I’m so pleased to have award winning novelist Jennifer Young on Mystery Mondays. She’s here to talk to us about researching historical fiction – something I’m in awe of.
Hot off the press: Cold Crash (eBook Edition) is free today on Amazon. Why not check it out and post a review for Jennifer?
Researching Tips for Historical Fiction
When I started writing Cold Crash, I looked online for music that came out in early spring 1952. I found ‘Tenderly’ by Rosemary Clooney, and it played on a continual loop as I wrote the first chapters of Max Falkland’s story. It even found its way into what eventually became chapter twelve.
As I researched further though, I found that while ‘Tenderly’ came out in the United States in spring 1952, Rosemary Clooney didn’t release any records until years later in the United Kingdom. Max Falkland lived in the UK, so I had a problem. Fortunately, Max is Anglo-American, so I simply added a reference to her grandmother posting the record to her from America.
I told this story at a reading I did last week, and another author and friend Helen Gordon asked if I ever fudged my historical details, pointing out that my obsession with historical accuracy sounded more like creative nonfiction than fiction. Cold Crash is undoubtedly fiction – I’ve never flown a plane and I’m certainly not an archaeologist – but the facts represented in the novel are as accurate as I can make them.
Coming from an academic background, I consider it vital to get those details right. I love reading historical fiction, and I adore the details of the past that makes the world rich and compelling. I don’t want to be distracted from the mystery or character development by wondering if one tidbit of information is correct. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with research. Here’s some advice from my experience researching and writing about spring 1952.
Research broad brush stroke history first. I started with overviews of the 1950s – reading books ranging from Robert Opie’s 1950s Scrapbook to Jessica Mann’s The Fifties Mystique. I also read about the Korean War. Max has just come out of mourning as the novel opens, for her brother who was shot down over Korea. (I had to supplement knowledge gleaned from a childhood of watching M*A*S*H!)
While you’re writing, don’t disappear into the internet to check one obscure fact. I did this far too regularly, and you end up wasting precious writing time. You can always correct a historical fact, but if you never write, you have nothing to correct! In one case in Cold Crash, I left a mistaken detail in place. Max’s friend Emma says it’s nice to bake scones with dried fruit again, when Max has provided it. In April 1952, dried fruit was off rationing, but I decided to leave the dialogue in, as Emma doesn’t have the money to splurge on dried fruit.
If you have an area that particularly interests you, save that for last. It sounds counterintuitive – it might have been the reason you chose your historical period. However, a real danger exists that you will research that one area forever, and never write. I deliberately chose to do this with fashion. After I had a complete first draft of the novel, I went to the British Library and poured over fashion magazines for 1952. I loved looking at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue issues, the very ones that Max would have read, seeing the ads she would have seen. It felt almost like shopping – I needed a ball gown for this scene, a dinner dress for this one.
This worked well for other areas too. Train travel is not my passion, but I knew I needed details of both the look of the LMS trains from London to Oban. An Illustrated History of LMS Coaches gave me pictures of the upholstery on the LMS train line, as well as the sleeping compartments. The microfiche version of Bradshaw’s Guide allowed me to find out the timetable of trains going between London and Oban – and that the reverse train didn’t run on weekends at all. I reorganised the timings of the novel to allow Max to travel on a Friday. Would anyone have checked? Probably not, but that detail mattered to me.
My final piece of advice is to enjoy the research – and also take it seriously!
Who is Jennifer Young?
Jennifer Young was born in a small textile town in North Carolina, USA and moved to the UK in 2001. She has since completed a PhD, become the daughter-in-law of a Catholic priest and gained British citizenship. Her degrees are from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Cardiff University and the University of Southampton. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and an Associate Dean of the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire. Jennifer lives in North London with her husband and daughter.
Her novel Cold Crash won the Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Prize.
Buy Cold Crash
For archaeologist Maxine ‘Max’ Falkland, life in early-50s London is difficult enough as she tries to move on from the death of her brother, an RAF pilot shot down over Korea. But, when she meets John Knox things get more complicated — before they get outright dangerous.
Flying her light plane to Scotland, Max overhears whispered arguments in Russian coming from the next-door room and sees lights across the moors that appear to answer flashes from the sea. Add the mysterious malfunction of her plane and she has a lot to confide when she encounters the enigmatic Richard Ash, a local landowner and recluse. But when Knox unexpectedly reappears and a dive goes disastrously wrong, Max must act fast as she finds herself in the middle of a Soviet military plot.
Cold Crash is the first of four novels that follows Max through archaeology and espionage from 1952 to 1953.
Thanks for reading…