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How do you begin the process of researching a novel? In the case of my latest book, Man at Sea, the task seemed straightforward if a little daunting.

The novel is partly set during the second world war, so I spent a lot of time combing the Imperial War Museum archives. It also examines Malta’s transition from British colony to independence in the 1960s, so I was fortunate enough to undertake several research trips to the island.

As a writer, the key is not so much assembling reams and reams of material, but finding the details that make a period or situation vivid for you and, eventually, for the reader – those few facts which make a sprawling and multi-faceted topic specific enough to relate to and empathise with.

The novelist Sarah Waters once memorably described those nuggets of information as the “poignant trivia” that provides the canvas for historical fiction.

As a creative writing lecturer, I teach students to not judge their historical fiction purely on historical accuracy, but on its ability to evoke an emotional response. This is what academic Melissa Addey describes in her research as a “playful exploration set within the frame of the historical record”, which allows for incorporation of smaller, more idiosyncratic details.

Other research points to the useful distinction between accuracy and…

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Abdul Gh Lone

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