The Tyranny of Research. Bring it on!

When author Liz Harris used the word ‘tyranny’ in reference to the research required of historical fiction authors, I immediately felt that word resonating in my head. And here she is, fresh from her latest novel SIMLA MIST, to bring that notion to life.

Picture the scene as I was about to start writing my next book. My freezer was full of meals that cook from frozen within an hour; my study was unusually tidy; my desk was clear of everything but my computer and a pile of books for research, and I had a year and location in my head that would be ideal for an historical romance.

What could go wrong?

My chosen location was Simla, the summer capital of the British Raj in India, the period of the Raj being 1858 to 1947. I knew from the outset that I was going to use the original spelling for the name of the town. This changed from Simla to Shimla in 1972, giving effect to the way in which the name had always been pronounced, but my chosen year was 1932.

Importantly, I knew also the tone of the novel I’d be writing. After all, this was to be the fourth and final novel in the series The Colonials, which had begun with Darjeeling Inheritance and Cochin Fall. Each of those was a love story set against an authentic historical background, so although Simla, in the north of India, was not Darjeeling, which was in the north-east, and not Cochin, which was in the south-west, I assumed that the location and character of Simla would lend itself to a book in a similar vein, and I was confident that there would be nothing in the history of Simla that would require me to adjust my plan.

But there was. Something unexpected started to rise from the pages of my research books, something very different from what I’d found when researching Darjeeling and Cochin, something specific to the situation and character of the British colonialists who every summer left the scorching heat of New Delhi for six months in the mountains of Simla.

I found myself staring increasingly longingly at the outline I’d drawn up before I’d begun my research, and wondering if, in the interests of pursuing the novel I’d thought I’d be writing, I could close my eyes to what my research was throwing up.

But I found that I couldn’t.

I’ve always believed that the history in an historical novel should be more than a mere backdrop to a story that could have been set at any other time, in any other location, given a few changes to the flora and fauna, so the pull of my research was too strong – it was tyrannical, one could say. And I found myself redrawing my outline to take account of my findings, now that I knew that … 

I’m stopping myself right now! I don’t want to give away the plot of Simla Mist, which I would do if I said any more.

As I made the changes to my story line, I was furious with myself. I should have been prepared for this, I berated myself, as I’d actually encountered a similar situation before. It had been when I was researching Hanoi Spring, the novel that followed Cochin Fall

In 1932, the time at which Hanoi Spring was to be set, Vietnam was ruled by the French, and as a lover of France, I had been excited to be about to look at the colonisation by the French, even though I had expected the lives and attitudes of the French colonial administrators to be similar to those of the British colonials in India. It was just that they would wear slightly different clothes, eat different foods, speak a different language, and perhaps be a little more vocal about l’amour, I had thought.

But before I was far into my Vietnamese research, I was finding a huge difference in the character of the colonial rule exercised by the two countries, and in order to be true to my research, I’d had no choice but to abandon my original plan and embark upon a story that took me down a very different path. It turned out to be a rather more exciting path than I’d expected, I would say.

You need some sort of plan for your novel before you start to research it, or how would you know what or where you needed to research, but serious writers of history clearly have to be prepared to tear up their original plan if that’s the only way of being honest in the depiction of a particular period and the attitudes of the people who lived at that time. 

Research is, indeed, a tyrannical boss. You might be wondering, therefore, why the second half of my title for this post is Bring it on!

While we must bow, however reluctantly, to the findings thrown up by our research if we are to be true to our subject, once we’ve done that, we will find that our research is more than just a hard taskmaster – it is our friend.

It’s highly exciting to embark upon a process of exploration, thinking you know what you’ll find at the end, but then unexpectedly uncovering a dimension of which you’d never dreamed, a dimension which sends your creative powers down a totally different, but highly stimulating, path. Your research will help you to develop your plot and characters. The more you learn about your chosen period, the more ideas for characters and situations will fall into your lap as you seek out ways to give dramatic effect to the facts you have learnt.

Because we learn through our research, we never stop learning. That is one of the greatest joys of being A Writer of History.

Love the juxtaposition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘bring it on’, Liz. I’m sure other readers will too – and, of course, you’ve left us all curious about what your research brought to Simla Mist. PS – truly appreciate your last sentence!!

Simla Mist by Liz Harris ~~

Simla, 1932

Life-long friends, Lilian Hunt and Daisy Chatsworth, whose fathers work for the British government in India, have travelled north with their families from Delhi to Simla, eagerly anticipating a summer of parties, dances and, dare they hope, romance.

Frederick, Lilian’s ambitious father, is determined that Lilian should marry Eric, the son of his superior, Cecil Stanford, as that is what Cecil wants. Eric, however, against his father’s clearly expressed wishes, is drawn to Daisy. But Cecil objects to Eric marrying a Chatsworth, though no one knows why.

Lilian decides to take matters into her hands, and help her friend to win the man she loves.

Unknown to Frederick, he has an enemy in Simla, and soon after his arrival, that enemy makes his presence felt.

Feeling increasingly threatened, Frederick asks a new colleague, Jack Leighton, to stay close to Lilian and Daisy without them realising he’s there to protect them. Jack has taken an instant dislike to Lilian but, reluctantly, he agrees. But the enemy is watching …

You can find more about Liz Harris’s novels – she has 9 others – on her website.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

Share this post

About the Author

Picture of Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

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

All Categories

Subscribe to the Blog

Receive the latest posts on writing and reading historical fiction via email.

Join 2,216 other subscribers

4 Responses

  1. Another intriguing post! This one brings to mind the familiar phrase, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” so I can see how real events spur us on to writing even deeper, more intriguing plot lines. Thanks for the reminder to open up (agonizing) space to change a carefully written outline -and find a better story.

  2. Thank you so much, Mary, for your invitation to write an article for A Writer of History. I very much enjoyed writing the post, and I’ve also enjoyed reading some of the really interesting articles written by other authors.

  3. Thanks so much, Liz, for your inside look into the temporary traps and ultimate joys of historical research. As a fellow writer of historical fiction (1st century Kingdom of Nabataea), I know all too well how the landscape can drastically change when doing the deep-dive into historical research, but I always seem to find places that are beautifully provocative. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply