During my talk last weekend, I got a few questions about how to actually go about researching a time period, particularly the Victorian era. I suppose in many ways, I have taken my knowledge of this era for granted. I learned a lot about the period during my studies in college and graduate school and became well-versed in the literature of the time while fulfilling my graduation requirements and writing term papers. I was able to take all that time and experience and turn it into a novel and didn’t have to do a ton of extra research to feel comfortable in this world.
Realizing that not everyone else out there has done this or had this opportunity, I understand that researching an entire time period can be very daunting. There are so many elements to tick off your list. I think for a story I’ve been prepping to write next year I’ve read 32 books. I did that over a period of six months. So I certainly have had the experience of having to start from scratch. And yes, it is absolutely overwhelming. Thus, I thought I would spend time this week sharing some ideas with you on how you can get a little better acquainted with the Victorian era for your writing purposes.
- Read some popular literature from the time. Wilkie Collins is always a good author to start with. He deals with issues of concern at the time including science vs art, particularly vivisection which was highly controversial. Charles Dickens is another author who will give you some insight into manufacturing and the “invention” of the concept of a childhood. The Victorian era is the time when children first began to be viewed as children instead of little adults. The Brontës will give you a taste of the Gothic which was still prevalent in this period as well.
- Sarah Chrisman. If you’re interested in learning about the finer, more personal details of the Victorian Era, check out Sarah Chrisman. During my internet research, I came across this really fascinating woman. She is a modern human being in her early/mid thirties who chooses to live a “fully Victorian lifestyle.” This means that she adheres to the female shape of the time period: donning corsets and making her own clothes etc. She uses a Victorian stove, soap as similar to what you could acquire during the time period and more. She has made some really great observations about what it was like to live as the Victorians did because she’s come as close to doing this as anyone possibly can in 2016. I found her perspective to be very useful.
- Read etiquette manuals. These will give you a great deal of insight into how society functioned and what the very complex expectations consisted of. You can find reprints of these manuals easily on Amazon and in other places.
- Punch Magazine. You can find copies of Punch for sale all over eBay for pennies. This magazine started in 1841 and was published until 2002 and was really popular. You can find copies of it university libraries and scans of the cartoons all over the internet. I had professors reference it regularly and we even did a research project involving it. You can really pinpoint social issues by looking into this publication, particularly at the satire found in their cartoons. They’re fabulous.
- Get on location. If you have the opportunity to visit a house or building built during the time period you are writing about, then go there. I happened to be visiting my sister in Washington D.C. while I was working on The Green Lady and she mentioned that her house was built in the late 1880s or early 1890s. I roved all over that place looking at what details had been left intact. The fireplaces in that house made it into the bachelor pad of my main character, John Edgar. I was enamored with the pressed leaf patterns you could still see in the metal of the fireplaces.
Research is the most important part of the preparation process if you are planning to write historical fiction. You need to ground yourself in the time period. This ranges from knowing what social issues were of concern down to etiquette and other rules followed by everyday people.