Researching for background information is necessary. This is especially so if it is an historical novel where visits to archives and rare book libraries are in order. We may now benefit from the Internet, but it cannot provide everything. It was one thing for me to research John Goodricke’s life online, but quite another to actually hold his original large leather-bound handwritten astronomical journal of nightly observations. Not a facsimile, the real thing. When you do something like that, you touch history. Such an experience alone can colour your writing.
Do not agonize over the usefulness of this or that archival material. Take it all. I could not know in advance what would be useful or what would not. I recall researching for Goodricke’s Time in the library of the Royal Astronomical Society and looking through a biography of William Herschel. It was in that volume that I unexpectedly came across a description of the incident where Herschel presented a paper to the Royal Society on the variability of Algol. This ‘presentation’, however, was not made at the Society, but in a pub at the behest of the Society’s president, Joseph Banks. Not being sure whether it would later be of any value, I photocopied it all. Later, it not only proved to be useful, but was a critical event in the unfolding of the narrative. It, like many other events depicted in the novel, happened. Why it did was another matter and that was where I was free to embellish.
None of the above is meant to deny the value of the internet. For example, in one chapter of Goodricke’s Time I wished to describe what it was like to take a ‘water taxi’ down the Thames. These were known, at the time, as tilt boats. What were they like? How were they powered? What was the fee? Was it at all dangerous? Information such as would take up only a few lines in a paragraph but would typically more time to source on the internet. It would be easy to completely fabricate information such as this and maybe you could get away with it. But in an historical novel, quite apart from building a plot, developing your characters etc., you must place the reader in an environment, in an atmosphere. Details combine to give the reader a sense of where they are. Once that has been established, it is easier for the dialogue to flow.
Be aware, however, that research can be seductive. It is a validating exercise – when you are doing it you are working on your novel! But, no, you are not. You are conducting research. There came a time when I could no longer deny that research had slipped into becoming the continual postponement, the continual avoidance, of the demanding and reclusive act of writing. Without over dramatizing, writing requires much more courage and self-confidence than does sifting through archival material in some historic library.. Know when it is time to stop research and face the keyboard.