On one of the first warm days of the year we made the one and a half hour journey into London to visit the Victoria and Albert museum in the name of research. These days the word research mostly conjures pictures of hours spent in front of the computer, following one blue link after another, in search of articles containing verifiable facts. For the more recent history in our novel, The Waves, the Waves, which takes place in England during WW2, one of the most well documented six years of our times, there’s a plethora of brilliant online sources from which to gain the kind of accurate period detail needed to bring the story to life; the BBC’s database, WW2 People’s War and the Imperial War Museum’s website have been great places to start for example. However, for the second part of the book, set in 18th century Cornwall, and against the backdrop of the 7 year war, there is comparatively very little. For that reason we decided to go old school; so armed with pen and notebook, and already hungry, we stepped into the V&A’s cool atrium.
We soon discovered that standing in front of the authentic clothes and domestic artefacts of the past evoked a much more tangible sense of those times than any of our prior research. While the dense volumes on 18th century England might be the only way of getting a broader understanding of the 1700s, what we learned from our visit to the V&A was the watered silk brocade a character might wear, or the Japanned furniture they might have acquired for their homes, the Wedgewood pottery they might sip their tea from and the name of the textile designer who would have created the patterns for their cloth.
These are the kind of details that makes a piece of creative historical writing or an illustration feel authentic.
Blocking in the background historical context from text books is essential groundwork of course, but undertaking archival research like visiting museums, checking out online databases, looking through old photographs, making trips to the location your story is set in, provides the nuts and bolts for your piece; giving it a sense of livingness and vitality.
Already our novel is benefitting from our archival research and no doubt will continue to do so. We’re looking forward to visiting St Ives (where the book is set) in a couple of weeks and getting a feel for the place, visiting local museums, taking some photos and doing some sketching with a cup of tea and some cake at our elbow.
We are incredibly lucky that, in England, we have such good archives from which to draw creative inspiration, so next time you are thinking of writing a novel, or thumbnailing for an illustration, think about using an archive.