Researching a novel: moving beyond what you know

Lauded novelist Guinevere Glasfurd explains her research methods for writing.

Lauded novelist Guinevere Glasfurd explains her research methods for writing.

Lauded novelist Guinevere Glasfurd is intensely interested in the past and her works bring it to life through rich and engaging stories. Here she explains her research methods to help you ensure your people, places and plots feel real.

This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Research, exploring a range of research methods from desk research to more immersive and unusual ways of gathering insights and ideas. Our Resources packs are generously supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →

Every novel involves an extraordinary feat, a high-wire act on the part of the writer: to create a work of fiction in which the reader believes and trusts. It’s remarkable really. You want your reader to settle quickly into a book, not to question the premise of it or find it implausible and be pitched out. You want the reader to be drawn in; for the story to exist in the moment of being read, compelling and richly imagined in their mind.

Writers are often exhorted to ‘write what they know’. But what if your protagonist is a fourteenth century nun? Or a drag queen from Kentucky (and supposing you, the writer, are not)? Or a metaphysical presence that refuses to be confined to any single form? Nearly every work of fiction requires the novelist to step beyond what they know. Of course, this great, imaginative act is the stuff of fiction. But good fiction also requires research. Your research is not the collection or curation of facts; it should add meaning, nuance, depth.

So, how should you approach your research? How can it deepen your fiction? How much research should you do? How much should you use or leave out? Where, even, to begin?

Research can be frustrating; sometimes the archive is silent, the answers are not there.

Start by reminding yourself why you want to tell the story. What drew you to it? What interests you about it? Is there anything unresolved? Something that niggles or snags? What other questions come to mind? Identify the gaps in your knowledge. Is your character a doctor? Of what? What is their specialism? Your research might set out to answer quite basic questions or it might be something more forensic, requiring you to piece together disparate sources, or conflicting opinions, before you can form your own view.

And, speaking of ‘your view’ – what biases affect and give shape to that? The research you do is (obviously) mediated through you, underpinning the questions you ask, the approach you take and the assumptions you make. Just because you can research the horrors of a sugar plantation on St Kitts in the mid-eighteenth century, does not mean you are best placed to write it. Research does not confer right. It does not necessarily confer insight. No amount of research justifies any book. A poorly researched book makes for an unsatisfying read; but work written from a perspective of unwitting assumption or entitlement results in an industry that excludes.

Research can be frustrating; sometimes the archive is silent, the answers are not there. There’s a reason for that and that should spark other questions. Research can also be enormously rewarding. It can, and likely will, reveal something unexpected. It is important to remain alert to that, to be attentive and open to surprise. Research is an iterative process. Research a bit, write a bit, research a bit more. Allow your writing to remain fluid at this point, open to question, encouraging of further enquiry.

…take notes as you go. Legible notes are even better.

When the time comes and your work makes it into print, always acknowledge the work of others you have drawn on.

Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, take notes as you go. Legible notes are even better.


Starting points

  • Libraries – University libraries – if you are not a student or staff member, consider applying for a reader’s ticket. City libraries also hold important local history collections.
  • British Library – reader’s ticket needed.
  • eBay and AbeBooks – excellent sources of second-hand and out-of-print books.
  • County Archives – regional historical collections.
  • National Archive (Kew) – holding archival materials of national importance; many items digitised.
  • British Newspaper Archive – £ subscription required, but can be accessed through a university library.
  • JSTOR – Academic digital library (access through a university library or 100 free articles a month once you have registered for an account).
  • Who else can you ask? Subject experts? Industry professionals?


Guinevere Glasfurd is a critically acclaimed novelist. Her third novel, Privilege, a story of book publishing and censorship set in pre-revolutionary France, will be published in May 2022.

Her debut novel, The Words in My Hand, was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa First Novel Award and Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and was longlisted in France for the Prix du Roman FNAC. Her second novel, The Year Without Summer, was written with support from the MacDowell Foundation, longlisted for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize 2021 and shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award 2020. Awarded grants from the Arts Council England and the British Council for her work, her writing has also appeared in The Scotsman, Mslexia and in a collection published by the National Galleries of Scotland. Originally from Lancaster, she now lives near Cambridge with her husband and daughter.