Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Too Much Information - More Thoughts on Historical Research

I said I’d come back to the subject of historical research and here I am.

At the moment I’m reading Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms, about the mystery of Belvoir Castle. I’m about a hundred pages in and to be honest most of those first hundred pages seems to have been about her research process rather than what she found. I confess: I’ve starting skipping bits so that we get to the mystery more quickly. (Do we really need to know what the weather was on that day she first skimmed her card through the automatic door into the National Archives at Kew? Or where she met the Duchess for an interview?)

Research is a funny thing. If you’ve done it properly your reader shouldn’t notice. If you’ve done it badly, we certainly will. Ms Bailey is writing non-fiction, of course; but she made me realise that in both fact and fiction you shouldn’t allow yourself to intrude. I want to know about the people involved in this great mystery and we’re slow getting to the point.

Up to a point I sympathise. After all those hours of research it must be tempting to use as many fascinating snippets of information as possible, even if either they aren’t directly relevant to the project in hand, or you have five quotes which will illustrate your point (especially if you only need one).

Back to Ullapool Museum and Mrs Fraser’s records of the men of Lochbroom who went off to the Great War. She included, as far as she was able, every single one of them. We know their war records, their families, their education. For some of them we know very much more.

The Fowlers of Inverbroom Estate lost two sons. Because they were the gentry their deaths were more extensively reported than those of the estate workers (unfair, I know, but this is a piece about historic research not social justice). Captain Alan Fowler’s life and his return in death are outlined in a long and detailed piece in the local paper. The grieving widow, the assembled dignitaries, the elderly gardener who served three generation of the family at Inverbroom House - they’re all there in Ullapool Museum.

On the way back south we passed Inverbroom Lodge. You can just about see it through the trees. And if you have the imagination you can see the community assembled for the funeral, the perfect set
ting for a story, perhaps, about those of whom we know little.

I’m still not sure that I have the staying power for that kind of research, but I may yet give historical fiction a go. Fact or fiction, however, I’ll try not to let the many things I discover over-ride the story. Catherine Bailey - please take note.


  1. Hi Jennifer, there used to be an adage about the writer turning into the story being a bad thing. these days we seem unable to report unless we report it as we experienced it, if you know what I mean. I'm presently reading a memoir where one expects the writer to be fully present, and enjoying it immensely. Historical research is many things to many people. Anne stenhouse

    1. That just sums up my problem with that book, Anne - the story she has to tell would have been a lot more gripping if she'd just got on and told it. That's a lesson for us too!

  2. I think it's all a balancing act, Jennifer - and we hope to get it right!