Historical Novelists in Conversation: Helen Dunmore, Stef Penney, Kate Williams and Katy Darby

Historical Novelists in Conversation:

For this issue of Refer about information services for writers and journalists, the Editor asked four historical novelists – Helen Dunmore, Stef Penney, Kate Williams and Katy Darby – about their choice of historic period, their research process and their use of libraries.

Helen Dunmore is anacclaimed bestselling author of eleven novels including The Siege, The Betrayal and The Greatcoat. A Spell in Winter won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction. Her new novel The Lie was published in 2014.

What attracts you about the historical period you write about?

I have written about a number of historical periods. The Lie, set around the First World War is the story of the times of my grandparents. In my childhood one had the sense that everyone of that generation was affected somehow – a great uncle gassed. But people didn’t really want to talk about it. Now that speaking voice is gone.

How do you go about doing research?

Research can be a trap. It is enjoyably seductive to go here and go there finding things out. The writer who researches is far easier to be that the writer who writes the first draft. Its best to start writing and mark the text where more research is needed.

Are there any particular libraries or research resources you especially like?

I have used many small special libraries depending on what I am researching – for example collections about gardens and World War 1. It wouldn’t be fair to name any particular library. But I am very grateful to libraries – you can write that!

(Helen Dunmore speaking about her new novel The Lie at the London Book Fair, April 2014)


Stef Penney’s first novel The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book Award in 2006. Although set in Canada in the 1860s Stef Penney did all the research in libraries in London and has never visited Canada.

What attracts you about the historical period you write about?

I don’t feel that I’m writing about any single period, having – so far – set stories in the 1860s, and the 1980s – and am currently working on a story set in the 1890s. But that said, perhaps there is something about late 19th century that does particularly appeal to me – it’s not that long ago, so it is feasible to give a character a recognizably ‘modern’ mind – as you can see when you read authors of the period, from Tolstoy to George Gissing. And yet cultural mores were that much more restricted, giving characters more problems (or at least different ones) than they would have now. What I particularly enjoy is the challenge of making a female character do something that might have been thought of as impossible for a woman at the time – it’s right on the cusp of feasibility.

How do you go about doing research?  

Research is completely interwoven with writing for me. I start long before I write a word, and never really stop. There’s always another direction or angle to look at. It’s a positive in that I am constantly stimulated and excited by discovering new stuff, and a negative in that the volume of knowledge that you either know (or feel you don’t know but should really find out) can be overwhelming – somehow you have to find a balance between the two.

Are there any particular libraries or research resources you especially like?

For me, the British Library has been a brilliant, essential resource. I love going there, even when I am not researching, for a change of atmosphere – which can be very helpful at times. And I have to acknowledge Wikipedia, which has made the researchers job far, far quicker, and can answer the most esoteric questions.


Kate Williams is a historian, broadcaster and novelist. She has written biographies of Emma Hamilton and Queen Victoria and a novel The Pleasures of Men. Her new novel The Storms of War, first of a trilogy starting in 2014, is published in July 2014.

What attracts you about the historical period you write about?

I’m fascinated by the eighteenth and nineteenth century because its such a time of energy and exploration – and so many women’s voices. Women burst onto the stage – and had a power they’d never had before.

How do you go about doing research?

I like to get all the research done before I start writing – For my current novel, The Storms of War, on a family in World War One, I hit the letters, the diaries and the archives. Letters and diaries are the best way to capture the voice of the period – through them, you hear the voices of the long dead, hear their hopes and dreams – and then you know how to bring them alive. I research as I’m writing as well….

Are there any particular libraries or research resources you especially like?

I love the British Library and for my most recent book I spent a lot if time in the Imperial War Museum – and archives all over the country.


Katy Darby’s first novel The Whore’s Asylum was published in 2012. Two of her short stories Cries of London were read on BBC Radio 4 in August 2013.

What attracts you about the historical period you write about?

The Victorian period was one of enormous change – social and technological – as well as a rapidly increasing wealth and privilege gap between the richest and the poorest, even as the prosperous middle classes expanded. It was a time of very strict conventions, but also of increasing rights and freedoms, especially towards the close of the nineteenth century. Basically, all human life is here, and so it’s possible to set stories of extremes – forbidden love, desperate murder, violent hatred etc. – in the period without them seeming incredible or ludicrous; it’s much harder to do that in the context of a modern narrative. It’s also a lush and romantic period, visually speaking – the clothes were frankly fabulous, the cabs and trains elegant … and of course the literature (Dickens, Collins, the Brontes, Thackeray etc.) is fantastic.

Finally, it’s incredibly well documented – the Victorians were maniacs for social studies and reports, and there’s a wealth of research resources out there for those who care to look, as well as early photographs, surviving buildings etc.

How do you go about doing research? 

Lots of ways, in no particular order:

I read fiction of the period, contemporary to when my novel’s set. For example, when writing The Whores’ Asylum (set in the 1870s and 1880s) I read a lot of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I read modern fiction about the period – eg Sarah Waters’s first three novels. Then I read nonfiction of the period – social studies, essays, lots of contemporaneous newspaper articles available on the excellent and vast archive that is www.victorianlondon.org – things like Bradshaw’s guides to London, to find out details like how much a cab fare was from Euston to the West End – and finally I read modern books and articles about the period. I have a whole bookshelf of this stuff and I read it for pleasure as well as research purposes.

Other things I do are look at photos and pictures of/from the time, visit buildings or places I’m going to use in my story, and look at old maps. I love old maps – I have an enormous wall-sized one of London from 1863 I’m using for the next two books. I got it at the London Transport Museum for about £30 and it was worth every penny. Also, if I need to fact-check something like when a particular music hall was built and can’t find it in my books, I confess I rely on Wikipedia for a quick and easy answer. The main thing is to get on with the story without drowning in information …

Are there any particular libraries or research resources you especially like? Victorianlondon.org, as mentioned above. Lee Jackson, who runs the site, styles it: “The Dictionary of Victorian London – an Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Great Metropolis”, and that’s exactly what it is. He writes both fiction and nonfiction about the period and has gathered an astonishing wealth of material on there, from old photos to snippets of articles about just about everything from hansom cabs to debutantes’ balls. The best thing is that you can look up articles by subject, e.g. Prisons will get you pieces on Newgate, Holloway, Millbank etc. – sometimes it’s journalistic thinkpieces, or first person reports by visitors to prisons, and sometimes even personal accounts by the prisoners themselves. It’s a black hole of browsing, though – I can spend hours on there.  Shire Books are good sources too – specific, short and full of visual references – period photos, paintings, artefacts etc. I even managed to find one on Victorian & Edwardian Horse Cabs!