In January of 2012 I had a short conversation with an editor and asked her, “What are you looking for?” She smiled and said, “I wish I could find a novel set England at the same time as the popular British TV series Downton Abbey, with a brooding hero and a loving governess heroine. Sort of like Jane Eyre.” I returned her smile and nodded, wishing I could write a story like that. I loved Downton Abbey and Jane Eyre, and I had a desire to write historical fiction, but writing a story set in another country, one hundred years ago, would be a challenge and take a lot of research. Still . . . I couldn’t get that editor’s words out of my mind.
I shared those ideas with my friend Cathy Gohlke, who had recently published a beautiful novel, Promise Me This, which is set in the Edwardian Era. She encouraged me and loaded me up with research books, and I set off on my journey to research and write The Governess of Highland Hall, book one in the Edwardian Brides Series. Here is the trail I followed as I researched The Governess of Highland Hall.
Starting My Research
I started by looking online at the big picture to get general background information about England and the Edwardian Era. Many of these articles referenced books and other articles. I followed that up by visiting the library and checking out several of these books. I focused on the lifestyle of wealthy aristocrats who lived on a grand estate and the loyal servants who worked there. I wanted to get to know my characters’ corner of the world so well that I could move around there in my imagination, and I could picture them walking down a street or sitting at a table in a restaurant and know exactly what they would see, hear, feel, and smell. I wanted to research until the historical part of the novel becomes almost second nature so I could focus on the story.
The Difference between Primary and Secondary Sources
History books and biographies can be very useful in research, but they are what are known as “secondary sources.” I always try to track down “primary sources” when possible. A primary source is something that was created during the time period itself, such as a newspaper, magazine, journal, diary, historical document, movie or radio broadcast, or a firsthand account from someone who actually lived through the moment and recorded an oral history, interview, or autobiography. Historians and biographers build their works by examining primary sources. As an author of historical novels, I try to go directly to the source when possible, so I get an unfiltered view. I found the diaries and biographies of servants very helpful. I also read a collection of letters exchanged by a wealthy aristocratic family.
When I was working on the Governess of Highland Hall, I was hoping to find someone who lived in England and had knowledge of the Edwardian time period. I found another author who loves the time period and has done a ton of research. She was an excellent source of information, and she answered several questions for me. Then I found a reviewer who gave another novel set in that time period a low rating because she believed there were many historical inaccuracies. That sent tremors through me. I knew no matter how much research I did, I was bound to make a few mistakes. I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to read my book before it was published to help me spot any mistakes. She agreed and helped me find some phrases that sounded too American and questioned a couple historical points. I was able to check and change those, and I was very grateful for her help!
Taking a Research trip!
Last summer my husband and I traveled to England and toured the area where the Edwardian Brides Series is set. I wanted to absorb the atmosphere and see England first-hand. We enjoyed touring historical country estates and beautiful gardens. We stayed in the Berkshire – Oxford area and visited Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed. Then we visited the Costwolds, which has some lovely little villages that look like they did 100 years ago. And finally we toured The Peak District, taking in a grand English country fair. What a great way to carry out my research!
Are you the type of person who enjoys research? When you’re choosing a historical novel to read, what’s your favorite time period?