Historical Research…Aarrgh!!!

Still useful, despite having been written in the last millennium! –t.


If the very idea of “research” sends you white around the gills, read on.

Divide and Conquer

So… where do you start?  If you’ve never tackled historical research before, the endless centuries worth of information can seem overwhelming.  The trick is to divide everything into manageable portions.

Dividing begins with historiography: the stuff in the books.  There are two types, which for convenience I will call Political and Social.  Political history is the stuff you learnt at school:  Kings and Queens, movers and shakers, wars, governments.   Most history books supply the political variety.

Social history is the study of society; how people lived, usually focusing on the “common man”.  Writers need the social sort.  You can find social histories, but they’re usually large, indigestible scholarly works that amble across centuries in the space of a sentence, and rarely descend to plebeian concerns such as what a heroine would wear, or think, or do with her time.

Here’s how to use both types of history, and still get what you want.

1.  Pick an Era

More dividing:  Recorded history has been chopped up into neat artificial subdivisions.  The largest divisions are Ancient history; Early Medieval, Late Medieval and Modern.  These divisions tend to be fairly global;  Ancient up until the 5th or 6th Century, Medieval from around the middle of the 11th Century to approximately the end of the 17th Century,  Modern from then on.  Specific “cut-off” dates are open to argument.

Within these massive periods, you have more specific divisions such as Roman Britain, Colonial America, Colonial Australia, Victorian England, Renaissance Italy, and more.  These eras can be as little as ten years to as long as several centuries, as in the Roman era.  There are hundreds of eras, and they usually take their name from whoever was the rule-maker at that time, and they are usually nation-based.  Therefore “Victorian England” means the era when England was ruled by Queen Victoria.

Which era does your interest lie in?  Why do you want to write an historical romance?  Is it that you’ve read some and liked them, or you’ve seen historical movies and liked those, or you’re a thorough-going history nut of the academic variety, and have no idea how to turn all those wonderful facts and figures into a half-way decent plot?  What was it about these movies or books that you liked?  Were a number of them set in the same country or period?  This is the era you should set your first novel in, and is the starting point for your research.  Thanks to your reading, movie watching and so forth, you already have an instinctive “feel” for the era, and you already know a lot more about it than you realise.

Beware, however, if your interest lies in the exotic, such as T’ang Dynasty China.  You might be able to write a thunderingly good romance, but you’re going to have to work extremely hard to overcome editors’ resistance to your novel.  Editors might feel – perhaps unjustly – that readers will avoid the unfamiliar.

To a lesser extent, the same caution needs to be applied to Australian historical settings.  Two major advantages may outweigh any editorial resistance to Australiana, though:

  • Every major town in Australia has a local Historical Society, and all your research has been done for you, and
  • Australian history is familiar to the Western reader, but still has novelty value — as long as the romance is there.

Check your intended market’s guidelines (you do have an intended market, don’t you?).  Some specify US/England/Europe only.

You don’t need a degree to be able to research a novel.  If you can use an encyclopaedia and your local library’s index or catalogue, you already have all the skills you need.

2.  The Timeline

From your era of choice, is there an event that appeals to you?  Perhaps you’ve read about the Battle of Hastings, and it strikes you as a good dramatic incident around which you could write a wonderful romance.  There’s your target year and era: 1066, Norman England.

Go find an encyclopaedia set.  It doesn’t matter how old it is because history doesn’t change, it just grows longer.  Encyclopaedias tend to be frowned upon by academics because they’re too superficial, but for us generalists they’re perfect.  They have hundreds of facts at your fingertips.

The intention here is to draw up a timeline.  The quickest way is to look up the history section of the major entry for your country.  You can chart as many years as you want, but the aim is to have a chronological list of major events in your country of choice for about ten years before, to about ten years after, your target year.  If you don’t have a target year, you need a timeline for all of your era of interest.  Keep compiling events until you find a year or event that appeals to you.  Then concentrate on that time period.

The timeline will give you the era’s political history.  Having a list of these events is necessary because they effected people’s lives, and your characters will be effected by them, too.  You don’t have to memorise anything, just write it down, in date order, so you can get a feel for the country in the years leading up to your story — some of this will supply motives and histories for your characters.  “1066?  Oh, yes, the Normans invaded Britain…. hmmm, That’s ten years before my story.  My heroine’s father could have been in those battles.  What if he were killed?  Or what if he came back from Hastings as a bitter and twisted old man?  What if…?”  And so on.

3.  Getting down to Business

Now you need to consult specific entries in the encyclopaedia.  After dealing with medieval English history, you can look up Hastings, Normans, William the Conqueror, Harold II (he’s the one that lost).  You’ll know what subjects to look up because the timeline you’ve drawn up will tell you.  From these entries you will get a few more dates and date-specific facts (remember, we’re still dealing with political history).  The encyclopaedia might not go into enough details — perhaps your hero is a Norman, and you want him to fight in the battle of Hastings, and capture the Heroine’s father.  You’ll need to know if they kept prisoners that day … or was it days?  How long did the battle last?  The questions will occur naturally to you.  If you can’t get the answer in the encyclopaedia (and you’ll be surprised just how much specific information you can get), then you need to consult specialist books.  This will probably mean a trip to the library.  Your local one will be sufficient for most popular eras and events, and you can borrow the non-reference books, too.  Your State Reference Library is the next place to tackle — take plenty of paper.

