As a writer of historical novels, research is obviously important to me. In fact I love it. Not only do I enjoy just finding out stuff, but it gives me the comforting feeling that I am Working Hard and Getting On. And often one comes across something by accident which fits beautifully into the story. For example, discovering that in the Victorian period green dye was made from arsenic salts gave me the scene in Wildthorn when Louisa shocks a prim little girl paying her a visit by offering to test whether her green stockings are poisonous.
But research has its dangers. One is that you get carried away with it and the novel never gets started. The other tricky thing is to make sure that the research serves the story and isn’t just there for its own sake. I’ve read historical novels where I’ve been bored by Too Much Information. And for my first novel, when I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d found out so much about Victorian wallpaper that whenever a character entered a room I described the walls in loving detail. Of course it had to go because it was irrelevant to the story and slowed down the pace.
When I was writing Whisper My Name by chance I came across some information about Sir Francis Galton. I’d never heard of this Victorian scientist, but what I read intrigued me. I discovered that his work covered an amazing range of subjects: among them, statistics, anthropology, psychology, meteorology – he is credited with devising the first weather map and forensic science – he came up with a method for classifying fingerprints.
He was apparently amusingly eccentric: he cut cake according to geometrical principles; he supposedly invented special glasses for reading newspapers underwater and a ''gumption reviver,'' a bucket-like contraption that dripped water on students' heads to keep them awake. He believed himself to be a genius and he attributed his baldness to this: according to him, his brain was a veritable furnace of knowledge, burning up his hair follicles. (And that, he claimed, is why women didn’t go bald…)
In short he was a great character and it was tempting to use a lot of this information in my portrayal of Sir Osbert Swann, Meriel’s grandfather in Whisper My Name. I did make Sir Osbert a scientist who is interested in heredity and keen to measure everything; I included the fingerprints and also Galton’s scientific method for making a cup of tea. But initially I had problems because, under the influence of Galton’s eccentricity, Grandfather was coming across as a silly old buffer. For the story to work he had to be a menacing figure; the reader has to believe that Meriel is frightened of him. It took some re-drafting to eliminate Sir Francis and let Sir Osbert come to life as a character in his own right.
That’s the thing to watch with research: it can give you some ingredients, but then, in casting your spell, you have to transform them into a new shape with a life of its own.