SPECIAL FEATURE Who's afraid of historical research?

Barbara Henderson threw herself into research for her Victorian boy-on-the-run tale Punch. She reveals the secrets of adding just enough history to make your story sing without being too packed with teach-y-preachy detail.

I have always liked historical fiction. Like all fiction, it appeals because it takes me to another world, away from my everyday. But historical fiction does this, whilst also giving me an insight into real life as it was, in whatever time or place. When it boils down to it, I’m reading fiction, but I’m learning, without being preached at or lectured. Not a deluge of historical facts, but a sprinkling. And that is really special, when you actually think about it!

Still, my first five manuscripts for children were fantasy, contemporary or dystopian. Why did I stay clear of history when I love reading it so much? I think the honest answer is that I was scared of getting it wrong. Those who know me best would be first to confirm that I am not what you would call a details person. I’m all about the big picture, the momentum, the broad and bold brush strokes. It wasn’t really that I was intimidated by historical research, I simply hadn’t considered having a go because I automatically assumed I was going to be terrible at it.

Stumbling across a story

But I hadn’t counted on stumbling across a story as compelling as what happened in Ceannabeinne in Sutherland – enough to get my imagination going, but not too detailed so that there was plenty of room for fiction to fill the gaps. Fir for Luck became almost an obsession. I loved the potential for story that these historical events offered, like a springboard for a gymnast: the history stays in place, but the story flies high, with fancy and flippy plot twists through the mind.

I was writing historical fiction. Me!

The thing that was most liberating was that I didn’t actually have to know EVERYTHING. In fact, children’s fiction is brilliant – kids basically only care about the things I care about, too: the characters, the stakes, the plot. All they need to imagine it all, is a sprinkling of historical detail, short descriptions here and short phases of archaic dialogue there.

Piecing it together

My process is probably a little unusual, but I don’t take reams and reams of notes, colour-code post its or arrange storyboards with elaborate historical detail. I read, so that I am sure of the historical events I am covering. For Punch, this was the historical fire in Inverness which destroyed the original Victorian market hall in June 1889. And yes, Queen Victoria spent time at Balmoral weeks after this event: they could be linked. Great, check. All I needed to know.

The detail which stuck with me from reading around it all: those are the bits and pieces that make it into the book. If it resonates enough to stick in my mind, then chances are that young readers, too, will find it interesting. The confectionery trader in the burning building, and the grocer’s dog – these really existed. They add to the story I had already imagined and lend it some authenticity, but it didn’t feel like a slavish process.

Occasionally, it works the other way round, as it did in Punch. I was ready to write a story about a boy on the run. A fan of all things puppetry, the Punch and Judy heyday seemed a great backdrop. I even thought of linking to Queen Victoria. I’m quite a visual type, so I began to surround myself with images of Victorian Scotland, Balmoral, travellers’ caravans etc. But something unexpected happened. Scanning through lots of pictures on a fantastic Highland history website, I saw it, and it simply blew me away: a dancing bear. In Inverness! For real!

Extract from FruhNeuzeit academic journal: Pawing through the History of Bear Dancing in Europe Von Pelin Tünaydın (Istanbul)

More about the dancing bear

The image of the bear didn’t leave me. I sprinkled it into the story and sent the first chunk to the publishers. We like it, they said. More about the dancing bear though. I read around the topic some more – from stories to academic papers, not because I had to but because I was fascinated. Bear-baiting was already illegal, but bear-leading (i.e. dancing bears) was not. Less than 20 years later it would be. My book fell into the period of changing attitudes. I was astonished: the RSPCA already existed, newly established and with none other than Queen Victoria the patron. This was a rich mine of story-gold! Not that I was going to write an issue-driven animal rights story, but the theme threads through subtly like a thin silver thread that occasionally catches the light in a tapestry.
Punch was off!
Cover illustration by Corinna Bahr

If I have learned anything from all of this, it’s not to be scared of research, or of getting it wrong. Its role is to flesh out the story, plain and simple. It should be fun. Never be tempted to include something just because you know it. That way lies the pit of teach-y, preachy history books of old.
But if something chimes with you: you remember it because it made you feel something, or experience something, not of our time; if something took you there in the research process, chances are that this is the type of historical detail that makes your story richer.
And go easy! A sprinkling is enough.

Barabara with Inverness Museum's Punch puppet (credit Ross Wiseman)
Barbara Henderson has lived in Scotland since 1991,  acquiring an MA in English Language and Literature, a husband, three children and a shaggy dog along the way. She now teaches drama, but if you dig deep in her past you will find she has earned her crust as a puppeteer, librarian and receptionist among others. Her Highland Clearances novel, Fir for Luck, was published in 2016. October sees the publication of her Victorian boy-on-the-run tale Punch. 

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