Chris Longmuir on research for historical fiction - A Dangerous Destiny?

I’m delighted to welcome crime writer to the blog. I was entranced by Chris’s ‘The Death Game’ where I first met Kirsty Campbell so I had to know more. Chris won the Scottish Association of Writers’ Pitlochry Award for two of her contemporary thrillers in the Dundee Crime Series. One of these books, ‘Dead Wood’, also won the Dundee International Book Prize. Her historical fiction includes a Scottish saga as well as two mystery crime series. The Kirsty Campbell Mysteries, set during and just after the Great War, and the first book of a suffragettes series, ‘Dangerous Destiny’.

Her books are set in Scotland, and have been described as atmospheric page turners. Chris also writes short stories, and historical articles which have been published in the US and the UK. “Writing is like an addiction to me,” Chris says. “I go into withdrawal without it.”

Over to Chris!

Historical fiction. When you say it fast, it sounds simple – a story set in an earlier time. You write your story combining a good plot with fascinating characters and then set it in the past after doing the research. Then you fall down the rabbit hole. You spend days, weeks, months, even years researching and making copious notes. Pages and pages of them. How do you decide what you will use?

Decisions, decisions

The first decision to be made when tackling a historical novel is whether the history is the story, or the background to a story you wish to write. The research required depends on that choice.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is an example of a historical novel where everything hinges on the history of the times. And if a similar style of fiction is your choice, then you will need to have a firm grasp of the historical characters, politics and events. That research rabbit hole is extremely deep, and mistakes are never forgiven by history buffs.

If you decide the story is the most important thing and the history is the backdrop to the action, you still need to research, although this can have a different focus.

My historical mysteries use the latter method. I want to offer my readers an intriguing story full of suspense set against a historical background covering before, during, and after the First World War. I will therefore focus on research with a small r, as opposed to Research with a big R, using this period as my reference point.

The little things matter

Of course, you can’t ignore the big picture. You need to know what was happening in the country and the world, even though you may not use the information. My method is to formulate a timeline composed of significant events. In Dangerous Destiny, my suffragette characters attend and are thrown out of Winston Churchill’s meeting in Dundee. I know the exact date of his visit because it is in my timeline.

In order to avoid turning your story into a history lesson, it is better to concentrate on adding historical atmosphere using your research into more common things. For example, consider:

  1. Transport! How did people move around? How long would it take to travel to a specific destination? What was their understanding of the world outside their own area? Many working-class people never left the town or village where they were born.
  2. The price of various items: a newspaper; a tram, bus or train ticket; the typical rent of a house; a pint of beer in a pub; a flagon of soup from the corner shop. You get the drift.
  3. Fashion! What did people wear? How did they get their clothes? Would it be handmade garments for the better off and cast offs for the poorer members of society? Did they wear hats and gloves? Or shawls and clogs?
  4. Length of the working day and working conditions, which tended to be much longer and more extreme than that of today.
  5. Smoking was more common than it is now. What did they smoke, cigarettes or tobacco? What brand, Kenilworth or Black Cat? Did they smoke pipes or chew tobacco? The fisherwomen in A Salt Splashed Cradle smoked clay pipes!
  6. Leisure activities. What were they and what was the cost? In my book Death of a Doxy, the children paid for their cinema seats with jam jars and the film being shown was The Knickerbocker Buckaroo featuring Douglas Fairbanks.

Last, you should give consideration to living conditions and attitudes which were different in times past.

Specialist research

Sometimes you need knowledge of a more specialist nature, although it is not wise to include all of that research in your book. Research on the birth of the first women’s police service in 1914 was the impetus for my Kirsty Campbell Mysteries.

Dangerous Destiny required a knowledge of suffragettes. And when I wrote Devil’s Porridge I had to research First World War munitions, and the process used to make cordite.

However, less is more. One paragraph in Devil’s Porridge was the outcome of three days of research into the mechanics of a vintage car.

I could go on, but I am sure you are grasping how research can colour your story and provide the background without being overwhelming.

Final Words

The golden rule with research is to know what you’re writing about. Check, check and check again. Keep most of the research in your head and only use a light touch when applying it to your book. No reader wants a lecture. Remember what I said above, three days of research led to one paragraph in the book.

Have fun with your research and don’t fall down the rabbit hole.


Connect with Chris
Website      Amazon Author Page     Twitter: @chrislongmuir
Facebook     Facebook Author page: Chris Longmuir, Crime Writer


Discover Dangerous Destiny, the first book in Chris’s new suffragette mystery series.

Dundee, Scotland, in 1908. Suffragettes are dying. The police aren’t interested, taking the attitude ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’.

Three suffragettes band together to find the truth.

Kirsty – a naïve young girl escaping her controlling family and the secret of her past.
Ethel – a mill girl fleeing from her abusive and vicious father
Martha – a seasoned suffragette seeking justice for her friends.

Will Kirsty and Ethel forge a new destiny for themselves?

Will Martha unmask the killer? And will she survive?

A coming-of-age story with murder and mystery at its heart.

Buy Dangerous Destiny on Amazon UK      Amazon US 



Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste the latest contemporary thriller… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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