Friday, May 22, 2009

Craft post: writing nonfiction, part 2

Current work: Modern Heat
Listening to: Ocean Colour Scene, Moseley Shoals
Reading: next on TBA

So what do I use as my sources? Quite a lot, actually, and I tend to layer them – some give me the bare bones, others give me finer detail.

  • Pevsner is brilliant for architectural info – who built it and when – and might flag up something I want to look at further (person or event)
  • The English Heritage website again gives me bare bones and flags up things I’ll want to research further
  • The Victoria County History (depending on who wrote it – some are better than others) will give me some information about the religious foundations – who founded it and when, for which order, and a note of bishops’ visitations (the bishop visited once every seven years and talked to every person in the house to see that all was well – his list of injunctions or orders flags up problems faced by the inmates. Helps if you can read Latin or at least do a rough translation. The Camden Society has also published some records of visitations, but note they are in Latin and there are no parallel translations)
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Capgrave’s chronicle, Matthew Paris, Roger of Wendover and some of the others can be useful, too
  • Domesday book (useful for pre-Norman buildings)
  • Wikipedia (and yes, I know it’s not always accurate – but as long as you doublecheck your facts it’s useful for a quick overview)
  • The website of the attraction itself – might give me the bare bones of the history
  • Maps – not just present day, but historical ones. You can see the impact of your particular building on the landscape (see local studies/records office, but there are some online)
  • Recent monographs (Phillimore has a wonderful series of town and county histories) - again these might flag up things I want to research further
  • Modern tourist guides – better still if they have pictures so I can double-check against my list what I’m looking for.
  • 19th-century tourist guides – back in the nineteenth century, when improvements to roads/the beginning of the railways made it easier for people to travel and play tourist, a new market for writers developed: tourist guides. Some of my favourites are by Thomas Kitson Cromwell: ‘An Excursion through the County of Norfolk’ is utterly fab. He also did a Suffolk version, and an Essex one. Word of warning. These are NOT CHEAP. We are talking three figures, and DH had a hissy fit when he saw the receipt for my Norfolk copy. (‘You spent more on one book than you did on that expensive Radley handbag?’ Answer: ‘Two volumes, actually, but it’s a research expense – and you can only touch them if you put cotton gloves on or you’ll damage the paper.’) (Yeah. Kate prissy. I'm serious. You touch my special books only if you have clean, dry hands, and I would prefer you to use gloves and/or acid free paper.) There are some 18th-century ones and they’re even more interesting. Where do you find them? Local studies library – or ABE if you’re feeling rich. Note also plagiarism was very common in those days, so you may find the same information repeated in antiquarian monographs. (Plagiarism is illegal nowadays. See note on copyright below.)
  • William Andrews’s ‘Bygone’ series (these are from the late 19th century; miscellany-type books and fascinating)
  • For the spooky stuff, books written by folklore experts – in East Anglia, I’ve been using Enid Porter; there’s also Westwood and Simpson’s ‘Lore of the Land’, which covers the whole of the UK and is utterly fascinating. Again, it's a springboard to research further: I do NOT copy things down wholesale because it's wrong. wrong. wrong to do that
  • Pamphlets and broadsides (found in local studies centres)
  • Guidebooks (modern)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Historical directories may tell you more about buildings or people/events (I like White’s 1845 edition – you can view some online at the University of Leicester’s project, here)
  • Newspapers (you can see digitised copies of The Times from 1785-1985 online, and also some local newspapers from the 19th century – check with your county library service to see if they have a subscription to the database)
  • Other sources include diaries, letters, scrapbooks and trial records (the latter are often printed verbatim in 19th-century newspapers), and antiquarian monographs (on people, places etc – usually 19th century). There can all be found at your local records office/local heritage centre

And this is just desk research. I also visit the places I write about. It gives you a different perspective.

Note that not all places will have sources with detailed information. My Halsgrove books are not comprehensive gazetteers for this reason: I’ve simply included the places with the most interesting stories.

But anyway… that’s where I start. And that is why I have to be fished out of the library if I sneak in research time while DH and the kids are shopping (or, oh bliss, when he took them to the Spongebob movie – I was very happy to pay for tickets and popcorn because I loathe cartoons where they yell ‘arrrrgh’ every two seconds). ‘Just an hour’ tends to slip into rather more than that. And then I’ll come across something else that sparks off another idea or goes into my ‘not relevant to this but it will definitely be useful in future’ file.


This is really important. Be aware of the law of copyright. There’s no copyright in facts (eg William I reigned from 1066 to 9 Sept 1067), but there is copyright in the way that facts are presented. If you quote someone, make sure that it’s fair usage or that you have written permission to use it and make sure you credit your source properly. (Society of Authors has a good publication on copyright.) Basically, if in doubt, CHECK.

Ditto photographs – and you may need to pay repro fees.

Note that costs of permission/repro fees are tax-deductible. Sometimes, your library will do a deal where your publisher gives them a number of copies of your books instead of paying repro fees (this is a win-win situation, especially if your library is part of the PLR sample - sadly, my libary isn't).

And that's it. Hope this gives you an idea of how I do it, but do ask if you have questions!


Jan Jones said...

Fabulous stuff, Kate.

Carol Townend said...

Thanks Kate, all very useful. And it is true about paying to use pictures. My website (soon to be replaced by a new one) has a couple of pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry in the header. It took quite awhile to get the offical permissions etc. from France...

Caroline said...

Great blog Kate. I love history. The research that goes into writing a historical isn't so much "duty" more a "love". Thanks for the helpful tips - they will come in useful even if you write historical fiction as well as non-fiction or a fiction. And you are right - it is sooo important to check your facts. My last ms has a glaring one that I've only just realised - so I'm having to rewrite some scenes! Yikes! Take care. Caroline

Lacey Devlin said...

I've always found the use of photographs in nonfiction work intimidating simply because of the copyright. So many don't realise that they need to be careful and give credit.

Thanks so much for your comment Kate!

Kate Hardy said...

Jan - glad you found it useful. (And you know about the books *g*. Kate Hardy, bad influence, strikes again...)

Kate Hardy said...

Carol - some places are nicer than others. Chawton House were wonderful about letting me use a pic of Amelia Opie, and my local museum service were really kind and charged me a nominal fee. Another source was horribly disappointing as they wanted more for two pics than my (gross) advance!

Kate Hardy said...

Caroline - absolutely, which is why it doesn't matter that I make peanuts from my local history books. It's food for the soul.

Glad the tips are helpful.

And I hope the rewrites aren't too painful!

Kate Hardy said...

Lacey - that's why I take my own pics wherever possible. Saves an awful lot of problems. But when a place doesn't exist any more (and hasn't since well before you were born) you have to borrow them.

Postcards are a really grey area - finding who owns the copyright is a major nightmare!

Diane said...

Great stuff, Kate. Thank you very much. <3