elegant colonial city in India. Here a Nabob like Philip Francis could boast in the 1770’s that he was ‘master of the finest house in Bengal, with a hundred servants, a country house, spacious gardens, horses and carriages’. Francis’s ‘wine book’, which survives in the India Office Library, gives an indication of the style in which such men lived: in one typical month, chosen at random, Francis, his family and his guests drank…some 268 bottles in all… Nor was it just the British who did well and lived extravagantly: Bengal merchants also flourished. The Mullick family, for example had rambling baroque palaces strewn about the city, and used to drive around Calcutta in an ornate carriage pulled by two zebras.” P. 318, White Mughals, by William Dalrymple.

I love that image of a fancy carriage being pulled by zebras. So exotic!
Writers are often asked where we get the ideas for our stories. Well, a lot of things can spark a new idea. For those of us who write historicals that spark often comes when we are immersed in research. The internet is a fantastic research tool, but sometimes nothing serves the purpose but a book.
The world of history and biography has changed dramatically in the last decade. Many biographies read as well as a novel these days.
I’ve become enamored with using biographies to expand my understanding of time and place. The opening excerpt above is a jewel of description of a city in a moment of time that I had been having a great difficulty researching. The subjects of White Mughals are Major James Kirkpatrick, an official with the East India Company, and his Royal Indian bride Khair un-Nissa, in the late 18th and early 19th century. As the British Resident in Hyderabad, the largest free Indian state, at the time, he occupied a strategic diplomatic position. Unfortunately, my area of interest lay at the seat of company power, i.e. Calcutta. Still I obtained the book as a last resort, in the hopes of fleshing out my exceedingly meager image of the city circa 1800. I figured I might get a snippet or two of valuable info.

In the end I came away with way more than I expected. Did you know that the East India Company officials actually founded Calcutta and essentially built a European city in India? Did you know they were so concerned with the cleanliness of their city that they hired more than 700 ox teams and carts to go through the streets and clear away the debris each day. Yep, I found way more than I expected.
Writing historicals requires balance. We can overload a story with details until it reads more like a textbook. But they breathe life into a story if they are handled correctly. Does it matter that there were so many rubbish collectors in Calcutta? Probably not, but if I described a street scene that included lots of Indian style architecture, and dirty streets, I’d be wrong. Believe me, someone always knows when I’m wrong. And they love to point it out to me.
The thing about biographies is that they focus on people, whereas history books tend to focus on events. Author Laurie Alice Eakes recently shared this insight: “Writing a novel has to do with getting people right more than anything, and when you are writing about people in history, one has to understand that people thought and reacted differently two hundred years ago than they do now.”
I think she phrased that comment brilliantly. Human nature hasn’t changed, but the way people viewed themselves and the world certainly has. What was important to the people of a given time period and place? Many of those nuances are difficult to detect in a ‘regular’ history book, so where can we turn? In addition to biographies, Laurie Alice suggests trying to find primary

sources such as letters and diaries. They are often surprisingly easy to access nowadays
through or Google Books. Such resources are invaluable for communicating a particular point of view through the writer’s own words.
And if I may put in a plug here? Laurie Alice’s next book The Glassblower will be coming out in December. One of the things I admire about Laurie Alice’s books is the way she writes strong heroines, without sacrificing their authenticity. She doesn’t just place a modern woman in a costume. She embraces the setting, including the social mores and mindset. Her characters are strong and relatable even when they don’t think and act as we would. That takes talent, my friend!
Since my discovery of White Mughals I have found several other biographies that have proven to be valuable resources. Think outside the box as you’re searching out that elusive bit of information that can make or break your scene. Just because a book doesn’t match the topic you are researching in every particular doesn’t mean you won’t find valuable information. So while we do have to keep our eyes on what we are working toward in our stories, don’t be afraid to explore a rabbit trail or two as well.
What is your favorite research tool? If you don’t write historicals what sort of research do you find most valuable?
Leave a comment on this post between now and 9/7/09 with your e-mail address included (include spaces or brackets around the "@" sign so Net spiders, etc, can't phish your address) and we'll enter you in two different drawings. One on 9/7 and also for one of the grand prizes which will be drawn on the first of November.


