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.

 

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