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Living History

The joys of immersive research


The one thing I need as an historical novelist that I don’t have is a time machine. It would save so much effort — and time. I could do away with library books, visits to museums and archives and reading rooms, long fruitless internet searches, interviews with experts and location scouting. Yet, as fun as a time machine might be, albeit dangerous fun – trying to research the Seven Years’ War whilst sitting on a ship in the middle of a sea battle wouldn’t suit me, to be honest – the best thing for me about writing historical novels is actually the research. I’ve written seven historical novels now and over that time I’ve learnt how best to refine my process. I’ve changed my techniques to suit different projects and shorter deadlines — someone once told me ‘you’ll never have as much writing freedom as before you were published’ and they were so right. These days, my current timescale for creating an historical novel from scratch is around nine months, so there’s no time to mess around. I start with books, always books. I read around the subject, the era, the topics I’ve chosen to write about, e.g. deaf-blindness, the Boer War, early aviation. Once I have a subject in mind, a setting and an era, I start with my protagonist. When I wrote Song of the Sea Maid, about an eighteenth-century scientist, I began by reading the famous physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography. I wanted to know what made a scientist tick. Once I understood my protagonist’s mind, I could picture her more clearly within her setting.

My first (as yet unpublished) historical novel was set during WW2, in London during the Blitz and in the Warsaw Ghetto. I began with researching the setting. I read over a hundred books on the subject, watched dozens of films and documentaries and listened to radio programmes as well as reading countless pages of websites on the subject. From that wealth of material, I gained not only information but confidence. From this broad range of knowledge I then had to carve out a narrative and find a way to place my characters within it. This was quite a long process of planning where my fictional characters fitted within this real landscape. I was obsessed with detail and getting the facts straight. It took three years to write that book and by doing it, I learnt what it was to create a fictional world based firmly in the real one, a bygone world that has to be conjured through research. I learnt from this that I preferred to start with my characters, my story and its momentum. After that, I could go on to researching the era, topics and settings, all the while allowing this new information to feed into and develop the narrative.

My next three projects after this first attempt were set in a range of eras and places — late Victorian Kent and South Africa during the Second Boer War for The Visitors; London, Lisbon and Minorca in the 1730s to 1750s for Song of the Sea Maid (including the Seven Years’ War sea battle mentioned earlier) and Edwardian Lincolnshire and WW1 France for The Wild Air. Such challenges as these created a new process that demanded more focused research, in less time and with more urgency. I wasn’t writing for myself any more, I was writing for a publisher, an agent and, beyond that, my eventual readers. I needed my time machine more than ever! But how was I to get round this and inhabit these disparate times and places, convincing both myself and all these other audiences along the way that I knew what I was writing about and could make it feel real?

The answer came in immersive research. Alongside my tried and tested reading of books and watching of movies and documentaries, as well as long days in museum reading rooms and archives, I visited locations (as much as I could afford in terms of both time and money, both very limited in my case!). For The Visitors, I spent the day at a Kent hop farm. I touched the young bines on the hop plants and learnt that the stalks were sticky, that new growth was feathery and that they swayed gently in the breeze. I’d never have understood the nuances of that without being there myself. This gave me the bug for ’being there‘. It wasn’t always possible; for example, I couldn’t visit South Africa on my budget, so I did my best through reading letters from Boer War soldiers held at the Imperial War Museum archive. But whenever I could, I went to places and I did what I could to experience the same things as my characters.

For The Wild Air, I stood on Cleethorpes beach (where my character, Della, stood flying kites) and wrote about the sights and sounds I saw and heard. Through an expert pilot contact I’d made during the aviation research, I went flying in a light aircraft. My pilot friend Rob Millinship had told me very early on in my research that I had no business writing about flying if I wasn’t going to go flying in a small plane, a modern equivalent of those my Edwardian characters flew. I laughed this off as I was terrified of going flying in a tiny aeroplane and told him I’d think about it, all the while convincing myself I’d be fine with research and imagination. I’d actually finished writing the first draft of the book before finally Rob persuaded me to go up in a Cessna and then a Pitts Special for my first flights. Both were wonderful experiences, tinged with utter fear for the first few minutes, which then gave way to pure joy. I came home and rewrote all of my flying scenes, as I knew they were wrong. Rob had been absolutely correct: I really had no business writing about something so visceral as flying without trying it myself.

In my latest project, I’m writing a trilogy about two families living in Ironbridge, Shropshire, at the time of the Industrial Revolution. In the second book of the trilogy, the rich family owns a brickyard and the poor family work there. I met a brickmaker, Tony Mugridge, who invited me to visit the workshop and kiln where he makes bricks and tiles by hand. I made my own brick, with my own hands. It took me half an hour or so to learn how to do it. My first attempt was reasonable and I was pleased with the way it turned out. But standing there at the moulding bench, shaping that piece of clay by whacking it with a heavy brickbat, then turning it out on the side, I asked Tony how many of these bricks an average brickmoulder would make in a day. Around a thousand, he told me. And at that moment, I was there, in that dusty, smelly brickyard in 1858, surrounded by exhausted children carrying the lumps of clay to my bench on their heads and in their arms, and I had just made my first brick of the day and I had thirteen hours to make around a thousand more just the same. I was transported, in just the way I hoped to transport my reader.

Rebecca Mascull is the author of three historical novels and writes saga fiction under the pen name Mollie Walton. She also finished her friend Vanessa Lafaye’s final novella.

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