5 Ways to Use Novels for Research

Rich Sources of Information and Inspiration just waiting to be picked up.

Rich Sources of Information and Inspiration just waiting to be picked up.

So you’re ready to begin your work of historical fiction or perhaps you have been asked to head up that fundraiser for the school/park/historic landmark and want to run a history themed day/evening. Take your pick. Either way maybe you are like me and are not a natural born researcher, maybe not even an artificially trained researcher. You are just a curious person.

Back when I needed to find information on the 1830’s and discovered it to be the least interesting period in history I turned to sources of fiction for information. Because fiction is full of the common details of life that people of the time took for granted. They give us a window into the past.

Not modern historical fiction though sometimes they include great sources in their acknowledgements or links for those who want to learn more.  But the fiction I refer to is that written in your desired time frame.

I know I can hear some of you saying “Duh, 1880’s girl, isn’t that where you always get information for the Charles Dickens Festival?”

Well yes and no. You see I didn’t realize that several of my favorite books are actually set in the 1830’s; Cranford, Wives and Daughters, Jane Eyre, Shirley… you get the idea. Because I think of their creators as ‘Victorian Writers’ I hadn’t realized they are actually set in pre- or early Victorian.

So choose your time period. Choose your novel. Now read like a researcher. 

Here are 5 things to look out for.

#1 Manners and Ettiquette

I think most of us come to an era with very preconceived ideas of how and why people acted in a certain way. You may be surprised what will jump out at you when you read as a researcher.

For example: Gloves. In Wives and Daughters Squire Hamely is enquiring about what sort of girl Cynthia is. Is she the sort of girl whose gloves are always neatly mended? This is a little detail that jumped out at me because it tells us the importance of gloves, reminds us they were nearly always being worn and prone to wearing out. A girls gloves being neatly mended showed she was conscientious, skilled and neatly presented. In Little Women of course there is the whole crises around Jo’s gloves being stained, that she can’t possibly attend the dance without gloves and so on and so forth…

Useful details your can mull over and work into your own fiction to bring it to life.

#2 Food

Charles Dicken’s is especially good for descriptions of food, his books include  meals for people across different classes. How else are we supposed to learn the importance of oysters and warm punch to the young Victorian male?

In Pride and Prejudice there are the details about white soup being imperative to holding a ball, that a family dinner, for the genteel well managed household, will have at least three courses, that while Mrs. Bennett deemed kitchen work below her daughters dignity others of her class such as Charlotte Lucas might regularly make a pie or in some other way aid with meal preparations.  Mr. Darcy was thought to have at least two French cooks which gives clues to the extent of his kitchen and expected entertainments.

#3 Leisure Activities

It seems that as far as leisure is concerned for women in particular we always come back to needle work.

Mrs. Gibson (Wives and Daughters) to be sure had her special embroidery frame with particularly difficult or delicate work on show for the benefit of visitors, but if my memory is correct she doesn’t actually do that much work on it. Women would take a small piece of fancy work with them to work on when they payed calls.

But not all gentlewomen painted, sewed screens or played the piano forte as Elizabeth Bennett teaches us. We do not think of Regency women running for exercise but we are informed that Jane was unused to running while Lizzy was used to it. Jo March also ran though we learn that she is considered rather to old to be doing so.

Also in Little Women they play croquet, Authors and balderdash.

Jane Eyre describes details of a house party and an elaborate game of charades.

In Daniel Daronda we learn about archery, gambling, private concerts and how Victorians travel.

From these fictional accounts we see a breadth of everyday and out of the common amusements that your characters too may choose from.

#4 Modes of Transport

and their relative status markers. I love that Mr. Bennett has to call his horse in from the Farm in order for Jane to ride over to Netherfield.  You can learn about hansom cabs, omnibuses, who used wagons and carts and who drove a barouche box vs a landau.

#5 The Real Role of Women

I don’t think literature would be so full of strong minded women if no such thing existed. From Middle March to Little Women to Wives and Daughters we see a width and breadth of the role of women across the classes. Some who fulfill our stereotyped expectations and others who completely defy it. Showing the women of history were not so different from women today.

There are many more details to be gleaned from your favorite reads if you don’t get caught up and carried away by the story you can glean an astonishing amount of detail about the life and times of the Victorians or any other period of modern history.

Next time we will discuss Biographies as a resource.

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