Books and Podcasts in the runup to NaNo

I’m setting my next book in the 1880’s and so I’ve been researching the Victorians, their lives and times. I’m taking an approach to research that was recommended by the historical crime panel at the Killer Women Festival. Before writing I’m just doing enough to give me an accurate sense of the time, feed my plot and make sure there are no huge plot killing anachronisms, then I’ll write the first draft, and then I’ll do more detailed research on the nitty-gritty. I don’t need to know the exact details of my characters’ underwear before I write but if it comes up in the story I can check the details when I am rewriting. This is really the only approach I could take given I’m starting writing on Tuesday and I had this idea about a month ago. There simply hasn’t been time for really detailed research.


I probably should note here that I’ve read plenty of victorian novels over the years and have seen and listened to relevant documentaries and read about the period so my broad knowledge about the Victorian period is pretty good already. I don’t have intimate knowledge of the details but that will come later. For now I’m refreshing my memory of the basic history and bringing to the fore my sense of the later victorian period and the gothic.

Victorian Britain by the Great Courses (audiobook) narrated by Prof. P.N. Allitt. This is a really good overview of the Victorian period. Listening to books is a great way for me to work on my writing while I work at my day job (as a gardener I can listen while mowing or weeding without it interfering with the work) and Prof. Allitt’s narration style was very good; interesting and entertaining without being superficial.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. This is a great book, focussing on the day-to-day lives of everday people. I heartily recommend it (and its Tudor counterpart – I hope she writes more). She’s a living history researcher and often has insights about how things actually feel which can be missing from a drier book. For example she tells us what it’s actually like to wear Victorian sanitary protection while menstruating and how the corsets support her back when doing a job like weeding, all details that can really bring a story to life.

Since this is going to be a crime novel I’ve re-listened to my audiobook of Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid. This is great stuff whether you’re writing a modern crime novel or historical since she delves into the past of each forensic discipline before bringing it up to date. There are real case studies, including some where the forensic experts were misled in one way or another.

I’ve been relistening to the darker Sherlock Holmes stories – the Speckled Band, the Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. They’re available on audible as the Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan-Doyle. It cost me a single audible credit and I’ve listened to the whole thing time after time (I have up to ten hours of listening time every day – it’d quickly get a bit pricey if I didn’t relisten to my favourites) so it really has proved excellent value.

Since I need to improve my writing I’ve also been listening to the Story Grid podcast and reading the accompanying book (Story Grid by Shawn Coyne). It’s thrown up lots of useful things to think about but it’s a really heavily analytical approach, breaking down each act, chapter and scene in a very detailed way. I’m a moderately detailed planner but I can’t see the full system working to plot a book in advance (for me, no doubt it would for others) although it might prove a useful diagnostic tool for finding the faults in a full draft. Nevertheless the podcasts have made for very interesting listening and I’d recommend them.

As an alternate system for planning a novel I’ve found Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker very useful. The tone is really casual and chatty which I found a little irritating but the actual techniques have really helped with the outline I’m still working on. It helps you to anchor the plot in the character arc or in multiple character arcs if the story has more than one viewpoint character. With this new perspective I’m looking back on the last book I wrote and I can see why I struggled with it so much – I was trying to fix it by trying to fix the writing when the problem was with the weak relationship between the plot and the characters.


I’m planning on further feeding the gothic part of my mind throughout the month, first with Dracula as I already have it on audiobook (it’s one of those well worn favourites I mentioned) and then seeing what else of that ilk is available as audiobooks such as Turn of the Screw, the Yellow Wallpaper, Dorian Grey, some Poe and others. It’s such a hardship to have to force yourself to re-read or listen to such books. Spare a thought for me in my plight. Woe is me.

A note on audiobooks; they’re great but it can get pricey when you listen a lot. Libravox is an excellent resource for free audiobooks; the free ones are out of copyright books so the ‘classics’ are usually available, sometimes in multiple versions. The books are narrated by enthusiastic amateurs so do listen to the sample as the quality varies substantially.


2 thoughts on “Books and Podcasts in the runup to NaNo

  1. I really struggle to understand clothing (hence my appearance) and find that watching a few good TV period dramas help. The plots are irrelevant, I just watch to get a sense of what people would have worn, plus the look of the house furnishings etc. It still means I have to research to find out the names for different styles of coat, skirt, fabric etc. – but the visual sense is a real boon to then create the scenes of my own stories.

    1. I saw the historical researcher for Ripper Street on a panel at the Killer Women Festival and it did make me think that well researched TV and film can be a pretty good starting point. Obviously, for late victorian there’s always Jeremy Brett’s Holmes but I never need an excuse to rewatch that!

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