Archival Fever

Claire Scobie

Any historical fiction writer has to be something of a sleuth. For my first novel, The Pagoda Tree (Viking Australia, 2013), I met a prince, rode on an elephant and travelled across India in search of the perfect crumbling palace. I also spent weeks delving into the India Office Records in the British Library, but knew that archival sources would only provide part of my story.

While I never had to wear white gloves to leaf through a yellowing manuscript, I admit to getting a touch of “archive fever” when reading an original 1773 diary. It was a surprisingly visceral experience as I heard this young Englishman’s voice in my head. It made history real and brought the past streaming into the present.

Australian author Nicolas Jose once encouraged me to “do enough research to know that it could happen, write the scenes and then fill in the gaps later.” I’ve also heard that researching and then forgetting what you’ve read is a good ploy. This internalises the sources so they don’t sound papery on the page.

At a literary festival, I heard Sarah Waters describe how her characters seemed to “come out of the mist” of the historical material once she’d done enough research. But how much is enough? Kate Mosse says she spends three-quarters of the time it takes her to write a novel doing the research. Some years ago, when I interviewed Louis de Bernières, his advice was not to research too much after he became bogged down in Turkish history when writing Birds without Wings (Knopf, 2004).

Any writer starts in the obvious places: online, Google Books, Google Scholar. What’s critical is setting up an index system early – however basic – so you remember where you read that useful quote that you’ll need later.

Historian William Dalrymple recently outlined his “highly tuned filing system” with three card indexes organised by name, place and topic. He also keeps a dateline “with every event from the beginning of the story to the end,” which stretches to 400 pages by the time he actually sits down to write. Impressive.1

A year after I started my novel, I wrote plaintively, “Phew, I have a lot of research… I still haven’t figured out a way to properly organise it all.” I used a combination of typed notes, narrow Post-it notes, and digital tools such as Evernote, which works as an online filing cabinet.

As setting is always important to me, I quickly realised I needed to visit where my characters lived and breathed. For this, I coined the phrase, “history with my feet.” In Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, I retraced the steps that my fictional character, Maya, a young temple dancer, would have walked. I sat in on Indian classical dance classes and interviewed experts, such as Chennai’s eminent historian, Mr Muthiah, who writes on a 50-year-old typewriter which “types as fast as he can think.”

For a novelist, it is often a question of listening and becoming quiet enough to hear. As you sift through your research, it’s your imagination that will fill in the gaps where no records exist. The danger, though, is when you want to show off your knowledge. A former UK literary agent gave me some sound advice. She said in most books only 10 per cent of research – hard to believe, I know – should end up in the final book. I didn’t believe her initially, but by the time the book was ready to go to print, I knew she was spot on.

American writer Edie Meidav takes it even further, saying, “Too much research beforehand… may also be a sophisticated form of procrastination.” 2 So true – and a good reminder to switch off the Internet when writing to avoid getting lost down the Google rabbit hole.

1. Dalrymple, William. “My working day,” Observer. 17 June 2017.
2. Meidav, Edie. “The Voyager: Write what you don’t know,” in Now Write, edited by Ellis, Sherry. Penguin, NY (2006), p. 121.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Claire Scobie is the author of The Pagoda Tree (first published by Penguin Australia, now Unbound, 2017), an epic tale set in eighteenth-century India about love, loss and exile, and what happens when two cultures collide.

In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissiones for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.

We also occasionally publish original short fiction features – on a very selective basis. We do pay for our fiction. Please read more about our original short fiction here.