Ben Fergusson considers the benefits of doing historical research online – during a pandemic and beyond
When I was a child in the 1980s, growing up in the English countryside, power cuts were such a common occurrence that we had a cupboard just for the camping stove, kerosene lamps, candles and torches required to get us through the next blackout. Sometimes they would last for days. And always, as the lights died and the TV picture shrank to a kaleidoscopic dot, we would make a series of what Germans call Denkfehler – thought mistakes.
First, we would panic that the toilet wouldn’t flush, but then recall that it didn’t require electricity. Then it was decided that, with the oven off, we would be having toast for dinner, but then we’d remember that that does require electricity. So we would eat something from a can, make shadows on the ceiling with the torch, and eventually slope off to bed with tealights balanced on saucers.
Something very similar happened to me when the Covid-19 quarantine was swiftly implemented here in Berlin and I was sent home from my university job. Finally, I thought, I’ll be able to get to the library and do some research for my new book. But of course the library was shut. So I thought, well at least I can organise some interviews. But of course I couldn’t travel anywhere or meet anyone.
Imagine, I thought, having to research a historical novel with nothing but an internet connection.
But why was that such a terrible thought?
I realised that I share a common snobbery about online research. I recently read a review of a new historical novel that suggested that the writer’s main historical source was – the horror! – Wikipedia. But, I thought, from Shakespeare’s histories to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, there have been many great fictional works based on far more scant and erroneous source material than that. And these kinds of comments do a huge disservice to the information so accessibly offered by Wikipedia, particularly about highly specialist areas of history. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be reading more deeply into a subject once we have chosen it, but when it comes to inspiration or getting a broad overview of a complex topic, Wikipedia is often invaluable.
Imagine, I thought, having to research a historical novel with
nothing but an internet connection
I’m not for a moment arguing that historical novelists don’t need to do their research, and there is no question that libraries and archives continue to be irreplaceable. Indeed, it is often those very same institutions that are leading the way when it comes to making their archives available to researchers wherever they happen to live. I am currently researching the British art world of the 1950s and have been astounded by the riches freely accessible in the British Library’s online archive of recorded interviews.
But away from these archives, what the internet increasingly offers historical novelists is a wealth of the kind of passively observable sights, images and sounds so often missing from people’s own accounts of times past.
When I started work on An Honest Man, the last book in my Berlin trilogy, I was very excited to be writing about 1989, knowing that I was surrounded by the very people who had witnessed this very specific period in history. Their input was invaluable when it came to the broad strokes, but what I wanted was detail. How long did it take to get through the checkpoints? Did East Berlin smell different to West Berlin? Did phone boxes take cards or coins? Ninety-percent of the time my interviewees frowned and squinted and eventually said, ‘You know, I can’t really remember.’
In fact, aside from the most exceptional diarists, like Pepys and Woolf, many contemporary commentators actually offer us relatively little evocative detail when they record the historical moments they are witnessing.
For me, the formats that reveal the most treasures are visual and audible, and every few months a new digital goldmine seems to open up. The British Film Institute’s online archive of British films has proved invaluable for my research into post-war Britain – the grid-like wooden electricity pylons that line every road in Genevieve, the heavy damask of Billie Whitelaw’s sofa in Hell is a City or the horse-drawn barrel cart in The Fallen Idol.
The British Pathé film archive is another treasure trove, whether I’m trying to capture the detail of major events, like the smouldering wreck of the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash, or simply noting the sodden wool of the high-waisted swimming costumes of 1950s Brighton beachgoers.
But it’s not just recent history that we can illuminate on our computers and smartphones. When I was working on The Other Hoffmann Sister, I was writing a scene set a century ago in which a group of wealthy people watch a silent film at a house party. Within a few minutes, I was able to find out what film they’d be watching, watch the film on YouTube, discover what exact projector they’d have used, find detailed photographs of it on eBay, and then return to YouTube to listen to the projector in action, meaning that I could describe its exact rattling chatter.
How long would it have taken to have gathered that level of detail just twenty years ago? Weeks? Months? The truth is, I probably wouldn’t have bothered going into that much detail and the scene would have been the poorer for it.
This pandemic has been a strange, sad and frightening time for most of us and I’ve been very wary of advising people that it’s a good time to get on with writing, even when some of us suddenly have more time on our hands. But I have found that research has offered me a happy medium – diverting work that’s useful for my next book, but doesn’t require me to get into a clear enough headspace to actually create. And while we should certainly celebrate the reopening of libraries and archives once this pandemic is over, we can feel a degree of gratitude for the incredible resources accessible to us from our desks, sofas and kitchen tables that offer us new ways to create evocative and immersive stories that feel historically authentic.
Originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Author.
Ben Fergusson’s debut The Spring of Kasper Meier (2015) won the Betty Trask Prize, the HWA Debut Crown and was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. His latest novel, An Honest Man (2019), was a best book of the year in the Sunday Times, the Financial Times and the Times Literary Supplement.
Author photo © Charlie Hopkinson | Photo © Jesse / Adobe Stock