Researching Historical Fiction

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This is a tricky topic. I check out an historical fiction writers’ forum occasionally and I mostly find very knowledgeable people helping others. But, as is the way on the Internet, sometimes a contributor may be intellectually intolerant and insensitive to the vulnerability of others. Discussions often concern historical accuracy and sources. Where I come in on those discussions is here: the story is everything. Historical fiction is fiction surrounded by non-fiction. Just as science fiction is a genre where the story is enhanced by the technological possibilities and moral choices that arise in an imagined future, historical fiction is made more interesting by the technological and cultural limitations imposed upon the story.

 

When I wrote history papers in university–back in the pre-computer dark ages– all my sources were found in the library. I understand that today students are directed to primary rather than secondary sources. The Internet provides the researcher with a veritable sea of information. I use books as well as on-line sources. Because I bring in historical figures such as King Canute, Robert of Normandy, and Earl Godwin, for example, I try to learn as much as I can about their lives. From their actions, I can speculate on character. I don’t mind stretching historical timelines a bit so some of the players’ appear as contemporaries, while in reality one may still have been a child at the time. My protagonist, Harald, would have been about twelve when his father, King Canute traveled to Rome. At twelve years, a boy was old enough (sources tell me) to swear allegiance. Whether he accompanied his father king on that journey, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have written an adult novel if I’d kept his age accurate.

 

It is the details along the path of the story that breathe life into historical fiction. Questions constantly arise. How big a city was Rome in the eleventh century? How would a Danish prince of England communicate with Germans and Normans? How Norse were Normans by the year 1027c.e.? What foods would be served at table? What swear words were in vogue? What would the female protagonist be wearing? How far can you sail up the Rhine? What mountain passes would be used to cross the Alps in those times? What covered the windows, if not glass? Finding the answers to these questions is fascinating and time consuming, taking one away from writing the story. But the answers add fuel to the fire and the story progresses.

 

One area I choose to play with is the language. When I’m reading a book, nothing throws me out of it faster than an anachronism–a word or object or an expression that did not exist at the time. You can’t say Claude buttoned up his tunic and put his hands in his pockets if neither button nor pocket had been invented. And you better find a name that would have been common in England in the eleventh century, because Claude is French. When I tried calling one of my characters a “joker,” a member of my writing group suggested it was too modern. Sure enough, the word joker came into use in the nineteenth century. I changed it to “he liked to jest”.

 

I realize that if I wrote the English language just as it was in the Middle Ages no one but scholars could read it, so there are limits to word research. Sometimes my pre-occupation with word origins comes up with some real gems. I was trying to discover what term would have been used to describe a mercenary warrior in the Middle Ages. I found that our modern word “freelance” came from just such a person, whose lance was for hire.

 

I am still too much of the teacher at times and fear that I take too many opportunities to teach readers word origins. How “bye” for example, morphed from “God be with you” to “God be” to “good-bye” before it arrived at today’s brief dismissal. I’m sure an editor–if I should be so lucky–will call me on teachiness.

 

So, those are my thoughts on research: the story is central, timelines are flexible, details breathe life, and language is just plain fun.

 

Garth out.

 

Writing Historical Fiction

63a0e8af496cf3c10dbe9b3249f7820cIn my last blog, I talked about being open to story ideas when they zing by you, and using the what if helper. For me, history releases ideas like a porcupine throws quills. My novel, Blood Moon Road, grew out of a “write-off” session with my friend and writing guru, Michael Hiebert. A “write-off” is where you sit in a room (or a Starbucks), agree on starting point, and both write for three or four hours. Then you critique each other’s work. Though Michael tells of our writing encounter with the theme of how incredibly distracted I am, my version is that I finally found one idea in the book he handed me–a history of the Middle Ages–that ended up as a novel.

The fact that tweaked my interest that day was that King Canute of England in the year 1027 traveled to Rome for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Church’s secular head of Christendom). I was taken by the idea of this English king who was actually a Dane with Viking roots, arriving in a Rome that was but a remnant of what it had been under the Caesars. I started with Canute’s longships crossing the English channel, and after a bit of digging to find that Canute had three sons, I posed the question: what if one of his sons accompanied him? I chose the middle son, Harald Harefoot (so called because he was fast, not because he had furry feet), and made the point of view his. As his character grew, I knew he must part ways with his father king and woman must be involved. From there I mapped it out (with help from the writing guru).

In writing historical fiction, one can always position fictional characters close to historical figures, or have them tragically affected by enormous historical events: wars, revolutions, plagues, assassinations. What was that film about the woman who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts planned the killing of Abraham Lincoln? Fascinating. Now that wasn’t fiction, but it could have been. What if Guy Fawkes had a sister? How would she have been affected by his arrest and execution?

One of my favourite historical novels is The Eagle of the Ninth, by the wonderful British writer Rosemary Sutcliff. She took two events: in the year A.D. 117, the Roman Ninth Legion marched north from Eburacum (now York) to put down a rising of the Caledonians, and was never heard from again; eighteen hundred years later a Roman eagle, standard of the Roman legions, was unearthed in Hampshire. Sutcliff wove a superb tale of a Roman centurion forced to retire after an injury, who travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in disguise with his slave/friend to find out what became of his father’s legion and to recover its missing eagle. A marvelous read (and now a passable movie: Centurion starring Michael Fassbender.)

Another great use of a minor historical fact is Geraldine Brooks’ book, The Year of Wonders. In 1666, the town of Eyam in England quarantines itself to prevent the spread of plague. Given that one fact, Brooks creates a strong female protagonist in a town that becomes a small microcosm of believable characters dealing with sickness, death, and betrayal. The story really belongs to the protagonist, Anna Frith, whose character arcs superbly. The result is one of those unforgettable stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

To successfully spin fact into fiction requires an enormous amount of research, but that is a topic for another blog. Until then, if you want to send me story ideas or interesting historical facts you think might be launch points, please do.

Garth out.