Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The History Room


A book often starts with what I call 'unaware research'. I read a newspaper article or listen to a Radio 4 programme and something fires in my mind. My fourth novel, The History Room, came into being because I was at a school open day and thinking what a perfect crucible a school is. All those teenagers with their angsts and stresses. The teachers with their own anxieties. Exams. Sports matches. Friendship troubles. But at open days everything can appear perfect and glossy.

I knew my book had to start with a bang: something had to happen which immediately threatened the serene appearance of the school. Originally I thought of having a real baby in my first scene, but for reasons that will be clear to anyone who’s read The History Room, I couldn't bring myself to do it. A friend on a writers’ forum put me on to reborn dolls: dolls that are lifelike facsimiles of newborn babies. I researched reborns further by looking at YouTube videos and reading newspaper articles like this one.

Researching the book’s setting was also important. I looked at photographs of large country houses on the web. The History Room is set in a beautiful country house and there are plenty of those where I live, in Oxfordshire. Some of that research took place organically, as I drove around the area. My editor, Will Atkins, also sent me a great photograph of a house he’d come across on a walk.

I also needed to know about the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and when the Russians would have reached various parts of the country. In addition, I wanted information about the layout of the western suburbs of Prague and of the area bordering the German border. I have visited both parts of the country, but years ago. Here, my best friend was Google Maps. It allowed me to have a bird’s eye view of both areas. I also found books about Czech history during the 20th century and read some biographies and autobiographies of artists and writers who’d lived through WW2 and/or the Prague Spring.

As fantastic as the web is for research,
I still err on the side of preferring books, archives and museums, mainly because I probably spend long enough at my laptop, anyway. However, Wikipedia and the BBC website and associated forums are very good. I have also used The National Archives online to obtain copies of documents.

If it comes to a stand-off between 100% historical or geographical accuracy and the story/characters, the latter always win. But that happens very rarely, I find. What I'm trying to do is avoid someone throwing the book down in disgust because they know it's completely unlikely that events would have happened in the way I portray. Nonetheless, every time a book of mine is published I lie in bed fretting that I’ve forgotten to check something. I’m sure it’ll be just the same where The History Room is concerned!

But whatever the anxieties it can create, research is fun. It leads to new openings, new ideas. I’m enjoying going through the process for my fifth novel at the moment.  

9 comments:

Len Tyler said...

Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for posting this excellent, thought provoking account of the research process. I know what you mean about fretting over research left undone. I still find myself looking up things for books long since published, checking I was right (or not totally wrong)!

Matt Curran said...

Great post, Eliza. Agree with Len, very thought-provoking.

I don't so much stay awake at night over the historical accuracy, but you just know there'll be someone out there complaining that either the size of your boat is too big, or your characters have the wrong kind of boots on, which makes me reconsider any kind of historical novel, until I remember how much fun I have writing them!

Can't wait 'til it comes out!

Deborah Swift said...

I know just what you mean, Eliza, about waking up worrying you've made some huge booboo.
But The History Room reads like authentic, real events and people, so get that 20p glass of wine and relax with a well-earned toast. Nice interview, I love to read about other writers processes.

Alis said...

OK, now I'm counting the days until the 10th of May...

Alis said...

OK, now I'm counting the days until the 10th of May...

Eliza Graham said...

Thank you, everyone!

Elizabeth

Frances Garrood said...

Lovely post, Eliza. I rather envy the research process - I have to do relatively little for my books. Very good luck with The History Room!

Ann Weisgarber said...

Eliza, this is a great piece about the research process. Your attention to detail is why your novels work so well. Just a handful of days, and the book will be real. Many congratulations!

how to write a book said...

"Research is fun. It leads to new openings, new ideas".
absolutely agree with you..
and in your post you really imply how important doing a research is and how useful it is to finish a book.
because in doing so you will be more sure that your readers will have the best information that they deserve.