May 14, 2013 @ 12:27 PM

How much research...?

There's been some good discussion on LinkedIn recently about the importance of research for writers of historical fiction. How much research do I need to undertake? Before, after, or during the writing?

What to do with all that information – something like 90 per cent of the material – that never makes it into the final book? Do I really need to visit the places I'm writing about? And so on...

Opinion and suggestions on those myriad questions that all of us who write about the past have to tackle for each new book.

From the first idea...

With my own concern to make the external facts of my novels as accurate and interesting as I can, the significance of research cannot be overstated.

It begins from the moment the idea first comes into the mind ... a word, a name, an anecdote, a sentence in a book ... and continues right through to production. the last

During the writing of Captain Cook's Apprentice, for example, I'd envisaged Endeavour's sailing master, Robert Molineux, as somewhat of a rough ‘Tarpaulin’ who'd risen in rank from the lower decks.

He was from Liverpool. He appointed a shipwright and a carpenter as executors to his Will just before Endeavour sailed in 1768.

But at the time I was correcting the first set of proofs, by chance I came across a portrait of Molineux.

Here was very much the young 18th century gentleman in his curled hair and velvet coat – and the character of course had to be completely re-imagined.

And not just in his physical description, but in his essence and speech.

‘Thee’ and ‘Tha’ became an educated  ‘You’ and ‘Your’ throughout – much to the proofing editor's chagrin, no doubt, but immensely to the benefit of the book and those readers who knew the tale I had to tell.

Nor can the process of research be confined to books and the amazing global resources these days of the World Wide Web.

Provided the material is approached with a certain amount of caution and cross-checking, a mere keystroke can yield arcane facts and photographs (what ship was the Bass Strait ferry in 1941?) that once would have taken days to unearth in a public library.

Primary landscapes

Secondary sources are all very well. But for writers concerned to recreate the past with any degree of accuracy and take our readers with us into that literary world, nothing can surpass the significance of handling the primary materials and visiting the principal landscapes we’re writing about.

True, it's important to find a subject that will take you to interesting places ... Britain, Tahiti, Borneo ... for the research trip is, after all, a tax deduction!

More seriously, I find it is only by seeing the locations for myself – by meeting the people, hearing their speech, sensing the colours, smells, sounds, customs, rhythms and energies of a place – that can you really start to bring them to life on the page.

Not that such impressions always have to be overt in the finished work. But with any luck they will seep into the text through the spaces between the words, so that the book may become for the reader something of a lived experience – an imagined reality like a dream that, when the last page is turned, might prompt the thought that this writer knew what he or she was talking about.

A lived experience...


'Mr Muscles' at the helm of HMB Endeavour.

The test is to imagine the opposite experience. Get something wrong, and the risk is that readers who know will become suspicious of the whole book.

They’ll no longer suspend their sense of literary disbelief; and for them the whole artifice that is any book could start to collapse.

To write, for example, of the white tropical sands of Point Venus at the head of Matavai Bay in Tahiti, where Cook observed the Transit of Venus, and a perceptive reader may well toss your book aside. The beach is in fact black volcanic sand.

Or describe the ‘seats of ease’, where the Endeavour crew opened their bowels, as jutting over the stern of the ship (above the captain’s great cabin window for God's sake!), and not at the bows where the waves could perform their natural ablutions, and anyone who has ever stood on the deck of the replica vessel will guess at once that the author never has. It’s not the sort of thing one easily forgets.

'Jewels of authenticity...'

Of course one can learn about such things from a book or a 'virtual' tour of the ship. But for my money it is only by seeing and doing that such details become fixed in the mind, and by a process of accumulation give what Patrick O’Brian calls those ‘jewels of authenticity’ to an historical narrative.

(During the research and writing of Captain Cook’s Apprentice, indeed, the one thing I wouldn’t do was to read any of the Aubrey/Maturin series, for fear of being unduly influenced – or intimidated).

Peter Weir’s film Master and Commander I watched over and over, for he’d sailed on Endeavour during his research, as had I, and the film fairly sang with the sea wind and authenticity. I read O’Brian after I’d finished, and loved every word of the books. Jewels, indeed!)

If I‘ve taken my examples for this little essay from Captain Cook’s Apprentice, it’s because it was by far the best research expedition I’ve undertaken for any of my books.

Captain Cook...

The National Library gave me four hours with Cook’s Journal; and reading of the Endeavour voyage in the captain’s own handwriting as it unfolded day by day, the great adventure truly became alive, and I could sense my young hero, Isaac Manley, slipping in and out among the spider lines of words and figures, like soundings on a chart.

I sailed on Endeavour from Melbourne to Sydney – ten days at sea, during which I heard the ship singing for myself in the shrouds and creaking timbers (and incidentally enjoying the comfort of a modern lavatory in 'the heads' below).

I had a wonderful day on Port Hacking with my friends Margaret and Ron Simpson, with Les Bursill, a senior Aboriginal man of the Dharawal people; went to Cooktown, where memories of Cook still resonate; visited New Zealand and Tahiti (of course!)

And had several weeks in England, courtesy of the Australia Council: at Holburn where Isaac was born; Greenwich, where he went to sea; in Oxfordshire, at the house he built when he rose to become a captain, married an heiress (as should we all try to do) and settled to middle life as a country gentleman.

Strawberry Hill gothick: Braziers, the garden front

Braziers... a lovely house between Oxford and Reading … a fine 17th century farmhouse, to which the Manleys added a splendid front wing in the elegant later 18th century style known, after Horace Walpole's mansion, as ‘Strawberry Hill Gothick’.

Interestingly, Ian Fleming (he of ‘James Bond’ fame) grew up at Braziers as a boy. It’s now something of a commune – one of the oldest in Britain, I believe.

And spending several days living in the rooms that your subject built for himself and his family … inhabiting their space, looking out on the world they created for themselves … you begin to get a fair idea of what such people were really like. Their tastes, ideas, social mobility, status and expectations.

For it’s not just the outer world of facts but, more importantly, the inner world that counts for any author. Character. Motivation.

These things are by far the most significant aspect of one’s research for an historical novel – any novel, indeed.  And it’s quite remarkable how often clues to them may be found within the physical landscape itself.

It’s an important topic. I’ll write a little more about it in the next article which I've called ‘Social Landscapes’.

Footnote: Captain Cook's Apprentice is sadly now out of print, but is still available as an eBook. I have linked the title to the Penguin eBook site.


Photo Credits:

Captain Cook's Apprentice cover: courtesy Penguin Books Australia.

'Mr Muscles' on board Endeavour replica: author photo.

Braziers: author photo.