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Patrick Gales share his tips on researching historical fiction.
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historical fiction

Patrick Gale on Researching Historical Fiction

June 26, 2022
Patrick Gale
June 26, 2022

Research and historical fiction tend to go hand in hand. Before the writer puts pen to paper, they must become familiar with the facts of the period. But how much research is too much research? Here, bestselling author Patrick Gale discusses how he gets the details right…

What qualifies as historical fiction?

It was a bit of a surprise when my novel A Place Called Winter was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, as I don’t think of myself as an historical novelist. In my head, I’m just a novelist who occasionally sets his novels in the past.

I write a lot about memory, about the legacies of things that happen in characters’ childhoods, or the long reach of things they once witnessed. As a result, even my novels broadly set in the present have extended passages set sufficiently in the past to count as historical.

With technology developing so fast, and our attendant behaviours with it, even a story dipping back to the pre-digital 1990s now acquires some of the quaintness of a costume drama.

In my head, though, these are not historical novels because my primary task remains that of bringing characters and their stories to life with exactly the same immediacy, and using the same techniques, that I would in a novel set in 2022.

Is researching historical fiction what makes it feel ‘true’?

A kind of necessary myopia sets in when I’m writing.

I like to lose my sense of self and project myself entirely inside the characters so that it doesn’t feel as though I’m making anything up as I write, but merely being as accurate as I can in recording a sort of film I can endlessly rewind and rewatch in my head.

The characters’ present is what matters, not its distance from our own. They won’t be thinking antique chair, steam train, period costume but simply chair, train and clothes.

A kind of necessary myopia sets in when I’m writing. I like to lose my sense of self and project myself entirely inside the characters so that it doesn’t feel as though I’m making anything up as I write, but merely being as accurate as I can in recording a sort of film I can endlessly rewind and rewatch in my head.

Similarly the narrative is what matters to me. Is the dialogue natural? Does the motivation ring true? Will the reader care enough to stay up reading past their bedtime?

What does researching fiction look like?

And yet, even when I’m not writing historical fiction, research is a necessity for me.

For a start, because I’ve only ever been a writer, I usually have to research the jobs the characters do. I once paid a venereologist friend to come and stay to talk me through the lurid details and mundane routine of working in an STI clinic. Another time, I worked my way through a course on drawing for the artistically incapable to better understand a character who was an artist. I attended numerous Quaker meetings before writing a novel about a Quaker family.

Why is researching historical fiction so important?

To write any novel set in the distant past, however, needs numerous facts checking, from train services to etiquette, from vocabulary to household appliances. That’s why researching historical fiction is crucial.

For A Place Called Winter, set between 1900 and 1919, I had to read up on all kinds of things, including:

  • The settlement of the Canadian prairies
  • Edwardian thoughts on masculinity
  • The after-effects of the Wilde trials
  • The class minutiae of transatlantic crossings in the 1900s
  • How to clear a field of boulders and tree stumps with only a cart-horse and something called a stone boat
  • How to plough with an ox
  • Why a popular treatment in psychiatric hospitals at the time involved wrapping patients tightly in rubber blankets

As you can see, researching historical fiction can be pretty intensive – and immersive. I even spent an increasingly farcical day or two trying to convince the curators of the Victoria and Albert’s clothing collection that I had a genuine, and not perverse, need to see Edwardian gents’ undergarments.

Researching real lives

My most recent novel, Mother’s Boy, draws on the early life of the Cornish poet Charles Causley and the largely overlooked life of his laundress mother, Laura, from the spring of 1914 through to the early 1950s. I was so fearful of giving offence to the living relatives of characters with real-life counterparts. As a result, my historical fiction research went into such detail that I might as well have been preparing to write a critical biography instead of a novel.

And, quite apart from the hours spent ruining what’s left of my eyesight poring over Charles’s minutely pencilled secret diaries, reading his manuscripts and deciphering long-hoarded postcards and letters, my historical research also delved into the minutiae of doing laundry without machinery, caring for a TB patient before penicillin and how the Navy trained people to be coders.

The potential perils of researching historical fiction

There’s no question that researching historical fiction can take one over, and not just because much of it is fascinating.

