WRITING FEATURE How much research is enough?

When W&P met SCBWI writer Lindsay Littleson, we wanted to know how she went about the research for her two historical novels and how she knew when to stop.

My main advice for anyone writing children’s historical fiction is to focus on your characters and plot. Just because your research uncovers fascinating information, it doesn’t mean it has to feature in the novel. It’s important to keep reminding yourself that your main purpose is to write an entertaining and engaging story that children will love. You’re not writing an educational textbook. Too much historical detail can bog down the story or lead to information dumps and stilted conversations between characters, of the “Did you know that…?” “How very interesting! Tell me more…” variety. The first draft of A Pattern of Secrets had a scene where Jessie’s father explains why the bustle was the death of the Paisley shawl. It was interesting historical information, but it wasn’t advancing the plot, so it had to go.

If your novel features real-life characters, collect as much primary source material as possible. In A Pattern of Secrets, my first task was downloading census records and the Rowat family’s birth, death and marriage certificates. Creating a family tree with all the important names and dates helps you keep track of who’s who. However, allow yourself some licence. Jessie had more siblings than were necessary for the plot, so they don’t appear in the novel. There’s no need to clutter up your story for the sake of rigid historical accuracy. Photographs and letters gave further glimpses into Jessie Rowat Newbury’s childhood and helped me know as much as I could about the real girl, before my imagination took over.

The research process for The Titanic Detective Agency was quite similar, as my focus was on discovering as much as possible about my main characters; real life passengers Bertha Watt and Johan Cervin Svensson. My brief from my publisher, Anne Glennie of Cranachan books, was to write a Titanic-set story with a Scottish twist. Initially, the prospect of all that research felt intimidating, and it did require a phenomenal amount, but Titanic is such a fascinating subject that it was a pleasure, and visiting the Titanic Museum in Belfast was a real highlight. If you’re researching a historical event or period, do make sure it’s one you feel passionate about, as it’s going to be a lot of work.

You might imagine research would be easy nowadays, as there is so much information available online, on virtually every subject, but all that information is often contradictory and confusing, and it’s easy to get completely overwhelmed. Pinning down the ‘facts’ can be really difficult, if not impossible, but try not to get waylaid and always remember you’re writing fiction! I found the best way of doing most of the Titanic research was on a need-to-know basis as I was writing. It’s easy to disappear down research rabbit holes, but at some point, you have to accept that you’re procrastinating and get on with writing the novel.

For the ‘Scottish twist’ in The Titanic Detective Agency, a suitable passenger was required and the obvious place to start was Titanic’s passenger list. It turned out that 12-year-old Aberdonian Bertha Watt was the only Scottish child on board, so she was it, and Bertha turned out to be perfect, as a few years after the sinking she wrote a detailed account of the sinking in her school newspaper. That newspaper account was a useful reminder that although Bertha was there, she didn’t see everything that happened on the night of the sinking. Remember not to provide an overview of a historical event, but write from your character’s perspective.

Johan proved a trickier character to research, as there wasn’t much information available. The only first-hand account I uncovered stated that ‘the boy speaks no English’. It would have harmed nobody, and been easier, to pretend that he’d been a fluent English speaker, but I chose to take the more challenging route!

The benefit of writing about people who actually existed is that they may have descendants who can give you more insights. Bertha’s granddaughter, Nancy, lives in Oregon and remembers her granny talking about the terrible night the Titanic sank. Nancy sent me an email: “I remember seeing her [Bertha] do an interview on CBC in Vancouver while we were living back up there. She talked about Bessie [Bertha’s mother] rowing, because the deck hand wasn’t very good, as Bertha watched the Titanic break in two and sink.” That small piece of information was invaluable.

Sprinkle your research lightly, don’t dollop it on with a serving spoon. The problem is that it’s hard to keep all that new found knowledge to yourself, and you may well become a complete bore about your chosen specialist subject. As a writer of children’s historical fiction, I’ve discovered facts as diverse as the number of dogs on board RMS Titanic (12) and the name of the doctor who first studied and defined cerebral palsy (Dr John Little in 1853). This kind of information rarely comes in handy in real life, not even during pub quizzes. The exception is during school visits. Pupils often ask incredibly tricky questions and it’s useful to have lots of fascinating facts up your sleeve!

* Header image by Ian Stark

Lindsay Littleson lives near Glasgow and in 2014 won the Kelpies Prize for her first children’s novel, The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean. She has written four more novels, two of them historical. A Pattern of Secrets and The Titanic Detective Agency are both published by Cranachan Books.


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