Have you always loved history? Were some of your favourite feeds as a child historical adventure books? What should you think about if you fancy trying your hand at historical fiction for young readers? The Time Tunnellers are here to help.

Part two: Research

Research is vital to make the world and the characters you are writing about real and compelling – to make your world the sort of place young readers will want to dive into and explore. But how much research is enough? And how can you strike the balance between historical detail and the drama necessary to carry a reader forward?

ALLY: While you need to know as much as you can about the people and times of your story, don’t fall foul of the temptation to show off what you know or include that extra thing you found so fascinating about King Henry VIII’s lute! For example, in the case of scene-setting, try to focus on just a handful of key elements that both build atmosphere and create a sense of time and place. In my Gunpowder Plot story, Black Powder, when Tom Garnett, my young hero first arrives at the grand palace of Cowdray, these are the things he first notices as he is shown into the chambers of Viscountess Montague, the lady of the house: The room is low-ceilinged and dark, lit only by the light of the flames in the stone fireplace. There’s a smell of wood-smoke and dry rushes and the wall is lined with wood-panelling carved with ‘thick ropes of ivy’ and faces peering out from among the leaves ‘strange creatures with sharp fangs, horns and wild staring eyes that seemed to follow his every move.’ Later he notes the smell of oranges (still a luxury food in those times) and the chalky-white lead paint on the lady’s face.

CATHERINE: My top tip for researching historical stories of the last 200 years is to read novels written at the time (and you don’t even have to read them cover to cover). I needed to find out about nineteenth-century debtors’ prisons for my current novel set in Victorian London and was directed to a chapter in Dickens’s David Copperfield where Mr Micawber is incarcerated in a famous London prison known as the King’s Bench. The information I gleaned from that passage was incredibly useful, and in fact I found it so gripping that I went on and read the whole book! Not strictly necessary for my story, but reading novels written at the time does help to root you, the author, in the period that you are writing about and can help you write daily life of the period more convincingly.

BARBARA: I was reluctant to write historical fiction because of all the research involved! I’m not lazy, but I am a big picture, bold brush-stroke sort of person - and I worried about not being meticulous enough! I have good news though – you don’t need to know every single detail about life at the time – a sprinkling is enough. For children especially, overloading them with too much detail can actually get in the way of the story. Like Catherine, I read ‘around’ the period for a few months before writing a manuscript to get my head in the zone, but if any details I come across are interesting enough to stick in my mind, then perhaps my readers will be interested too. Census documents are worth their weight in gold though. For my first book I took all the first and second names of the village and combined them in new ways. It also told me the occupations of people in the village! Graveyards are also fantastic sources of names: Cain Murdoch, the villain in my forthcoming book Rivet Boy, came straight from 19th century gravestones. Final tip: If, like me, you are worried about research, befriend an expert and ask them to read it for accuracy. Not to edit, of course, but to spot any clangers. For the price of a cup of coffee or a bottle of whisky, I have been saved from many a blunder!

SUSAN: If you can, try to visit the places you are writing about. My Gracie Fairshaw mystery series is set in 1930s Blackpool and I am lucky to live about an hour from the resort. While I don’t have a time machine, sadly, I have been able to get a feel for the period by visiting the same attractions that Gracie visits including Blackpool Tower, Pleasure Beach and the piers. Look out for little details - I like to take a notebook and use my camera so I can keep a record for later reference. I have to remind myself that what is commonplace to me – such as sliced bread - in the 30s would be new and exciting to my character! I often have to double check if something had been invented or was something in use by ordinary people.

Susan visits Blackpool Tower

Gracie, as a detective, notices things that other people miss, but it is also important to remember that some things are so familiar to my characters that they wouldn’t pay them any note. It’s a balancing act when considering how much description to use. In the first book Gracie was new to Blackpool, but in the sequels she is more familiar with the seaside town. I have been able to see original 1930s decoration, listen to ambient sound and experience the smells and feel of these spaces. I have also been able to use the microfiche machines at Blackpool’s Central Library to view old copies of the Blackpool Gazette. Reading contemporary news articles and looking at the advertisements has definitely helped me get a sense of society at the time in particular considering what life was like for women and young girls. Pathe news clips on YouTube have also been great. What first hand sources could you use?

* All images supplied by The Time Tunnellers
*Header image: In house collaboration between Ell Rose and Tita Berredo




The Time Tunnellers

The Time Tunnellers are a group of five authors who write historical fiction for children and teens. They publish a weekly short video aimed at schools about a fascinating historical topic, and set a relevant creative writing challenge which teachers can use in class. In addition to their YouTube channel, they publish a weekly blog about digging in the past for stories. Follow them on TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Check out Ally's website: https://allysherrick.com, Her new book, Vita and the Gladiator, came out in Feb 23.

Check out Susan's website: http://susanbrownrigg.com/, where you will find information about all of her books.

Check out Barbara's website: http://www.barbarahenderson.co.uk. Her new book, Rivet Boy, was out in Feb 23.


Jo E. Verrill is an enthusiastic writer of humorous books for children, an advertising and broadcasting standards consultant and Words & Pictures’ KnowHow editor. 

Got an idea for KnowHow, or a subject you’d like to hear more on? Let us know at knowhow@britishscbwi.org 


Ell Rose
 is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures
Find their work at www.shannonillustrates.com 
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter
Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org 


Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. She has a Master's degree in Children's Literature and Illustration from Goldsmiths UOL and a background in marketing and publicity.   

Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or www.titaberredo.com 

Contact her at: illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org


No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.