Historical research methods by Miriam Halahmy

Do you write historical fiction? Or perhaps it’s something you have toyed with but you’re not quite sure where to start when it comes to research. But only historical or non-fiction needs research, right? Er… 

Fortunately, our wonderful SCBWI member Miriam Halahmy is here to cast light on the subject and give you the lowdown on her own historical research methods. 

When do you need to do research? 

All my writing involves research. I read around my subject, winkling out minute details, interviewing people, looking at photos, YouTube clips and programmes recorded from the TV, visiting the setting (if possible) and even trying things out such as rolling cigarettes as my character, Samir does in HIDDEN

It always amazes me how much research is needed to write a book which isn’t actually set in the past. Many writers see historical research as a bit too much of a mountain to climb. But I think that historical research is not that different to all research and for all genres, from horror to fantasy to para-normal romance. 

It is no good thinking you can write a novel set on Planet X or about Zombies without having to roll up your sleeves and do your research. All writing needs research. 

Tell us about your decision to write a historical novel. 

I have written historical scenes in novels in the past. For example, in HIDDEN I have a chapter about the rescue of the British army from Dunkirk in May 1940. My research included going over a ‘little ship’ which went to Dunkirk from Hayling Island where HIDDEN is set and rescued over 200 men. 

The inspiration for the historical sections in earlier books came organically through the original inspirations for the books. I am not a writer who decides I would like to set a book in a particular period in History, rather the historical period finds me.

THE EMERGENCY ZOO (Alma 2016) is my first full historical novel and my first Middle Grade Novel. I did not set out to write a MG historical novel. However, the inspiration for the ZOO came from a news item I read which stated that 750,000 pets were put down at the outbreak of WW2. I was astounded. I know a lot about WW2 but I had never heard this story. I decided that it would make a great novel and that it would be a children’s novel. 

There is no right or wrong way to decide to write a historical novel. This is the way the inspirations developed for me. 

So how did you go about researching for THE EMERGENCY ZOO?

I have a passion for History. I know a great deal about 20th century History and the two world wars. Setting my first historical novel in WW2 meant that I had a good base to work from. However, that didn’t mean I could cut corners. 

I started by reading non-fiction on the lead up to the declaration of war on September 3rd 1939. I spent time on Google and found a film which depicted the killing of the pets with some memorable scenes. There were also a lot of photos of people rescuing pets at this time. These were important to show the streets, the pets and their names, clothing people wore, etc. All of these tiny details would help me to create an authentic setting. I poured over pictures from the era and recorded absolutely anything from TV. I could be sitting with a cuppa on my sofa, flicking through a piece of documentary and researching my book at the same time. I also interviewed people alive at the time, asking them about children’s clothing, manners, habits, etc. 

My book is set from Saturday August 26th 1939 – Tuesday September 5th 1939. I wanted to find out what was happening at that time, what children would see in the streets and hear people saying. This was very difficult to uncover. History books which deal with the outbreak of war skipped over the week leading up to the declaration of war which was very frustrating.  

In the end, I consulted the Mass Observation Diaries. This is an amazing piece of social research which ran from 1937 – mid 1950s, to study the everyday life of ordinary people. Volunteers kept diaries recording anything which interested them and they are a fantastic resource. The archive can be read at the British Library. 

I read diaries for the last week in August, often having to decipher difficult handwriting but the details I read were exactly what I needed. For example, white lines were painted on the trees and lamp posts so that people wouldn’t bump into them in the blackout. That went into my book! The whole country was under blackout from Friday September 1st 1939. One particular detail I was very keen to discover was the time on Friday morning, September 1st that people would find out that Germany had invaded Poland. This was the most important act of WW2 as it triggered the declaration of war. The fact was impossible to uncover in the history books. But in the Mass Observation diaries people reported that they knew by mid-morning. 

And a final word of advice? 

If you decide to write an historical novel you probably need to be the sort of person who really wants to trawl through tons of material to find the details to make your work convincing. If you love doing this kind of thing – and I do – then to be honest it will be a pleasure and you’ll miss it when you’ve finished. If you find this kind of thing a boring chore, then perhaps you need to rethink your original inspiration and see if you can set it in contemporary times. 

In a way research never stops. I’m still reading about pets in WW2 and children like Tilly and Rosy who are faced with an approaching war. 

It’s because of Hitler we had to set up the emergency zoo,” Tilly reminded herself. So we must beat him otherwise all the pets in the world might die, let alone the people. 

If you are like me, then once you get the research bug it won’t feel like a mountain to climb but a wonderful pool to dive into and explore. Happy writing, happy researching! 

Thank you Miriam! 

Miriam Halahmy has been a SCBWI member since 2007. She has published five novels and three poetry collections. Miriam writes for children, teens and adults. Her first YA novel, HIDDEN, was Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week and nominated for the Carnegie medal. HIDDEN was published in America this year ( Holiday House) and is currently being adapted for the UK stage. The Emergency Zoo, her first MG book, was published by Alma Books, May 2016. She is working on a second MG book set in the Blitz. Miriam is a frequent speaker and workshop facilitator at festivals, conferences, in schools and colleges. She loves to walk, read, travel and look after her grandchildren. 

Lou Minns writes MG & YA. She loves the process of critique and getting to the beating heart of the story. Lou has been lucky enough to live in Sydney and California before returning to the UK in 2016. She has made lifelong friends through SCBWI and if they each stretch their arms wide enough; their fingers might just touch as they span the globe.

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