Research: Getting It Right

One of the problems—or joys—of writing books set in another time or place is the need for research. Obviously, we can’t have Kate Mallory (my protagonist, an American antiques dealer who sleuths in the UK) take the London subway. Or Lane Sanders (L. A. Chandler’s protagonist in 1930s New York City) pull out her cell phone. Those are easy mistakes to avoid. Finding out when zippers were invented isn’t difficult (it’s 1913, by the way). Nor is documenting eighteenth-century passenger ship schedules between London and Montreal. Authors can pull up street maps of Vienna or Tokyo in seconds. Using Google Earth, we can follow the A82 at road level from Fort William to Inverness, mile for mile, as I did for my first mystery, A Dream of Death, set in Scotland.

But what about deeper, more complex issues like language, humor, social customs, period dress, and hygiene? What about the prevailing but often unspoken attitudes toward gender, class, money, sex, and marriage?

One of my pet peeves is a book set in an earlier time period but populated with characters you might bump into at the shopping mall. Imagine a romance set in Regency England. The main character is a feisty, independent young woman (aren’t we all in fiction?), determined to buck societal norms and make her way in the world as a country physician. First of all, there were no female physicians in Regency England. Not a one. And second, if there were, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t say things like, “How dare you put me in a box?!” I started to read a book like that once. Got two or three chapters in and bailed.

Unless you’re creating your own fictional universe where anything goes, your job as a writer is to be as faithful as possible to the time and place you’ve chosen as your setting. That means research. Today we have the internet. But research is more than facts—not that authors can’t take liberties with setting, but we should know enough to take those liberties wisely.  

This week I’ll be considering some valuable, ordinary tools available to writers, tools that don’t require a learning curve—or a helpful twelve-year-old—to comprehend.

What is the one research tool you couldn’t live without? How far have you gone to get details of time and place right? When do you stop researching and start writing? Accent 1;\


  1. Never underestimate the value of a helpful 12-year-old! Particularly for anything computer related. For my books set abroad I’ve had to check my own memory, my husband’s memory (they are contemporary) and then run things by friends and family who are in Switzerland every day. The hard part is sifting through personal preference. Remember Susan’s comment about a student in her class objecting to the word boss and preferring supervisor? So many things in life are like this, not hard facts, but constructions of place and time and background and the moment.

  2. And I already thought writing was hard! Serious admiration for you, Connie, and all writers who add that extra layer of detail in your work. I love reading historical novels, but don’t know if I could write one.

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