Monday, March 29, 2010

I Want to Know

by Joan

As writers, we receive conflicting advice on how to write the best book we can. Write what you know. Write what you want to know. Write what you read. Write what you’d like to read. I think the best course is to combine all of this advice.

I keep a file of ideas, little notes about occurrences that have happened to me or my family, situations I find amusing, odd incidents from the news, character traits I’ve observed. I pore over these when looking for ideas, for ways to make my writing more realistic.

Writing what I want to know requires immersion into different worlds. Tracy Chevalier, originally from Washington, D.C., has lived in London for twenty years and completes vast research for each of her novels. Texan Deborah Crombie writes British mysteries and spends several weeks each year immersed in the English neighborhoods and cities about which she writes. Even though I’d love to visit every place I write about (numerous times!), I must rely on the Internet, books or interviews as resources for unfamiliar subjects or settings.

Since I discovered a love for adding a dash of historical fiction to my plots, I’ve had to travel to the past.

My current manuscript features many parts of London: posh Hampstead, crumbling Highgate Cemetery, eclectic Clerkenwell, and fashionable Bloomsbury. I’ve spent some time in London, but long before I ever dreamed of writing a story placed there. Rather than rely on my memory, I must do my research.

The story features two sets of rival architects, one hundred fifty years apart. I know very little about architecture, other than what I’ve read in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, a multi-time-period mystery set in the grittier parts of London. He's a master of historical fiction and biography. My story is set both in present day and the Victorian era. With that in mind, over the next week I’m taking a step back from writing while I refuel my history tank, exploring books on nineteenth-century London, Roman-inspired architecture, church monuments, and convents.

Not only do I need to get the setting, architectural scene and period details right, but the story features an Italian immigrant and his Irish nemesis for whom I must capture their respective nineteenth-century accented dialogue. I want it to be authentic, yet not cliché.

Anyone have ideas on how to accomplish this? Movies or books to recommend? I want to know!


  1. Yes! Go to Google Books (yes, the evil digitizers) and do a search on some key terms, but set your search parameters for books and magazines published between 1800 to 1900. When I was researching the historical part of The Shadow Scribe, I read a lot of books and magazines from the Regency period (FROM, not about). It was invaluable in helping me capture the voice and writing style. Examples are a book written in 1821 for newly married women on how to keep house, and copies of the letters of Charles Dickens.

  2. Thanks for the excellent suggestion Jenna. I'm headed to Google Books right now...

    Oh, and thanks for stopping by! The Shadow Scribe sounds interesting!


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