Doing the research is one of the chief pleasures of writing historic fiction. There’s nothing like having an excuse to spend hours immersed in the everyday lives of artisans in Tudor England, artists’ models in Renaissance Florence, minor officials in the court of Louis XIV or whatever place and period you have chosen as your creative stage. Respecting the realities of time and place imposes a discipline and, yes, a restriction on your work. A science fiction or fantasy writer has almost total freedom, unconstrained even by the laws of physics if necessary. The contrast can be likened to a writer of free verse as compared to the poet sweating over a sonnet – entirely restricted as to rhyming pattern, cadence, even length. But it doesn’t seem to have hindered Shakespeare too much – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day …’. Not that we all have the skills available to Shakespeare, sadly.
Speaking for myself, the challenge is not doing the research, so much as knowing when to stop. It is all too easy to track down just one more Wikipedia article or second-hand book instead of getting down to the real work of writing. How much is enough?
The answer to that question depends on what type of historic fiction you are writing. If you are setting out on a fictionalised version of real events or a real person (think Hilary Mantel or Jean Plaidy for example) then you have no real choice but to thoroughly master your subject. While you will necessarily be inventing a great deal, in particular dialogue, you are duty bound not to contradict known historical facts. Hilary Mantel explained that ‘There seemed to be a lot of blanks in [Thomas Cromwell’s] story, and it wasn’t easy to find out anything about him, but it’s in those gaps that the novelist goes to work.’ The basic architecture is determined by the known events, but around this scaffold the writer can fill in the gaps, consistent with the underlying structure.
More commonly, we are seeking to create imaginary characters set within a place and time. In many ways the research challenge is greater. The ocean of historical non-fiction has traditionally been based upon the ‘great men’ view of the past. Consequently, there are hundreds of works about the life of Henry VIII or Pope Gregory or Napoleon or about the battles and revolutions that they instigated. Only much more recently have academic historians began teasing out the details of everyday life in Imperial Rome, Meiji Japan or under the rule of the Incas. The challenge is to uncover the best of what is out there.
Your first port of call is going to be an online search. With all the usual caveats about trusting your sources, Wikipedia or other publicly available material will generally give you some basic information and, more importantly, some leads on where to go next. For example, I just looked up Catherine of Aragon in Wikipedia and after the very useful article I found 30-odd book references and half-a-dozen internet sources, including a beguiling link, ‘John Blanke—A Trumpeter in the court of King Henry VIII’. Turns out he was an African musician and a regular performer at Henry’s court. There’s a novel right there, surely?
My next two suggestions are The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. In both cases you can perform topic searches and uncover just about all that’s worth reading on just about anything under the sun. Crucially, the books will have been reviewed by experts in the relevant field, helping you focus on what’s worth reading.
My next suggestion is bibliographies or further reading sections at the end of most non-fiction works. When you do find a book that was interesting and useful, exploit the fact that the author will generally have listed all the books that she found useful in her research. Create your reading list and get searching for used books – or save money and give the list to your local librarian and ask him to track them down for you.
Finally, faced with what can be an overwhelming choice of sources, go for letters and diaries every time. My own book ‘Empress’ features Noël Coward in a couple of chapters. Reading his extensive letters gave me a better sense of his language, likes and dislikes than any memoir or biography.
Your research should produce three things.
- A timeline for the real historic events which must be respected in your story, even as background.
- A list of engaging, arresting images that will add interest to your work. For example, no you know that Henry VIII employed a black trumpeter, you just have to use that in your next Tudor court drama.
- A sense of place in your own imagination. Some idea of the sounds and smells, the street life of your town or cityscape; health and hygiene conditions; the role of women; current religious controversies (there are always religious controversies); tools and trades and so on.
When you have these, stop reading and start writing.