Test your research skills

Whether you are writing a historical novel or historical romance (or, like me, something between the two), getting the background and atmosphere right makes it more interesting for your readers and adds to your integrity as an author. However, some aspiring novelists find the prospect of research extremely daunting.

With the internet these days, there is a vast field of information you can harvest and it’s a matter of sifting out the bits that will be useful, and in the process you may find extra inspiration, either for the book you are working on or a future novel.

Here’s something you can practise with. It’s a short extract from the diary of Samuel Pepys. Try reading it through with the following in mind:

  • ideas for the beginning of a story
  • ideas for characters

And what can you glean about:

  • class differences in England in the mid-seventeenth century
  • attitudes towards women
  • London
  • social life
  • use of language

Taken from the The Illustrated Pepys (Penguin Classic History) ed. Robert Latham

3 February 1664
This night late, coming in my coach coming up at Ludgate Hill, I saw two gallants and their footmen taking a pretty wench which I have eyed much lately, set up shop upon the hill, a seller of ribband and gloves. They seem to drag her by some force, but the wench went and I believe had her turn served; but God forgive me, what thoughts and wishes I had of being in their place. In Convent Garden tonight, going to fetch home my wife, I stopped at the great coffee-house there, where I never was before – where Draydon the poet (I knew at Cambridge) and all the wits of the town, and Harris the player …; and had I time then or could at other times, it will be good coming thither, for there I perceive is very witty and pleasant discourse.

If you enjoyed having a go at that, but you are wanting to write a Regency novel, perhaps you may get something useful from the following.

Extract from Thomas Creevey's Papers (Penguin Books) ed. John Gore

1837 Lady Louisa Molyneux writes to Creevey

We have not much profited by our friends at Court … but we have one great feature in Lady Foley. She called here yesterday, and finding Maria at home alone, she took her out driving. She was dressed in the finest white muslin gown, with a blue satin spencer, a man’s shirt, full-collar and neck, cloth, over which a white domino, a man’s hat, and a double thick green veil which she never raised even in the room. She desired her coachman to drive wherever the fashion was, and in this attire Maria accompanied her up and down the Parade. She was in the highest spirits, and with all her finery she drove to a stableman’s to look for ponies to drive, declaring she was the best whip in England; … when Maria suggested the possibility of her being asked to dine at the Pavilion, she flourished her smelling bottle and said, 'I suppose one need not go if one is dangerously ill.'

Lord Melbourne has just called … He complains very much of having a 'washy' set of ladies, and says they are always ill.

We had a splendid arrival of Germans at Byam House last night. The Princess Augusta of Saxony, who required so many beds no hotel could take her in. She refused to marry the Emperor of Austria twice, and Napoleon once; has a hundred thousand a year, and finer pearls and diamonds than any lady in the world.

The John Russells are at the Bedford, and dine every day at the Pavilion. He has such a bad cold that there is not even his voice left of him.

First, we have a cameo of a lively and wealthy woman who is either eccentric, outrageous or perhaps a lesbian, plus details of her clothing. Then we have a mention of a woman who turned down two emperors!

The slang ‘washy’ is a great word and could be used easily in dialogue in your novel.

The ‘Pavilion’ is maybe the Brighton Pavilion, beloved of the Prince Regent.

The writer’s use of language, name-dropping and mention of social activities provides the sort of material that Georgette Heyer delved into when she was researching the background for her wonderful novels. Thomas Creevey’s Papers were one of her sources.

Isn’t it amazing how many details you can pick up from just a small extract!