Saturday, March 16, 2024

Before We Begin

This month's blog topic is Research for Your Novel - Love it or hate it? How important is it for your writing?

Oh, where to begin? First, for me, I have to say it is supremely important. As a writer of historical romantic fiction, I could not imagine having written any of my books without a great deal of research. The fact that I have always been a reader helped enormously when I needed to go down the rabbit hole of research.

I say rabbit hole because I’m easily sidetracked by weird and wonderful snippets of history—a subject I really did not like and, therefore, paid little attention to when I was at school. Dates and the succession of kings made no impression on me, but as an adult, I was drawn into historical fiction because of the characters that populated those stories and, subsequently, the details of the fabric of their lives.

However, it wasn’t historical fiction that started me collecting odd facts about peoples' lives, but a contemporary Western romance. I knew nothing of ranches and rodeos and thought the best way to find out was to talk to people who did. Ranchers and working cowboys were brilliant—they somehow managed to keep straight faces while answering this city gal’s probably silly questions. I have written three contemporary Western romances now, and each one needed someone’s input.

For Loving That Cowboy, I needed to know about steer wrestling and conducted a telephone interview with a top Canadian performer. For Legacy of Love, I pulled on conversations I’d had with stock contractor Harvey Northcott, who just happened to have two Australian bull riders staying with him for that year’s rodeo season. I knew nothing about grain bins, so after an online search, I contacted a company that made them. In Loving Georgia Caldwell, I needed to know about growing hay, and for this, my next-door neighbour, Don Hunt, was a valuable source. Sadly, Don is no longer with us, having recently passed after a long illness.

Research for my WWI novella, Shell Shocked, took me to the Imperial War Museum in London, UK. I considered it a privilege to read the actual, often poignant and moving, letters written by soldiers from the trenches. Although some letters were heavily censored, the writer’s thoughts, hopes, and fears were revealed in stark black handwriting. My Regency research came with its own background as I grew up surrounded by the elegance of Regency architecture in an area of Bristol, UK. More information was gleaned from the novels of Georgette Heyer as regards fabrics and costumes, manners, and what was expected from those gracing the upper echelons of society.

Royal York Crescent, Clifton

My daughter and I had a wonderful day at the Costume Museum in Bath, including playing dress up. The costumes were handmade as they would have been, from fabrics either the same or similar to those available during the Regency. Even though my daughter is slim and trim, the corsets were not big enough for her, which only emphasized how tiny women were in that era. About the only thing we could both try on were the bonnets, which we did.

People truly are the greatest source of information, as a website or book cannot speak to you in the same way. I wanted to know what living in pre-war Montreal was like, so I spent nearly a whole day with a lovely lady with whom I connected via a local seniors’ centre. She wasn’t sure how she could help me, so I asked her to describe a typical day in the life of her and her family. The images she depicted were vivid and fun, and I wrote notes like crazy. A little of that interview crept into Legacy of Love.

Of all the research I have done for my books, the most surprising was on my doorstep. In His Unexpected Muse, Lord Peter Skeffington is a closet writer of romance novels and is published by the Minerva Press. I needed to know how writers of that era phrased their writing and what style, if any, was common. When I started an online search, I discovered the University of Alberta’s library in Edmonton housed an extensive collection of Minerva Press books in their Bruce Peel Special Collections library. I contacted them and was invited to view the collection. On arrival, there was a library cart with my name displayed, already stocked with the books I had requested. That was so special.

I have made use of YouTube videos to learn how to sail a schooner, set a broken leg, repair a torn rotator cuff, and cut cattle. I spent hours in the archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and the public library in Banff when I was researching Brides of Banff Springs. I returned home with fourteen books to read, having discovered that I could drop them off at my local library when I was finished. An interesting side to this is that I recently learnt that my accountant loves this book and has read it several times. She also has a familial connection to one of the real-life characters I refer to, Herb Paris, which makes it all the more real and special to her.

Books on my shelves reflect my research, from A History of the Wife to The Age of Agony, Piracy, The Complete Servant and more, and I know I can get carried away with where research takes me. After a discussion during a workshop years ago on how much research is too much research, the presenter said, “Vicki, forget the research and write the damn book.” Sage advice, but darn it, I need to know this stuff before I start writing so that I can give my characters a bigger, broader stage on which to play their parts.

You can join me in learning what my fellow Round Robin bloggers have to say here:

Diane Bator

Anne Stenhouse

Dr. Bob Rich

Connie Vines

Helena Fairfax

Skye Taylor




  1. All encompasing, Victoria. As a teen of the sixties, I am so grateful for tights! Anne Stenhouse

    1. Yes, weren't they a blessing? I used to buy mine from the same stall in Leicester market every week for 1 shilling and ninepence per pair. Sometimes I'd haggle but never got the stall owner to go below 1s 6p!

  2. You're like me - once I have to find out one detail, however small, it always seems to lead to more stuff. I agree that people are the best. Among other things, they tell you stuff you'd never think to ask...

    1. That was Skye with the comment, but blogspot didn't give me a chance to say who I was,

    2. Isn't that the truth? When a person says something along the lines of, 'oh, by the way,' or 'did you know,' you're sure to get a nugget of reality you are not likely to find in a book or online.

  3. Victoria, This is Bob Rich. I am the third incarnation of Anonymous.
    Your love of research shines through, as does your competence at it.
    Yes, experts are usually generous with their time and knowledge. I once had a heroine with a red birthmark on her face, which was removed via laser. In that pre-internet time, I contacted a specialist, who phoned me, and told me to shut up and listen. Then he delivered a machine-gun barrage of information, clearly too busy to take a breath in between.

    1. That's too funny about the specialist, but at least he phoned you. I begged a few minutes of an architect's time as I could not picture the roofline of a ranch house I'd designed. He was fascinated with why I wanted that information and I spent most of one afternoon with him. He made only one suggestion on my house design and put a roof on it that made perfect sense.

  4. Hi Victoria, I agree with Skye's comment - people are the best, and they tell you things you wouldn't have thought of asking, sparking off new ideas. I'm full of admiration for your thorough research. Really enjoyed your post, and finding out more about how you go about it.

  5. Nothing beats on site
    Research if possible.
    You’ll pick up telling details and a real feeling for the place you’re writing about.

    1. Very true. I will also take a ton of photos if I can to capture what I'm seeing, and sometimes things I don't see at the time, like where there might be a window and how shadows fall depending on the time of day.