Approaching research as a child

Melissa Addey is a PhD student in creative writing – way to go, Melissa! In her spare time (although with two children, spare time is no doubt a challenge) she has written a series about 18th century China in the Forbidden City and another set in Morocco in the 11th century. Today, she shares an intriguing perspective on beginning historical fiction research as a child.


Approaching research as a child by Melissa Addey

When I teach workshops on writing historical fiction, I naturally talk about the research to be done, but when I pull out the first few books that I recommend I can see the audience stiffen a little, believing me to be patronising at best, at worst not taking the research seriously. This is because in my own research I always start, where possible, with children’s books: the likes of Usborne and Dorling Kindersley being particular favourites. Because I tend to begin research in a new era with very little knowledge at all, I find that these books are perfect for giving me a quick overview and grasp on key dates and events. But more importantly, children’s books tend to focus very much on daily life, and when writing historical fiction, you can find out all you like about great events of the day but unless you also know how your characters wash, dress, cook and eat, go to the toilet, get married, what class they belong to, where they live and so on, your story is going to stutter to a stop pretty quickly.

Having completed two series of historical fiction, one set in 11th century Morocco focused on the army that defeated El Cid, the other set in the Forbidden City in 18th century China, I am now about to embark on a series set in Ancient Rome. And this research period happily coincided with my eight-year-old son, in Year Three at school, also studying the Romans. We became a research team.

Because primary schools often include a lot of hands-on activities for their topics, he brought home a delightful little model of a chariot, while I found myself involved in potato-printing a toga’s trim for dress up day, making little honey cakes for the class ‘feast’, decorating a shield, colouring in mosaic designs and explaining that the Colosseum once had many statues decorating it. My son cheerily portrayed this as over sixty tiny stick figures, painstakingly added to his model of the amphitheatre, earning him a coveted opportunity to show his work in assembly.

Meanwhile, he benefitted from hanging out with an author in full-on research mode. He came on a research trip to Italy where he played ‘gladiators and exotic beasts’ with his sister in the amphitheatre of Ostia (a beautiful deserted Roman town similar to Pompeii, near Rome, but far less full of tourists), walked on real mosaics at the ruins of the Trajan Baths and was given a gold laurel wreath for playing a kind of Gladiator Top Trumps on the kids’ tour of the Colosseum I booked. We bought a replica oil lamp, drew the curtains and turned off the living room lights to see what we could see (answer: not much). I took him to see a re-enactment event where he and his sister could ride in a full-size replica of a chariot (pulled by their dad). At Easter we will be going to Pompeii, although he is genuinely concerned about Vesuvius erupting just in time to coincide with our visit.









He has been helpful in the past as well. I told him off for teetering precariously near a lake edge when we visited Beijing on a past research trip, only to realise that my protagonist, a boy emperor, grew up by this very lake and no doubt gave his own mother cause for concern while balancing on the rocky ledges looking for frogs and dragonflies. The whole family dressed up in imperial clothing for a cheesy photoshoot during which the photographer reminded me that we should absolutely not smile for such a portrait, a stern demeanour being more appropriate to ancestral portraits.

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life. It means getting as close to the real thing as you can through trips to the locations, finding ways to re-enact the past through all your senses: food for smells and taste, clothes, sounds (I have not yet taken to replica Roman music!) and physical sensations. I have sat in a few saunas over the past months, but I must find someone to scrape oil off me with a strigil. To me, however serious and in-depth your research ends up being, there is also a need to play in the past as you go along. I have just finished a PhD in Creative Writing, where I suggested that we look at historical fiction as a ‘playframe’: the past providing us with a frame while the author plays (light-heartedly or seriously) within it, bringing their own unique vision of the past to create something new, a hybrid term for a hybrid genre.

And who better to play alongside than a child?

Many thanks, Melissa. I’ve never thought of children’s books as a way to kickstart my research.

Melissa was Writer in Residence at the British Library. She won the 2019 Novel London award for her book set in 18th century China, The Cold Palace. If you’d like to try her writing for free, you can pick up The Consorts on Amazon ( or sign up on her website to receive The Cup ( Each novella kickstarts a series.

The Consorts by Melissa Addey ~~ 18th century China. Lady Qing has spent the past seven years languishing inside the high red walls of the Forbidden City. Classed as an Honoured Lady, a lowly ranked concubine, Qing is neglected by the Emperor, passed over for more ambitious women. But when a new concubine, Lady Ying, arrives, Qing’s world is turned upside down. As the highest position at court becomes available and every woman fights for status, Qing finds love for the first time in her life… if Lady Ula Nara, the most ambitious woman at court, will allow her a taste of happiness.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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3 Responses

  1. What a fascinating reminder of how helpful all books are in our search for authentic and intimate historical details. You’re so right, Melissa, about how we get a much better glimpse into the daily life of the past and other cultures through children’s books. Even anthropological writings often don’t have the level of gritty detail these books have.

    1. Thank you Pam! Yes, as you say, it takes a wide variety of sources to create a complete picture and ‘gritty’ is a very good word for what a lot of daily life in the past sounds like!

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