Last month I gave a workshop, really a talk, on writing historical fiction at a conference at Keystone College, which I mentioned here. The conference was expensive-ish, and I suspect that few of you live near Scranton, PA, so, in a departure from the ordinary, I’m putting my workshop into a blog post–or two or three. There will still be prompts!
My forthcoming historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is my second historical novel. Dave at Night, which came out in the late 1990s, is the first. And lately I’ve done a little historical research for some of my fantasies. Most are vaguely medieval, though Ever is vaguely Mesopotamian.
Ceiling is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and it was the most exciting writing experience I’ve ever had, because I learned so much. The world of the late Middle Ages is in many ways vastly different from our own–and in some ways just like it. Different, for one thing, because so little science was known, and people came up with bizarre explanations for occurrences like disease. Similar because, among other things, money was at the root of most evil.
We can use history in our fantasies, too, as much history or as little as we like. Even in fantasies, historical research is great for surprising details. If we’re writing fantasy that’s only tangentially historical, we don’t need much in the way of resources. A book on daily life during the period (not hard to find), a book or websites on fashions of the time, an online encyclopedia, and general online searches for whatever comes up, will probably be enough–and we’ll still find surprises that will light up our writing.
But if we’re writing historical fantasy or speculative fiction that takes place at a particular time on actual planet Earth, or if we’re writing realistic historical fiction, we need more. And we need to understand that the project will call for a substantial time commitment. Unless we’re already steeped in our period, it will take us a while even to discover what we don’t know. The process will be enormously rewarding, but we should take a deep breath before jumping in.
The good news is that there’s lots of help and we don’t have to be historians to do this.
We’ll start with a survey book. The book that most directed my research for Ceiling was The Jews of Spain, a History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane S. Gerber, which covers the history of Jews on the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the expulsion, and their history after they were kicked out, into the 20th century. If we don’t know what our plot will be, we’re looking for times of conflict and for interesting people.
Daily life books will be useful at the beginning and as we continue. Dummy or Idiot Guides can make the difficult simple-ish. Since I’m not religious and had little religious education, I relied on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism. I also attended a service at our local synagogue and asked the rabbi some questions.
When we have an idea for our story and a sense of the times, we can move from the general to the particular. A danger at the beginning and all the way through is that we may get so immersed in our research–it’s so fascinating and writing is so hard!–that we can’t stop. We have to remember to write.
Here’s something I wish I did from the start of my research: write a timeline of events, citing sources and page numbers. I spent unnecessary hours hunting for facts I knew but couldn’t remember precisely. If I’d been more organized at the beginning, I would have saved time.
Our survey book’s bibliography and footnotes will help us continue our research, likewise the bibliographies and footnotes of any encyclopedia articles or book we consult. A nice discovery I made is that some of the citations on Wikipedia can be clicked on, and we can read scholarly research for free. I think this is how I found an undergraduate thesis about caravels, 15th century sailing ships, that the author had posted online.
Since I was writing about Spain, I found it helpful to use the Spanish version of Wikipedia and the online translator, even though the translations were sometimes obviously off the mark–and funny. But mostly, they were good enough. If my story moved to a particular town in Spain, for example, the Spanish Wikipedia had a lot more information and more pictures than the English version.
We can also use an online translator to email people in other countries for information. Museums and tourist destinations, for example, are likely to have email addresses, and we can reach out, politely in their language, to staff for more information. Then we can translate the answers. Knowing that my manufactured communication might not be perfect, I always included my English original.
I didn’t travel to Spain, so I relied on online images to bring my story to life. In fact, the hardest part of writing the book was my timidity. I didn’t want to get the details wrong. For example, what was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How do I find out?
Turns out Reddit has a handy Ask-a-Historian group. We can type in our question, and it will be screened by people who monitor what comes in. If approved, our question will be opened up to the Reddit universe of volunteer historians, and if someone is interested, it will be answered. My first question (I don’t remember what it was) was never answered, but my second was. This very kind historian not only wrote back, but he also sent me links to reproductions of paintings and murals from the period–of wharfs. The pictures made it possible for me to write two scenes. If you try Ask-a-Historian, don’t mention that you’re working on a novel. Questions from novelists are regarded as frivolous!
Old crafts, as you may know, live on on YouTube. In one of my fantasies I needed to know how to card wool, and I found a demonstration on YouTube. In this regard, we historical fantasy and fiction writers are lucky to live in the age of the internet.
More to come! Here are three prompts:
∙ In a world that’s loosely based on ancient Egypt, the king’s beloved cat Tuttie has died, and the king decides that it should be mummified and buried in style, along with a human, your MC, who will be ceremonially sacrificed so she can care for it in the afterlife. Write a scene or the whole story.
∙ On November 9, 1965 most of New York City experienced a power outage, a blackout. At the time I was in college, but I was home with a newly broken ankle–with an enormous cast and crutches. Read about the blackout online. Your MC, who, like me, is on crutches, gets a phone call (mostly, phone service wasn’t disrupted) from a friend in distress, who lives half the city away. Your MC has to go to her friend. Using as much period detail as you can, write her trek across the city in the dark. Decide if she makes it or not. Remember: no cell phones back then, but there were phone booths–and a fifty-fifty chance that the phone would work.
∙ Research a historic battle. Can be during our Civil War, World War I, the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492–or any one you pick. At a critical moment, a dragon lands on the battlefield. You decide what kind of dragon. Write what happens.
Have fun, and save what your write!