  1. Great post, Lisa. It almost makes me want to take another crack at writing a historical novel... almost :+} But I think for now, I'll just enjoy the wonderful ones written by you and others.

  2. Interesting article, Lisa. For my new book about a governess, I found a few diaries written by governesses of the time. Very useful. After reading this, I think I'll go searching for some biographies.... Thanks!

  3. Thank you for the shout-out. I admit my rebellious nature got me interested in women of their time, who weren't the downtrodden images modern historians portray. I set out to find exceptions and succeeded--in diaries, obituaries, and even poetry.

  4. Hey, Lisa!
    Great post. I think this is what I love most about reading and writing historicals. I want to be taken, transported, to a new place and a contemporary just doesn't seem far enough away.

    I have to admit India fascinates me, so I look forward to reading your story.

    My current WIP is built entirely on a book that 'came to me'. I wasn't looking for non-fiction resources for a book I had in mind. Rather, I picked up a bargain book at a big box store and my story jumped off the page; a nineteenth century drawing of the city's insane asylum planted the seed. The book was a well-researched work that placed the reader in Glasgow 1837. What more could a writer want?

    Thanks for pinch-hitting this morning!

  5. since i don't write historicals, i find my best research is done online about whatever particular profession or what have you i need. one website in particular has been very useful for this. Visuwords: Online Graphical Dictionary. it really helps to picture a courtroom or something to know what words to use in your WIP. just FYI! :)

    Where Romance Meets Therapy

  6. Yep, Laurie Alice. I think the exception WAS the rule more often than we know. Women often made choices to step beyond their proscribed role. At the same time there were intrinsic mindsets that drove action and reaction. All of the choices our characters make should come with results and consequences. To make it seem as if these decision were easy, or accepted by one and all is, I think, when our writing shifts to a modern mindset. And we no longer have a historical, but a modern day story with people in costume.

  7. Thanks so much for that resource, Jeannie. Fantastic. Love your blog BTW. Everyone, Jeannie has a really interesting blog at:
    You'll learn a lot. Now, if you don't mind asking a question, Jeannie. How would you react to using memoirs in research for a contemporary. I understand it's only the experiences of one person, but I'm thinking if someone is trying to set a work within a different culture or something, a memoir might be very helpful.

  8. You are absolutely right, Lisa. Historicals are a world all their own...pun intended. :) I recently spoke on adding history to your novels, no matter the genre, and one point I made was to make sure you portray the historical characters accurately. If you don't do the people justice, you're not doing history justice.

    Great stuff, Lisa!

    As for my favorite research resource, I'd say a strong one for me is Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Tells me when certain words and phrases were in common use, so I don't put a word or phrase ahead of its time. Can't tell you how often my copy editor catches these on me. :)

  9. I do almost all my research online. Usually first thing I do is type whatever I'm researching with the word 'wiki' after it.
    This takes me to wikipedia. Now, I know this isn't a truly dependable resource. I have that firmly in mind. But what it does is give me a starting place.

    I recently wrote a book with a western artist as the hero. The only person I could think of was Remington and I wasn't even sure of his first name.
    So, first I google Remington, that gives me his first name and tells me he was working about the right years for my book.
    Then I google Frederick Remington wiki and read a whole lot about him, but also I start seeing other names. Charlie Russell, Bierstadt. This leads me to something called the Hudson River style of art. This leads me to Monet and Manet and impressionism.
    It's just all an unraveling thread leading in new directions. Giving me new ideas. Remington's work was so cool, but he wasn't a personality I could use. I wasn't really thinking scupture either, more painting.
    Charlie Russell did a lot of writing, almost illiterate, but I got a lot of terms from him and the language of the day. But he was a cowboy and I didn't want me hero to be a cowboy, I wanted an east coast tenderfoot with this raging love for capturing natural beauty on canvas.
    I develop my ideas while I'm searching and reading and learning.

  10. I don't write historicals, so I like to research online or by calling a person in a particular field.
    I actually knew some of this India information from reading Victoria Holt. I think she must've done a great job because I still remembered some of this from her books.

  11. Mary, I think we must research alike. Luckily I enjoy the research that goes into a story so it's all good!

    I'll still be researching when my first draft is done. The thing I love most about this sort of approach is that it almost always suggests new approaches, angles, and twists.

