The Value and Distraction of Research

By Sue Hyams

My name is Sue and I'm addicted to research. There. I've said it. With me, research knows no bounds. There is no time that I can't fill with research.

I'm currently writing a story set in the late Victorian period. Although it's fiction, I like to be as accurate as possible, and this is where the research comes in. I recently signed up for an online course – Investigating Victorians with the University of Oxford – which took me away from my writing for ten weeks. Was that time away wasted? Nope. Was it worth it? Oh, yes! You see, research can lead to finding just the right detail that not only lifts your story off the page, but also gives you a real understanding of the conditions of the time, and that can only inform your story.

Photograph of a second-hand furniture dealer, whose business at the corner of Church Lane, Holborn, was a cross between that of a shop and a street stall. (from the Victorian Dictionary website, link below, photo © The Estate of John Thomson)

That aside, research is one of the best procrastination tools there is. Many's the time I've been stuck in a chapter that's treacle-thick with the wrong words, only to avoid the problem altogether by looking up fact, after fact, after fact that may never be used. I spent many an hour reading about the spread of cholera, the tragedy of the Broad Street pump, and the brilliance of John Snow who discovered the connection. That led to the Great Stink of 1858, and then to Bazalgette's engineering feats. Have I used any of it in my current novel? No. But it may spark future story ideas, and just by knowing this stuff, I can enrich the world in which I write. But, beware! There's the temptation, oh so strong, to show people how much research you've done, how clever and knowledgeable you are, by chucking the whole lot in. Some of it, however, is just wonderful and hard to keep out.
This is from a letter written by Henry Mayhew to the Morning Chronicle in 1849 (via the British Library website) on his visit to the cholera districts of Bermondsey:

"From this spot we crossed a little shaky bridge into Providence-buildings – a narrow neck of land set in sewers. Here, in front of the houses, were small gardens that a table-cloth would have covered. Still the one dahlia that here raised its round red head made it a happier and brighter place. Never was colour so grateful to the eye. All we had looked at had been so black and dingy, and had smelt so much of churchyard clay, that this little patch of beauty was brighter and greener than ever was oasis in the desert." 

How much does that one red flower tell you about the place and its inhabitants?

But, back to my own research and the course that I took. There was a lot of work and a lot of reading. Most of it was fascinating but some not so much. I discovered that what I love about history is the social aspect - the stories. What I really don't love are statistics. Dates and figures jumble themselves in my head until they become a meaningless blur. The religious census of 1851 will not feature in any of my novels! Researching facts that interest you and which are relevant to your writing is fun. Researching and analysing facts that you're not so keen on – coal anyone? – is rather a chore, but in every fact there is a human story, and that is where the story sparks are.

Photograph of a "Crawler" – an old women reduced by vice and poverty to that degree of wretchedness which destroys even the energy to beg. (from the Victorian Dictionary website, link below, photo © The Estate of John Thomson)
So when do you need to start your research? Before you start your novel, during, after? Any and all of them! My current story started with research. A visit to a Victorian mortuary during the London Open House weekend gave me the setting and a hint of a protagonist, but it wasn't enough. I needed more fodder. So I walked the streets of Rotherhithe and Wapping, taking notes and photographs, and I read about mortuaries and autopsies. Slowly my protagonist became more real, and my story became more populated; a plot began to form. That was when I started writing. As I wrote, I continued to look up facts, to read contemporary accounts, to pound the streets. And afterwards? After the first draft, I took the course. So, for me anyway, research is the beginning, middle, and end of the writing process.

Do you need it? It depends on how authentic you want your world to be. For historical novels it would be hard to make anything seem real without research. I think that any novel, no matter when or where it's set, can only spring to life if the author knows the world of the protagonist as if it were her own. I've just read a book set partly in the Saudi desert. When I read those passages, I could feel the sand, taste the air, smell the dryness. This is an author who made sure she knew what it was like to be out there, and it's made all the difference to my reading experience. But it's easy to take research to an extreme. There is always more; more websites, more books, more places to visit, and more documentaries to watch. When you feel your story calling, when you have enough to really visualise the world in your head, then you must write. You don't need to know everything. You don't need to stop every five minutes to look something up. At the end of the day, you're not writing a text book, you're writing a piece of fiction.

How do you decide what to use and what to keep to yourself? It's so tempting to show off. That, sadly, only impresses you, the author, and only irritates the reader. The key is to find the unusual details, things that make the scene stand out. Long descriptive paragraphs end up being 'skippy'.

You get to the end of the passage and you've forgotten how it started. Mention a smell, mention the sound of wheels on cobblestones, but don't show that you know every shop, every alley, including the number of street lights. And your character descriptions? One or two details – navy leather boots with buttons, the velvet collar of a coat, not every single item of clothing, plus hair and eyes and perfect white teeth. Again, it's skippy! I enjoyed my course but I'm delighted to be getting back to my writing.

I've learned a lot, I've read things that have sparked new story ideas, but, above all, I've caught a real glimpse of Victorian life. I can understand the motivations of both the rich and the poor, and the way in which they interacted. My fictional world is much more complete, more vivid in my mind, and this can only help to better my writing. Research can be a joy, it can be a form of writer's avoidance, and it can be frustratingly elusive. You'll always know more than you can ever put on the page. Research, to my mind, is what turns a 2D story into glorious technicolour 3D. You just have to know when to stop!

If you're interested in finding out more about the Victorian era, here are some excellent links:

The Victorian Dictionary – compiled by Lee Jackson who knows everything there is to know about Victorian London

The Victorian Web

A Web of English History

Fascinating insights into workhouse life, including contemporary account.

National Archives section on Victorian Britain

BBC Website giving an overview of Victorian Britain

British Library resource on the Victorians

Sue Hyams grew up in Hertfordshire with countryside, horses and books. She's swapped all that for South East London, a postage stamp garden and cats, but still the books keep coming. She loves nothing more than traipsing about the city looking for story ideas and this has, so far, taken her to a Victorian mortuary, an old operating theatre, and some very dark alleys. She can often be seen leaning perilously over Hungerford Bridge with her trusty Lomography camera, trying to get that perfect shot of her favourite place; the South Bank. She is currently working on a middle grade novel set in London's Victorian docks.


  1. Very interesting - and thanks for the research links. I see lots of procrastination in my future as I read for the Victorian section of my book!

  2. "When you feel your story calling, when you have enough to really visualise the world in your head, then you must write," - yes, I agree entirely. It's even harder if you've spent many months editing other projects and this is the first time in a long while that you're writing the first word of the first draft.

    Good luck with your project.


  3. I am at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to research. I write first and then pay for it when I miss things. I need to get better at it and this post has given me lots to think about. Thanks 😃

    1. Not sure what happened there, those question marks were meant to be a smiley face.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. What a great post - really enjoyed hearing about your process and look forward to reading your book!

  5. Fascinating, Sue. A bright flower in a slum seems a good metaphor for the kind of detail one finds when delving into the past. Good luck with the writing.

  6. Thanks for the lovely comments!

  7. I'm illustrating a lot of non-fiction recently and have exactly the same experience Sue, current project is about Shakespeare's London.... the research never ends! Really excellent article, thank you! :)

  8. Can't wait to see the illustrations, John!

  9. I'm in the same thrall as you are at the moment, researching a historical novel. It us such a different experience from making it up. At first I thought it was easier. But it's just different ... except that sneaking addiction to research is such fun!

    1. It is fun. I love it. It's knowing when to stop that's the hard part.

  10. Fascinating stuff Sue, can't wait to read the book now!


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