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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Article: Yesterday Once More—How to Research Historical Fiction

by: Suzanne Francis

Have you ever read a book that was set in some long-past time, only to find that the characters used modern-day slang or relied on some as-yet-undiscovered knowledge or device? Such mistakes are unsettling and can tear a reader’s attention away from the story.

As authors, we certainly don’t want that to happen!

So how do we make sure our period pieces feel, well… true to the times? Three words—research, research, research.

Yes, that is only one word, but the importance of careful research cannot be overestimated.

They say the devil hides in the details, but then again, so do angels, waiting to sweep your reader into an authentic world rich with imaginative description.

So, how to go about building, layer upon layer, a historically accurate framework for your book?

1) Always begin at the library. Your local library doubtless has a reference and research desk. If you are unsure how to use the on-line or traditional card catalog, ask the friendly people there for help. But don’t just search for items that relate directly to your subject! When I was writing Heart of Hythea, which is set in the mid 1700’s, I wanted to make sure I could create realism, down to the finest detail. Although Heart of Hythea is a work of romantic fantasy, set in an imaginary world called “Yrth,” I still had to pin my work to a time period, and stick closely to it. So in addition to finding out about fortresses, and weapons and clothing, I also found a book full of recipes and foodstuffs. Now, when my characters are sitting down to dine, I can be sure they are eating and drinking the right things.

Don’t overlook the children’s reference section. That is the place to find lavishly illustrated reference works on every subject imaginable! Need a diagram of a ninth century Viking village, or a picture of a medieval morning star? Children’s books can give you critical information without unnecessary detail to wade through. DK Eyewitness Books are particularly helpful. I used Arms and Armor a great deal for Heart of Hythea.

2) Use the internet—wisely. Yes, it is quick and easy to look something up on the World Wide Web, but it is no substitute for the library. You have no guarantees that anything you find on the internet is accurate or fair. Wikipedia is edited and re-edited by thousands of people each day, and it reflects the biases and political positions of every one of them. Never use the internet as the sole source of any important historical feature in your manuscript!

Nevertheless, the internet can be helpful. I often use a website called Etymology Online to check the accuracy of words and phrases. When I wanted the main character in Heart of Hythea to fling an insult at her future lover, I originally settled on “yellow” as a synonym for cowardly. A little research showed me that yellow dated from the mid-1800’s, so was most unsuitable. “Craven” turned out to be the correct expression! Picky? Perhaps… but the more things we get right as authors, the more we can seamlessly draw our readers into the story.

3) Museums and archives can be very helpful. Wander around the section devoted to your time period. Pick up any articles you are allowed to touch. Feel the pommel of the sword, the heft of the blacksmith’s hammer. Study the expressions on paintings or photographs, and look closely at the clothing and hairstyles. Let the history seep into your pores and you will be rewarded with descriptive passages that come alive.

4) Talk to the experts. Most universities have lecturers on many subjects who will be willing to spend a short time on a research interview. Be prepared with specific questions. Don’t ask, for example, “What was life like in the Middle Ages?” Ask instead, of an archaeologist—“What building materials were in use in 1000 CE?” if that is germane to your book. Be sure to keep the interview short, thirty minutes is best, and write your subject a thank you note afterwards.
Don’t discount the memories of your older friends and relatives, if your book is set reasonably close to the present day. They can recall stories told to them by parents and grandparents, giving a gritty perspective to what might otherwise be dry historical narration. We all know there was a depression in the thirties in the USA, but what was it like to live it—to be hungry, out of work, rootless?

5) Add real historical figures or events into the background of your story. Giving your reader a recognizable name or place gives your story instant credibility and helps create a wider context for your work. But, as always, make sure to get your facts absolutely straight!

You spend a great deal of energy creating believable, lovable (or hateful) characters, and a convincing story arc. Don’t short-change your work by forgetting to color in the background scenery. It is an essential part of creating the world your characters inhabit. Skimp on the research and it will show—either through weak description or out-and-out anachronisms. But never lard on so much detail that reader is bored, or tempted to skip ahead. A few economical phrases painting a general picture would be far preferable to a tedious recitation of what everyone in the room was wearing.

Historical fiction can be interesting and engaging, even educational, but only if you, the author, do your homework first!

About The Author: Fantasy author Suzanne Francis was born in King’s Lynn, England and spent much of her early life traveling with her military family. In addition to writing, her passions include music, neo-paganism and tramping through the countryside. She now lives in Dunedin, New Zealand along with her husband and four children.

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