As the writer of historical fiction, I do a LOT of research before I start writing my novels. I have a huge library comprised of biographies, maps, flower, tree and bird guides, herbal healing, histories, diaries etc so that I can find out how people lived in the past, what they ate, how they dressed, who was in charge and what was going on around them, and so on.  The best thing of all, I found, was to be able to visit the sites I was writing about, to take photographs, to buy maps and brochures and pamphlets, and books that aren’t available in Sydney where I live. I found it so helpful to be able to walk in the footsteps of my characters, to see what they might have seen in terms of buildings (or their ruins), as well as the countryside, and at the same time, find inspiration from my surroundings. But it’s always hard to know whether you should find out everything you need to know before you start, because the scope is so huge you may get thoroughly side-tracked and NEVER start!  So here’s how I go about finding out what I need to know and how I balance that with actually getting on with my writing:

I do a little research, enough to get some idea of the history of that period and where and when events take place, and then I start writing. For example, I started A Ring Through Time while in Adelaide on a May Gibbs Fellowship, basing the story on what I remembered from a holiday at Norfolk Island some ten years before that. With the story in my mind, I knew all the things I needed to find out when I actually went there – which narrowed down my field of research, but  meant a fair bit of rewriting once I went to Norfolk Island and began to find out more about the Second Penal Colony in the 1850s, and the situation I wanted to write about. Pictured is a map of the settlement on Norfolk Island in the 1850s and below it is a picture of Government House as it is today, but where the commandants once lived. A Ring Through Time is what I call a ‘fictional history’ in that the commandant and his family are fictional but I’ve woven them around real aspects of that brutal past and what happened there,  and I’ve also included people who were on the island at that time. A Ring Through Time won the Society of Women Writers biennial book award in the YA category, and was runner up for the Sisters in Crime Davitt award in the YA category.

Before I started writing The Janna Mysteries (now retitled and published as The Janna Chronicles) I downloaded maps, did some research, and found out where (and how) Janna would live, which places she would go to, and I worked out some of the problems, crimes and mysteries she would encounter along her journey. Once I started writing the story, and especially once I’d been over to the UK to walk in Janna’s footsteps, the writing became easier as I was then able to see for myself where she went and, along the way, pick up brochures, books and heaps of other information that proved invaluable.  Of course my ideas also changed as I roamed about, gaining inspiration and new story ideas. So basically I researched a lot of the story as I went along. The danger of writing too much early on is that you might find out that your story is wrong, that it’s based on something that either didn’t, or couldn’t have happened, and then you have to start again, or do some rewriting. So there is no right or wrong way, each has it’s pluses and minuses and difficulties. The trick is to find out what works for you, and do it that way.

Here are some of the resources I use when I’m researching my novels:

  • The internet is great. You can Google all sorts of subjects, and even if you don’t hit what you want straight away, sooner or later it should lead you to where you need to be. For example, in Book 2 of The Janna Chronicles, Stolen Child (previously Rue for Repentance) Janna lives and works on a manor farm, disguised as a boy. I was able to Google the medieval farming year, so I could find out what she would be doing and when; how she would go about e.g. weeding, haymaking and harvesting, and what tools she would use, etc.In Book 3, Unholy Murder (previously Lilies for Love) Janna takes refuge in an abbey. She is expected to take part in abbey life, so I was able to Google and find out about various abbeys in England, plus the hours (and names) of their services, day and night, all of which the nuns were expected to observe in medieval time.  I was also able to download a copy of the Mass in Latin, which is how Janna would have heard it. Because my character lives in a particular place, I Googled a map of the area, plus maps of other places she visits. Pictured are the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey, where I did a very good audio tour explaining life in an abbey. Below that is an artist’s impression of how the abbey would have looked before the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the time of Henry VIII. Abbeys were immensely wealthy and powerful at the time I’m writing about. While in England, I bought some Ordnance Survey maps of the areas, which are very detailed indeed, and are the best way to go if you’re not familiar with the area you’re describing. Beware: there are a few traps when it comes to Googling: One time I was researching something, and I lobbed into a whole lot of porno sites by mistake! Fortunately, I discovered that a friend of mine had witnessed cock fights in Indonesia and was able to tell me all about it. Also, remember that anyone can put anything on the web, and that information may not necessarily be accurate. So use several sources to double check your ‘facts’!
  • While Google is good, books are better! Yes, BOOKS. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. I have several children’s books about life in medieval time, with great pictures of e.g. castles, water mills, street and market scenes, etc, all of which help me visualise the scenes I’m writing about. The ‘See Through’ series is particularly good as they have several layers to their illustrations, showing e.g. what a castle looks like outside, and also how it looks and works inside. It’s a great resource when you have to describe something. I also have a whole lot of books about the society of that time, about the laws, who the kings and people in power were, where peasants and nobles slept, how they dressed (I have two books about clothing through the ages) and what they ate. I have to make sure my characters don’t eat tomatoes or potatoes as they weren’t available in England at that time, for example! On the other hand, I found out that nobles might feast on roasted swans (with their feathers stuck back after they were cooked), or peacocks, or larks’ tongues. And yes, sometimes live birds were quickly baked in a piecrust and released when the pie was cut – it was considered quite a novelty! I have biographies of King Stephen and also the Empress Matilda, so I can get both sides and a balanced view of the dispute between them for the crown, and I also have copies of chronicles of the time including those written by William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. All the abbeys in England were destroyed at the time of Henry VIII. In Unholy Murder, Janna takes refuge at Wiltune Abbey, which no longer exists so I had to make it up, which I did from a plan of a typical Benedictine abbey which I found in a book. I have books of names as well as lists of Anglo Saxon and Norman names. I have a huge collection of guides to wildflowers, trees and birds in the UK and, because Janna is a healer, I have an even bigger collection of books about medieval cures and herbal medicine – eg Culpeper’s and Gerard’s Herbals, Pollington’s Anglo Saxon Leechcraft and Abbess Hildegard von Bingen’s Medicine. My library is constantly growing!
  • I was lucky enough to be able to go over to England to do some research, so I could walk in the forest where Janna would have walked, and go to the various hamlets, manor farm, cities and palaces she visited. It was also useful to be able to visit museums and libraries over there, and to photocopy documents not available in Australia. The Victoria County Histories are a particularly wonderful source of information – but you can also source them in some libraries in Australia too.
  • One thing I have found, as an author, is just how kind people are, and how ready they are to share their knowledge with you. Wherever I go, I ask questions – and you’ll see from my acknowledgements lists in every book just how lucky I’ve been to find people with the knowledge I need.