It’s always fun seeing the number of things people write with a vaguely historical basis. It’s not just the overtly historical fiction stuff either. Quite a lot of fantasy does alternate history. What I’d like to do, therefore, is provide two or three quick posts on the art of history for writers, drawing on the lessons I’ve learnt from my PhD in the stuff. We’ll start with a few options for doing historical research if you need some for your next project, then go on from there.
So you want to write something historical? Where do you start? The first stage is to probably pin down an era and location. That means some loose background reading until you find something that catches your eye. Here’s a clue: if you find that hard work, go into a different genre. You don’t have to like reading history, but if you don’t, why are you thinking about writing historical fiction? Look for what really grabs you. If you aren’t passionate about it, your readers won’t be.
Don’t just dive in. That’s a sure way to get yourself confused, put off, or trapped in highly technical arguments about herring renders in Domesday Book (for which, see J. Cambell, “Domesday Herrings” in C. Harper-Bill (ed) East-Anglia’s History (Boydell, Woodbridge, 2002).) First, work out what you need to know. Do you need to know specialised details of a particular area, or are you looking for more general information? Do you know which books or articles you should be looking for? It is often worth starting with the most recent general textbook you can find, and then working through the stuff it mentions in the footnotes as appropriate.
Curiously, that isn’t necessarily a question of interest. Yes, by all means read whatever catches your eye, but you will need some bits more than others. Use the general book to work out what you are going to need in detail, whether it’s more about societal structures, particular battles, or simply articles of dress. Make a checklist and tick things off as you go.
Don’t rely on purely online information. Online history can be all right, but it often isn’t. At best, much of it isn’t well referenced, so you’re only getting part of an argument. At worst, it’s out of date, incorrect, or deliberately lying. Wikipedia should never, never be anything more than a very rough outline. Even with paper sources, there are often significant arguments going on (historians are naturally argumentative) so you need to make sure you’re getting both sides. Try to be up to date.
Ideally, you want to get access to either your local university library or a specialist academic library, which isn’t actually that hard in most cases. Local libraries are good for most things, but the moment you need to do in depth research on a very specific period, they often simply don’t have the resources available.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask. You’ll be amazed how eager some academics are to bore you with their latest theories (sorry, help you to understand things better) if you only send them a nice email. The worst that can happen is that they delete it. Many universities even offer handy academic finding search engines to let people find exactly what they need. Oh, and if anyone wants to know more about my little corner of the middle ages, I’ll probably be happy to help, if I can still remember it all.