Don’t Do What I Did: On Writing Historicals

I started my professional life as an academic. I spent my days researching, making notes, writing scholarly tomes, delivering papers, supervising the occasional student.1 Starting when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree I made a note of every single article and book I read, which included year of publication, where and who published it, in addition to jotting down any relevant quotes, and what I thought of it. In addition, everything I read was festooned with a forest of post-it notes.

I had such good habits. I was a model of good researcherliness.2

But then I left academia. I no longer wrote scholarly tomes. I didn’t have to back up every argument and idea with a flotilla of properly sourced footnotes. So I didn’t. I stopped keeping careful note of what I read. After all, no one ever says, “citation please” of a novel. So why bother? It’s a lot of extra work, keeping track of everything. It’s so much more fun just to read and research and enjoy and not have to stop constantly to jot down notes. Plus I was being environmentally sound, wasn’t I? Not wasting post-its.

I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.

Fast forward to doing the copyedits of Razorhurst my historical novel set in Sydney in 1932. The copyeditor had a query about a particular gun deployed in the book. Now, I had researched that gun in great detail, but could I answer the CE’s query? No, I could not. I’d forgotten all my gun research3 and I had not kept a record of it. I had to learn about that gun all over again.

I also failed to keep a record of all the words and phrases I’d carefully researched to figure out if they were in use in Sydney in 1932. Words like “chiack” and “chromo” but also research on whether “heads up” and “nick off” were in use back then.4 So I had to repeat that research too.

And then, because I’m a total fool, I didn’t write down any of the redone research and had to look it all up YET AGAIN while going over the page proofs.

(And, yes, with a sinking heart I realise I have been every bit as careless with my research for the 1930s NYC novel. When I get back to it I am going to be so very good. I swear.)

Don’t do what I did.

If you’re writing anything—fiction or non-fiction—that requires research keep careful notes. Keep a list of all the books you consult, of all the conversations you had with people who were alive at the time, of all webpages. Write it all down. No matter how tangential.

Trust me, you’ll be saving yourself hours and hours and hours AND HOURS of work later.

TL;DR I am the world’s worst role model for writing historical fiction. Keep notes! Don’t be lazy! Don’t do what I did.

  1. I was a postdoctoral researcher so teaching was not part of my academic duties. []
  2. Yes, that is a word. I just typed it, didn’t I? []
  3. Guns are not my thing. It all went in one ear and promptly fell out of the other one. []
  4. “Heads up” was in use but probably not in Australia. “Nick off” was definitely in use dating back to 1901 and only in Australia. []