I find an insecurity sets in, in which I become convinced I can’t possibly start writing until I know everything my characters would have known. Weeks can rapidly turn to months spent in libraries and archives. It’s very easy to fixate on some elusive detail and become convinced you cannot proceed without it.

With Winter, this was finding out precisely which kind of wheat my hero would have sown. With Mother’s Boy it was not only laying eyes on one of the Navy’s few undestroyed Codex machines, but finding some aged veteran still able to explain to me how they worked. (I failed in either case, and it really didn’t matter.)

The joy of researching historical fiction

The late Helen Dunmore, who evoked Leningrad under siege and Rome under Augustus, once told me that the trick with researching historical fiction was to write your novel first, and only start digging for facts once it was absolutely clear from the gaps in your emotionally satisfactory story what you needed to find out.

If I’d done that, however, I would never have stumbled on the random details that so enriched my eventual stories, actually adding turns to their plots: before and after photographs of a two spirits Cree shaman stripped of their dignity and forced into ill-fitting western clothes, and a little blue bottle with a silver lid supplied to TB patients for use as a portable spittoon.

Exploring the setting for your story

Another element of researching historical fiction that I find absolutely crucial, regardless of when a novel is set, is the setting.

Sometimes this is relatively easily conjured, when I’ve set novels on my Cornish doorstep or in thinly disguised versions of Winchester, the city where I grew up.

But when I don’t already know a place intimately and the historical facts demand that I set part of a narrative there, looking at photographs on Google never suffices. I like places in my books to feel as completely realised as the characterisations. For that, I need to go to the place myself, walk the streets, smell the smells, listen to its soundscape and try to see the views my characters would have seen.

Sometimes, of course, this tax-deductible part of researching historical fiction can be very enjoyable – a trip across Canada by train to experience the exact route my pioneering characters took, a week walking the ancient, war-haunted streets of Valletta, a weekend visiting the Governor of Gibraltar so as to see the ballroom where Causley briefly coded and the tunnels in the Rock where his Wren colleagues worked.

Sometimes it can be markedly less so. I’m thinking particularly of visits to Butlin’s in Skegness or to the armour-walled confines of a radioactive iodine hospital suite.

Perhaps it’s ludicrously literal of me, but I feel that unless I walk through these settings in person, I’ve no hope of ensuring my reader will reliably walk through them in their head.

Fallibility, facts and fiction

One hard lesson I have learned is that however thoroughly you think you’ve checked your details, however eagle-eyed your copy editor, however many experts you dragoon in to read early drafts, there will be things which slip through the editorial net.

And readers like nothing better than writing to point out one’s mistakes. In A Place Called Winter I had my hero catching a train to Liverpool from King’s Cross instead of Euston. In Mother’s Boy I had junior ratings saluting Charles and calling him Sir, when as a mere petty officer he would have merited no such distinction. I even had him buying a woman friend a bitter lemon six years before Schweppes first launched the drink.

And you know what? It’s absolutely fine.

One of the beauties of ebooks is that your novel’s electronic version, at least, can be swiftly corrected (and presumably magically corrects itself on anyone’s e-reader when they connect to the internet). I have grown used to thinking of the eventual paperback edition as being the true final draft.

The underrated benefits of researching historical fiction

I have also come to realise that the research stage of each novel puts a necessary creative brake on any impulse to begin writing right away.

It’s good, I think, to let the ideas for a novel compost gently in the back of your brain or in the pages of a notebook. It’s good not to start the actual writing until the story and, yes, any historical details, are so clear in your mind’s eye that what you are doing when you write your opening sentences is not making things up but striving for understated accuracy.

Someone writing in a notebook
Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale is the author of novels including The Whole Day Through, the Richard and Judy bestsellers Notes From An Exhibition and A Perfectly Good Man, the Costa nominated A Place Called Winter and his fourth Sunday Times bestseller, Take Nothing With You, as well as the Emmy award-winning BBC drama, Man in an Orange Shirt. Patrick’s latest novel, Mother’s Boy, is out now. 

Members of The Novelry team