How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Author: photojaq

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

20 thoughts on “How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration”

  1. After I picked myself off the floor in amazement, didn’t realize you wrote so many Series, Sarah, I found your post among the most helpful for detailing research methods. Those old newspaper ads are so great for clothing, products, and even where people could spend the holidays. Although my series is contemporary, my character’s great-grandmother demands research as to her language and happenings in those good old days. I have two great directories of English slang as I have been in the US so long I have forgotten much of it. This calls for a run on your books, Sarah. Many thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it was helpful! Yes, the newspapers have wonderful for all sorts of research. Some of the ads from the 1920s are works of art in themselves! Your grandmother character sounds fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your suggestions, Sara! Although I’m only writing contemporary stories now I used to write time travel romances and did a lot of research to make the past seem realistic. But I didn’t think of all the resources you mentioned. Glad you’re our guest author!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love research–as you can probably tell! Sometimes is the odd detail that gives me a whole story idea. Glad the post was helpful! 🙂

      Like

  3. I’d love to write Golden Age mysteries, but the research always seemed daunting, so I continue to write contemporary mysteries. I may try it in the future since you’ve given some interesting places to research. Thanks. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that was a concern for me as well, but once I dipped into the research I found it fascinating and wanted to learn more. A writer friend of mine said if you write in the same time period, once you do your initial research it gets easier. You just keep laying on knowledge with each book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A great post! I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves the resources of old magazine ads. As I also write about the 1920s, I know them well. Isn’t it fascinating? Welcome, Sarah!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Maggie. I’m glad it was helpful. I probably over-research, but sometimes I go back to something that didn’t seem important at the time and it sparks an idea for a plot line or new book.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This was an intriguing post, Sara. Not only because you mention all the great research the Internet, as well as old books (and of course old movies) can add to your stories, but it got me thinking of contemporary works. Too many just show how great cell phones are. (I’m not their biggest fan, but they are part of life now.) But what about how people dress today or what they drive or how they function in their homes? Many books totally ignore those details. I will have to start putting in a few more details so people in the next century can see how we live. Thanks for joining us on our blog today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for having me! Cell phones and the internet certainly make it easy to move the plot along. It’s a challenge for me to figure out how to work in details in my books sometimes. Today we’d just google something but my characters often have to go to the library or talk to an expert. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. As someone who tends to get lost in research because I LOVE it, I found this post fun, full of information, and really interesting! Even though I haven’t (yet) written a book set in the Golden Age, I think I’m going to check out some of your research recommendations just because they sound so intriguing. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sara, you post offers a wealth of information. As someone who’s also currently writing about the 1920s you’ve given me some ideas. My books take place in Central Europe, so my challenge is finding information in English. However, photos, illustrations and even the occasional film footage helps. So glad you could join us this week.

    Liked by 1 person

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