Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Ups and Downs of Research - Jane Eagland

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.


www.janeeagland.co.uk

12 comments:

Laura Harrison said...

For me, i love research too.

For the storys i'm writing now, i have to look up Farms and things that people do on them. (living on them and such)

Its fun! xxx

Leila Rasheed said...

Wise words, Jane. I think another, related interesting thing about writing about history is that you have the benefit of hindsight. Events, whether the South Sea Bubble or the Crimean War, are completed, and you can interpret them in a way that you can't interpret the fluctuating everyday world we live in. I find historical novels particularly interesting for that reason.

Lucy Coats said...

So fascinating, seeing the different way historical writers approach their research. But one thing we all have in common is 'too much information to put in the book'. I so wanted to put all the fascinating stuff I learned about Ancient Greece into my storyteller's journey--but sadly there was neither space nor story necessity--so it lives in my head and is useful in crosswords!

Sam Mills said...

I have just started on 'Whisper my Name', so this is fascinating, Jane! I'm on about page 50 now and I already love to hate Sir Osbert, so I'm very interested to discover he was drawn from real life. And last night, when I was devouring your book on the train, I did notice how lightly you wove your research into the novel, so that you can picture the settings vividly but you avoid the dreaded 'info-dumps'. It's a great book and I would recommend to all!

Dan Holloway said...

No problems with sinister and Galton! Renaissance man maybe, but he was one of the darkest figures of the late Victorian age with his work on criminal physiognomy and influence on the eugenics movement.

I really love research, largely as the one immovable fixture in my work is food :).

Susan Price said...

I knew of Galton from quite a young age, because of the Galton Bridge, near me, which was (is!) very high, and folk used to reguarly chuck themselves off it. (Then barriers were put up to spoil the fun.) But wasn't Galton a Eugenist? Quite mad and more than a bit sinister.

Juxtabook said...

As a child historical fiction was my very favourite sort of book and I would love the information as much as the story but I was also addicted to the page turning nature of a really good tale. Getting that balance right for children must be so hard.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I spent ages researching Thomas Cromwell for The Lady in the Tower. And then he stubbornly refused to fit into the story all that much! It's so hard to tell which research you're going to need and be able to use beforehand. I tend to do some and then start writing, continuing to look up things I need as I go along. I comfort myself I may be able to use the information I didn't need after all for another book one day.
I really enjoyed Whisper My Name too.

Sue Hyams said...

Fascinating. I too love research and it's amazing the tiny little details you come across that make a world of difference.

Enid Richemont said...

Loved the anecdotes about Sir Frances Galton, especially the explanation for his baldness.

catdownunder said...

Fascinating! I always think it would have been marvellous to talk to Cynthia Harnett about the way she did the research for her books.
Good historical fiction is like learning history by eating icecream.

jane eagland said...

Thanks for the nice comments about Whisper My Name, Sam and Marie-Louise. And yes, I've had that experience of squirreling away information that doesn't get used. I agree that some of Galton's ideas were sinister, but I didn't want to say too much about that as I didn't want to give away too much about my story!