Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘how to research for writing a novel’

A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein

My husband the businessman often talks about a thing called ‘duty of care’.  Here’s the Wikipedia link to its usage in English law, which is generally what he’s referring to.

Loosely speaking, as the article says, ‘a duty of care arises where one individual or group undertakes an activity which could reasonably harm another, either physically, mentally, or economically.’  On the simplest level, when you drive a car you have a ‘duty of care’ not to endanger anyone with your driving.

On a more subtle and complex level, a writer also has a ‘duty of care’.  Maybe the risk of physical harm isn’t there, but throwing radical ideas at people can be dangerous in a different way.  Author contracts often contain a clause where the author must assure the publisher that his or her work ‘contains no recipe, formula or instruction injurious to the user.’

In writing historical fiction, I feel that I have a duty of care to present my readers with an accurate picture of the past.  Any misrepresentation on my part won’t be physically harmful, it’s true, but I feel that it could be developmentally harmful.  I don’t like the idea of people going around repeating inaccuracies based on something I’ve written.  I want to generate my readers’ interest in the subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be considered the ultimate source or authority on those subjects.

I check almost everything, including my word usage.  I flag things I’m not sure of.  I work with a slang dictionary to date things; I spend hours checking up on single items.  What did the Special Operations Executive use for their sabotage operations in Occupied Europe?  It turns out they were pioneers in the use of plastic explosive.  But did they refer to it as plastic explosive?  How did they transport and detonate it?  What color was it then – the same as now?  Was it made out of the same stuff? Was it effective?  Once I’ve found the answers to these questions, how much can I actually talk about without giving information that might count as a ‘formula or instruction injurious to the user’?

I sometimes envy fantasy writers who build their own worlds with their own internal integrity without these hurdles to narrative flow.  It’s possible JK Rowling stopped writing and spent two solid days figuring out the mechanics of floo powder, but I don’t think it’s likely.  Even if she did, there’s no ‘duty of care’ in getting floo powder right or wrong.  Successful worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is in the author’s hands, not laid down in the annals of history and the laws of physics.

I have to confess that part of the reason I get so bogged down in fact-checking is because I really enjoy it.  It probably takes me longer than it should because I get distracted finding out other things that are loosely connected to the subject I’m looking up.  Reading about early aerial photography makes me want to go and research 19th century ballooning.

Probably the best thing about doing research for historical novels is that it often generates plot.  Once you start digging, you run into all kinds of interesting and often exciting facts you didn’t know existed.  ‘Thinking’s like archeology,’ Jamie Delano writes in the comic book series Hellblazer (volume IX). ‘You scrape; beneath your trowel, shape starts to form.  Forgotten secrets come to light.  ’Til finally you reveal the face of perfect beauty—the plan.’

For good tips on detail and fact checking in writing historical fiction, check out Alison Rattle’s article here:

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website:

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page



United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of Lions     My Brother's ShadowMary, Bloody MaryAcross the Universe

Writing Teen Novels

Research For My Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing historical fiction for teens begins with imagining a story that brings history to life, and research is key to creating compelling characters in an engrossing setting. Research: the very word has a musty sound to it. Once upon a time I spent hours wandering through the library stacks, searching through book after book in hopes of finding precious nuggets of information and glittering gems of detail that would lure teen readers into the story and keep them there. Now it’s all just a few keystrokes away.

My first stop is usually Wikipedia for a broad overview of characters and setting; then I follow the links and wander down unfamiliar paths, making note of the books referenced at the end of the most useful articles. I check the online catalog of my public and university library to locate library copies of promising resources, then order those I want to own. Researching Cleopatra Confesses, I acquired a half-dozen biographies and reference books. Nine online sites are listed in the bibliography, but in fact, I browsed through many more sites, chasing down details about food, markets, architecture, furniture, boats, music, dance, dress. For The True Adventures of Charley Darwin I read Darwin’s autobiography and made extensive use of an online collection of his many letters to and from family and friends, especially during his Beagle voyages.

Whenever I can, I travel. I’ve visited Marie-Antoinette’s rustic farm and opulent Versailles, cruised down Cleopatra’s Nile, listened to a concert in the Viennese church where Wolfgang performed before I started In Mozart’s Shadow. I’ve poked around Darwin’s childhood home in Shrewsbury, England, toured the school he despised as a boarding student, visited the home of the girl he loved. I wish I had visited the Galapagos Islands, but that was more than I could manage. Of course, it’s possible to make historical fiction real and exciting for teens without leaving home. A virtual online tour of Versailles can be very helpful and helped to job my memory, but for me nothing takes the place of an actual visit.

Research is so much easier than writing, and it’s tempting just to keep on doing it, postponing the time when you simply have to start telling the story.

A much more dangerous temptation is to use all those marvelous bits of information you’ve gathered, stuffing the novel with the details you’ve grown to love. When you’ve gone to so much trouble to find out what the queen was wearing or what the king was eating and what kind of dance step they were executing, it is painful indeed to cut, cut, cut.

Painful, but necessary. Good research makes your story authentic. The right details help to draw teen readers into the story, take them out of the here-and-now and transport them to another time and place. But loading the story with too many details is like throwing too many herbs and spices into a stew. Over-season your fictional stew, and young readers will yawn – and then they’re gone.


Carolyn Meyer’s author website:

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page


United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryMarie, Dancing     My Brother's ShadowSektion 20Across the Universe

Writing Teen Novels


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 194 other followers

%d bloggers like this: