In this short series of posts I’m going to take a look at how I write my novels. Because my novels have a historical setting, or deal with historical events and customs, I always start by doing some research, which is the subject of today’s post.
At least 80% of my research is reading. I use Wikipedia and other on-line resources for a general introduction to a subject and to acquaint myself with the main concepts, but, in my opinion, nothing beats a good book. I can often be found browsing the history section of my local public library and then staggering out with armfuls of heavy hardbacks. I don’t necessarily read them all from cover to cover but, with any luck, there’ll be at least one book in the pile that is both readable (some history books can be very hard to digest) and packed with valuable facts and ideas.
If there’s a book I particularly want to read but I can’t find it in the public library and it’s not available at a reasonable price on Amazon, then I’m fortunate I can order it from the Bodleian Library. But you can’t borrow books from the Bodleian so I have to spend a day or two in the medieval surrounds of Oxford University. Research is tough ;).
Reading non-fiction books is an excellent way to get ideas for a novel. At this stage in the proceedings I probably have little or no idea about the plot of my novel. Instead, I try to read with an open mind and when I find something interesting I think, I could use that in my plot or That could be the basis of a story. The Sleeping Angel grew organically from reading about Spiritualism, Victorian mourning customs, Highgate Cemetery and Christina Rossetti.
Although I do most of my reading at the start, I continue to read throughout the writing of the novel if I find it helpful. I might need to look up something specific, or I might just be in search of new ideas to beef up the plot. I also read fiction books if they are relevant to the subject I’m writing about.
Visiting a place that you are writing about can certainly help you to get a feel for it, but I don’t think it’s absolutely essential and the problem with historical novels is that the places you are writing about no longer exist in the way they once did.
I was lucky enough to visit East Berlin when the Berlin Wall was still standing. That’s how old I am ;). So I experienced East Berlin when it was still part of communist East Germany. That visit to Berlin ultimately led me to write Oranges for Christmas, but that was 27 years ago and at the time I had no idea that one day I would write a novel set in Berlin, otherwise I might have taken some notes.
I visited Berlin last year but now the Wall is no longer standing (thankfully) and you can only get an idea of what it was like by visiting places such as the Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse. However, in 2013 I was able to visit the old Stasi Headquarters at Normannenstrasse and the Remand Prison at Hohenschönhausen (pictured), which is now a museum and memorial centre, two visits which would have been unthinkable in the days of the communists.
I visited Highgate Cemetery right at the start of beginning to research The Sleeping Angel and just soaked up the beautiful, eerie atmosphere of the place.
If a novel is set in a real place, then it’s essential to understand the geography of the area. Google Maps is great up to a point but, for a large city like Berlin, you really need a proper map which you can spread out on the floor or pin to the wall.
I have a huge fold-out map of Berlin and, with the help of the internet, I outlined the boundary of the Berlin Wall with a highlighter pen. The only problem with Berlin was that some of the street names changed after the fall of communism. It was purely by chance, when reading a book, that I discovered that Danziger Strasse was called Dimitroffstrasse before 1989. That’s the kind of thing you can so easily get wrong.
I chose the street where the heroine lives (Stargarder Strasse) by looking at the map and picking a street (in the right area) that I liked the name of. I also used Google Street View to make sure I knew what the houses looked like. When I went to Berlin in 2013, I made a point of visiting the street itself.
A picture paints a thousand words. That’s why I like to collect images of the places I’m writing about.
In the next post in this series I’ll look at how I draft my novels.