  12. Hi, Lisa:

    Wonderful informative post. The comments too hold a treasure of information. Thank you, ladies. Though I don't write historicals, I find research to be a necessary evil (can you tell I don't enjoy it muuch?) even for contemporary writers. Now I have new avenues to explore. Mary's research trail sounds fascinating. Methinks I could spend my day researching instead of writing.


  13. Like Laurie Alice, I love primary sources. I especially love letters and newspapers. They are great for understanding common words and phrases of a given time period and also for getting right what a person in that time period knew or understood about the things going on in their world. Their perceptions are often different from what we know now, years later.

    Great post, Lisa!

  14. I love your new site. One of my favorite sources for writing the late 19th century is the book CALICO CHRONICLES.

    I've also been compiling a rather extensive collection of links for historical information that I use when I teach "Painting Historicals with Authenticity."

  15. Wonderful new site. Like many of you I do a tremendous amount of research for my historicals online, but my favorite resource for my current series was the genealogy of my family which was published in 1905, and went back to 1695. It chronicled not only the family tree, but contained personal thoughts of my ancestors as they fled religious persecution in France and settled in this country. I know I am incredibly blessed to be in possession of this volume.

  16. Lisa,
    I will forever have that picture of zebras pulling a carriage stuck in my head. That is EXOTIC! I love it.
    I use everything I can find when I research, books, internet, experts on the era. I'm also a member of RWA's Beau Monde which provides a lot of help as well as His Writers.

    Now I have to think about finding the time to fit this book in too because it's written during England's Regency period. What fun!

  17. I like to totally immerse myself in a culture: reading novels, watching movies, reading poetry. Even if it's not all correct, I need to get a "feel" for the time.

    Then, for me, writing about it comes naturally. I go back and recheck details later.

    I'm writing medieval, so it's hard to find details anyway. When I can't find the detail I need, I usually just change the passage so that the detail is no longer needed.


  18. Wow, great post, Lisa! And fabulous comments, too. I've written all of these resources down. Thank you, everybody! I can't wait to check them out.

    I do a lot of online research too. I read a lot of biographies to get a better flavor of the era I'm researching, and then I check out some of the books that the author has listed as her sources in the bibliography. That's led me to some out-of-print gems I never would have found on my own. I'm working on a Regency right now, where the hero works for the Revenue Service, fighting smugglers, but as a sort of double agent. In all of my online research, I never would have found the book that's helped me the most if it had not been listed in another book's bibliography.

    Thanks, everyone! This was so helpful!

  19. Lena, I took your class last year at ACFW and won an 1897 Sears and Roebuck catalogue. What a treasure trove of info and soooo much fun to read. The only drawback was that there was so much I wanted to order and couldn't!

    Golden, what a wonderful blessing to have. I'm so jealous! Unfortunately I don't think most of my ancestors could read or write.

    Susanna, you make a great point about checking the bibliography. Talk about following the thread of research! Sometimes you can even do that with the take a look selection on Amazon.

  20. Hey Lisa, I write Western Historicals.

    One of the first sources I bought in my early 20's was the Time Life Old West series. I still have them. I also have some published diaries about women in the Candian West and the Bride Ships that traveled through to Vancouver.

    I love using Google Earth for research in any year.

    And I've found the online etymology book comes in handy.

    One of the best free apps I added to my iPod is the Unabgridged Diuctionary with Thesaurus. It's so much quicket than the online thesaurus and I don't need to be hooked up to the net to get it. Just love it.

    And of course, I use the net extensively.

  21. Oh yeah, good point, Anita. I practically live on and it's matching thesaurus when I'm writing.

    I check etymologies, meanings, and alternative word choices.


  22. I love historical books, especially those around the 1800s. However, I've never read one on a different country. Would love to be included in this contest. Please enter me. Thanks.
    desertrose5173 at gmail dot com

  23. Lisa, never in my life would I have pictured a carriage being pulled by zebras. Thanks for sharing the lovely image. It makes me sigh. Also, thanks for sharing the quote by Laurie Alice about the writer needing to understand our historical characters reacted differently than we do. I've read some historicals that just don't seem historical, and I could never put my finger on the reason. I think this is my answer.



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