Gradually your questions will evolve into social ones.  Remember those indigestible social histories I mentioned in the beginning?  You can tackle those, and you might get some answers, but the best way to get what you need is to ask yourself more specific questions.  Your heroine’s father has been wounded.  What sort of medicine did they have in those days?  This is a huge subject, so get more specific.  How did they treat sword wounds?  Begin with the general reference (the encyclopaedia), and work your way through the layers until you get your answer.  As a rule of thumb, the more specific your question (How many days does it take for gangrene to set in?  What did they call gangrene then?) the quicker you’ll find your answer.

You’ll find yourself delving into non-history texts, checking the early development of a bewildering array of subjects.  Write everything down.  You’re building a profile of how people lived, specific to your novel, and filled with all the little snippets that bring a novel to life.

4.  Start Plotting

At this stage, plotting and research tend to merge together. You already know the political events that will shape your plot.  You have a choice:

  • Plot around them.  If your heroine’s father must be a peace-loving man, you can’t have him being a soldier in 1066 in England.  Choose another year, or profession, or country, or county.
  • Incorporate the events.  Let them affect your characters and your plot.  Make your heroine’s father peace-loving, and still a soldier (there was no such thing as conscientious objectors back then … well, not living ones, anyway), but one who hates war, and is deeply affected by the carnage he witnesses at Hastings, to the point of withdrawing from the heroine’s life.

Now is the time to pull out almanacs, calendars, maps.  Don’t forget to find out about seasonal and religious events.  Weave your story, checking the facts you need as you go along, and using all your plotting and character skills that you use for other romance genres.

5.  Start Writing … Now!

Help!  Not yet, you cry.  There are two reasons why you might balk at the starting gate:

  1. You don’t think you know enough
  2. You’ve discovered this is fun … you’ve got the research bug.

One of the reasons I suggested you pick an era that interests you is because you will intuitively know a lot by virtue of that interest.  Jump in, start writing the first scene, and surprise yourself.

You may reach a point where there is something you’re just not sure about — your heroine wants to throw an ashtray at the hero, say.  Do they have ashtrays in 1066?

  • If it’s not important to the plot, guess, and make a note to check it out when you’re editing.  And don’t forget to check!  You’ll loose readers faster than Harold lost his army if you let errors of fact pass through the final edit.  Alternatively,
  • Change the fact.  Get her to throw a helmet, which you know they had back then.
  • If it is important to the plot (The ashtray has her rich but mad uncle’s will carved into the base, and when she throws and shatters it, the will is lost), then you’re going to have to stop writing and find out.  Back to the encyclopaedia.  Look up ashtrays.  However, as soon as you have your answer … stop.  Go back to writing at once.

If you find yourself stopping too often, then you possibly need to go back to the plotting and research stages and develop the story more.  Perhaps outline the first five chapters, write them and see where the story is going, then outline the next five chapters, and so on.

Writing the rest of the novel is a journey of discovery.  Through constantly checking your facts, you’ll uncover more weird and interesting information than you can ever put into the story.  (King Harold, two years before Hastings, was shipwrecked and rescued by William.  They didn’t have ashtrays in 1066).

6.  The End?

Not quite.  This novel is finished.  What about the next one?   And what about this lovely pile of notes you’ve generated?

  • Don’t throw away anything.  File it.  This means you will have to set up some sort of filing system.  If you haven’t already got your own system going, here’s mine:
    Research notes tend to be of two types:  Date-specific events, or specialist subjects.  For each new era I research I start up a new ring binder file.  Into this, at the front, goes the timeline, with its date-specific list of events, in chronological order.  Behind comes the specialist subjects, each on a separate page.  If the file gets very thick, I start indexing the specialist subjects, putting them behind their own dividers if they’re extensive, or splitting the file into two:– one timeline, the other specialist subjects.
  • Every time you watch a movie or read a book, or see a picture that adds something to your knowledge about an era, scribble out some notes, or cut out the picture if possible, and put it in the appropriate file.  (That’s why I use ring binders; it’s easier to insert pages where you want them.)  If you find your interest being roused by a completely new era, start a new file, and begin collecting information.

The Next Novel

The first historical novel you research takes the longest time.  Even if you pick a completely different period for the next novel, you’ll still be faster next time:  You know what you’re doing, and you know your way around the bookstacks and catalogues.  However, you might decide to stay in the period you know.  If you move backwards or forwards by a century, you already have a fairly good idea of the way people lived then, and you only need to draw up the timeline.

Oh yes….  One of the side benefits of writing an historical novel is that the events, the people, have been brought to life and lived in your mind for weeks at a time.  You may not intend to memorise dates, but you will find that dates are attached to events like price tags.  (Battle of Hastings?  That must have been in 10-something, because my heroine was sixteen in 1076, and her father had been home from the war for ten years … of course — 1066).  Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself using dates and events as bookmarks, dividing up your eras of interest into neat novel-sized chunks.

Beware … it’s addictive!

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