I’ve got an idea. Now what?
In 2019, I did a full work up of my family history. Due diligence is necessary when researching. There is a lot of garbage online about genealogy. But there is also a lot of great stuff. It’s just a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Cross-referencing and double-checking sources are critical.
As I read these families histories, many of which that are just nuggets of stories, I started making a list of potential seeds of something. I also wrote down names that intrigued me. A couple of stories, from different branches of my family and different time periods, came together in my mind to form the basis of my novel.
When deciding on what to write for my second novel (more on the first one later, which is at an earlier stage than my second one), I first chose a time period. I love Jane Austen’s novels and the late Georgian and Regency periods. I had already read a lot on the time period, so I had a starting point.
The first seed was a story of my fourth great-grandfather on my father’s maternal side, who was put on a boat in 1801 with his brother by their parents in Wales and sent to America. I found the Wales angle to be intriguing. I have seen a lot about England during the Regency period, but virtually nothing about Wales. That could be something new and interesting, and opened a wider world of research for me.
The second seed was a story about my ninth-great grandmother on my mother’s paternal side, who was the daughter of one of the founders of Charles Town, now Charleston. Out of interest and necessity, she became one of the first woman botanists in colonial America. Though her story takes place centuries before the one in my novel, there were elements of her life that I wanted to include.
Research, research, research
First up: character names. Researching historical names can be a fun exercise. I started with my fourth great-grandparents, using their real names. Then I mined my genealogy for others from around the same time period and poked around the internet for other common contemporary first and family names. If you’re looking for accurate contemporary names, plenty of resources exist. Depending on the time period, you can look at census records. Historical documents, such as marriage and birth records, are also helpful, as are novels written at the time.
I needed to do some upfront research for the outline. But with historical fiction, sometimes you don’t know what you need until you need it, and it can send you down rabbit holes. I spent an hour searching for inns in Margate in 1802. Another hour on medical treatment for cancer in the early 1800s (spoiler: it was not great). But where I could, I tried to keep the creative flow going by highlighting things I needed to research further, and just plugged along with writing.
On a side note, I used a dedicated writing software: Scrivener. There are others out there, but I used this one with a free trial during my first NaNoWriMo, and I liked it. There’s a learning curve, but you can find countless tutorials online. It allows you to organize your writing and easily access research notes. The research folder is helpful for storing all the bits of information in one place and you can link it back to your text.
When I finished my first draft and started editing, I did a deeper research dive. I had a better idea of what I was looking for, and could target my research better. Even after starting revisions, there were more spots that arose that needed additional research.
In addition to a lot of daily life details from the Regency period (my book takes place from 1801-1810, which is technically pre-Regency, but the Prince Regent was very active and Jane Austen was writing before and during this period – she died in 1817 at the age of 41), I needed to do extensive research on Wales in this time period – Swansea, in particular – and on the European Enlightenment, and the field of botany.
The fun and frustrating thing about writing historical fiction is how much research you need to do for so many tiny details. Gustave Flaubert famously said that writing history is like drinking an ocean and peeing a cupful (some paraphrasing there – he was a bit more colorful). Every detail matters, and a lot goes into every detail.
In future posts, I’ll delve more into specific research angles and stories. I’d love to hear what periods of history you find fascinating and want to know more about.