If there’s one thing Beryl Kingston understands, it’s research. With over 40 years of writing experience and more than 25 published novels under her belt, she knows how to churn out stories that are inventive while remaining accurate. And you don’t become a bestselling author without a little bit of wisdom to pass on. If you, too, want to write sweeping sagas like Beryl, stick to these methods followed by the queen of historical fiction herself:
Visit your setting
‘I go to whichever place or places I’ve set the book in the course of the year while it’s being written,’ Beryl says. Having real life experience with a place you’re trying to describe is often essential to accurate storytelling. To make sure she has the full picture, Beryl visits a book setting at least four times, so that she can see it in each of the four seasons. Before visiting, however, Beryl and her granddaughter Lottie write a page of things that they want to find out on their visit. The list stops them from going off onto a tangent and saves them from having to go back because they’ve missed something.
Figure out what people wore… or didn’t wear
Now that you have a picture of the physical location painted, you’ve got to fill it with people accurate to the times — and those people have got to be wearing something!
‘Very interesting things, underwear,’ Beryl says. ‘I’ve done a lot of research with underwear.’ While you don’t necessarily have to be as thorough as Beryl (unless, you know, it’s that kind of book), the wardrobes of your characters can be a descriptive place to add a touch of historical accuracy.
Fashion research can also open up a wealth of details you may never have thought to consider. ‘You have to remember that places smell and people smell, too,’ Beryl says. ‘I can remember the smell of a wet Friday-afternoon tram when everybody’s sitting in the clothes they’ve worn all week and the clothing is damp.’ Though odd when out of place, details like this can make the difference between writing a caricature of a place in time and transporting your reader to another life.
Find a real life hook
Beryl’s books often have a real life hook. The girls in Two Silver Crosses are based on two very real girls. The true story of railway mogul George Hudson led way to Off the Rails. A specific scene in Suki was inspired from a visit to a Georgian house in Edinburgh. And War Baby has influences from Beryl’s own life.
‘If it’s a [full] story, someone’s already told it,’ Beryl says. ‘But if it’s just a snippet, blimey, I think, what about that?’
For one of Beryl’s stories, she found a piece in a tabloid about a couple coming home from a night out at the cinema who looked up and discovered the shops with flats above them were on fire. As they were looking up at the flames, a completely naked man appeared on the top of the roof and ran about. ‘Isn’t that a beautiful start for a story?’ Beryl says. ‘You never know what you’re gonna find.’
Keep the fiction plausible
‘You’re allowed to make things up, you just have to make sure that what you’re making up could have happened or could possibly true,’ Beryl says. ‘If you get the slightest little detail wrong…’ She once wrote about a big department store that had dormitories above where the young men and women who worked in the shop lived. Beryl described the place in great detail for her story, then, one day, got a rapturous letter from someone in Canada saying, ‘you got the store down to the last detail; but the curtains weren’t blue, they were green.’ Beryl points out that, when you’re dealing with real places or time periods with crucial details, you’ve got to get every little thing right, or someone will notice.
Roll with the punches
While researching for one of her more recent books, Beryl and Lottie went looking for a chapel. The story was going to be the story of a girl sent out to work when she’s 12. She’d be sent miles away without the ability to see her family, so Beryl wanted the story to be in a very small community, like a little village or a hamlet. Beryl and Lottie chose one just north of Chichester, because when they looked at maps in the library they could see cottages, a manor house and what they were convinced was a church. She could marry in that church, Beryl thought.
‘So we shot in,’ Beryl says, ‘and shot right past it because it was so small.’ When they eventually made their way back, they realised the structure wasn’t a church at all. It had been the chapel of the manor house, but the owner of house had been fed up with it blocking his view, so he deconsecrated it and moved it across the road. ‘We almost called that The Chapel That Never Was,’ Beryl laughs.
Even when you think you’ve found a good lead, it can often lead down a rabbit hole; but Beryl’s methods and the stories that come out of them prove that if you persevere and roll with the surprises that pop up, you’ll have an inventive historical fiction title in your hands in no time.
As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with your tricks for researching books or what your favourite details from historical fictions books are!