5 Methods of Research for Historical Writers

Research is immensely important for writers of historical novels. A good knowledge of the historical background helps to straighten the plot, gives credibility to its characters and brings the story to life.

Research also is fun.

If you aspire to write a Regency novel, here are five conventional and unconventional methods of research for you:

Unconventional methods of research

1. Read the Regency Novels of Georgette Heyer.

I mean it. You will enjoy her style and wit, and en passant you will learn all about Regency manners, mindset and way of life. Mrs Heyer often employed real persons of the Regency as minor characters. You will meet Beau Brummell, of course, and The Prince of Wales and his brothers, but also less known persons, such as “Poodle” Bing, a dandy, or Princess Dorothea von Lieven, a patroness of Almack’s.

Then look deeper:

  • Follow the traces of the historic persons in her novel by further research (internet or books).
  • Check the settings Mrs Heyer used.

Example: Vauxhall Gardens were the place for persons of Quality to go to for dinner, fireworks and concerts. But there is more to it. It also was a place where classes mixed: The Quality rubbed shoulders with rich merchants or more “vulgar” people. Use such knowledge to create a true-to-life scene in Vauxhall.

  • Check what people eat and drink in Mrs Heyer’s novels.

Example: Did you notice that they never drink whisky? Whisky was not a popular drink of the Regency era in England. Why was that? In the early 18th century, following the Acts of Union merging England and Scotland, there was a steep increase on the taxes on Whisky. Moreover, as a consequence of the English Malt Tax of 1725, most of Scotland’s distilleries were either shut down or forced underground. Only from 1823, distilleries were legalized by the Excise Act. Whisky became the primary liquor in many markets only after 1880, when vermin devastated the French brandy industry.

Doing research “guided” by the persons, settings and every-day objects that Mrs Heyer used in her novels helps you to stay close to the period and not get distracted. You can rely on Mrs Heyer as a lead in all things Regency. She knew the period better than anyone.

2. First-hand experience

We are not talking about time traveling. What I mean is taking part in courses. Unfortunately, the method may not work for anybody. You need to have the physical constitution for courses such as historic dance, (stage) fencing, riding or coach driving. Should you have the chance, however, taking part in, for example, a course in Old English Country Dancing will open a new world to you. If you have to write a scene in a ball room, you will certainly profit from your new skill. Turn to your local adult education center (or to one in a major city close by) to find classes.

I look forward to a course in Country Dances from the period of Jane Austen in June. Let’s see how I will do.

Conventional methods of research

3. Read specialist books and biographies of Regency persons

Introductory books to the 18th or 19th century provide solid background information. I listed some books I like here. I also recommend reading some biographies, even if you do not plan to let these historic persons appear in your novel. Reading a good biography such as Ian Kelly’s on Beau Brummell is very enlightening about the mindset of an era. You want to understand why the people of the Regency era behaved the way they did, because your characters should behave in the same way in order to be authentic.

If you live in a mayor city, you are lucky: You do not have to spend a lot of money on books. Most large libraries hold the important works on history. If you live in the country or a small town, ask your local library to obtain a book they do not hold by borrowing from another library (interlibrary lending). It may take a week or two, but it usually works well.

Libraries are often reluctant to lend the really old books. However, with web services such as Google Books or Open Library, you have easy access to many digitized editions.

4. Use Wikipedia

Some people sneer at Wikipedia as being not too correct on facts. However, when it comes to history, I consider it an excellent source for research. You find everybody and everything there, complete with further links and references. But don’t get lost in it; there is a novel to write!

5. Travel to historic places in England – physically or virtually

Visiting typical places and talking to guides in historic houses sounds like fun, and it is (see also A Writer’s Travel Guide).

The drawback: Travel is costly.

When money is tight, you can still travel virtually. Thanks to the World Wide Web, you can find nearly all anecdotes a guide at a historic house could tell you (a bit scattered, occasionally).

Begin your research at the website of a historic house. Trace every name you come across (you can use Google and Wikipedia for a start). Be a sleuth. Look into a lord’s kinship, don’t forget the cousins. If you are persistent, you will find highly entertaining stories and persons. Information found this way often is not only invaluable for research, but can also provide ideas for your next plot.