Planning Your Assault on the Mountain of Information

copyright 1997 by Historical Novelists Center


There are buildings full of books, and all you want is one piece of information, say, were windows covered with glass, and if so what kind, in your target year? There's too much information, and your one particular pebble is lost in the mountain of gravel. This whole site is dedicated to helping you out, and perhaps this extra essay will help you prepare.

No matter how much research work you did in college, or out of it, it may not quite have prepared you for researching an historical novel. If the phrase "research paper" delivered by a teacher always made you feel light-headed (or low-stomached), you may be finding your plans to write in this field a bit daunting, but it will easily become a journey of adventure and discovery, rather than a confusing bad time, if you follow the guide here.

Tiers of Research

Without planning, this can have you weeping!

Rather than trying to research each topic in depth, then move on to the next, you will be saved time, effort, and confusion if instead you treat research like a sculptor's clay figure: first you build a framework, then you flesh it out bulkily, then you refine the details. Otherwise, you can spend time and money getting esoteric volumes on the minutiae of, say, monasteries in the Middle Ages, when it turns out your story really won't go near one.

The first tier is general, introductory research. The books listed in the all-purpose micro-bibliography will often do the job. Simply, you want to start carrying in your head a general timeline for the era, be familiar with the political states in existence, their recent wars and rulers, and have a decent picture of how the world looked: clothes, dwellings, and layouts of towns or other groupings of people (villas, monasteries, camps, castles, temples, churches)

This will help begin to make your decisions of where and when for your novel. After all, if your plot requires the siege of a walled town, you will have to pick a year and an area where that sort of thing was going on.

However, do not try to write an historical novel by first laying out a complete plot outline and then going to the books. Unless you are already very well read in the period, you should hit the books with only a general conception of the plot. Stay fluid: you never know when new research will suddenly make a settled scene impossible, or hand you a plot element so great you just have to throw out something to make room for it.

Some people must do their forty books of research before starting to plot. They have become fascinated with a time and place -- at least interested in it -- and afterwards they will devise a story to show it off. Others head off after ten books, and research as they write. You had better be very flexible and creative to follow the second approach, as you may have to invent three or four ways to resolve the plot, or get the characters in trouble, throwing out the old ones as you go. It's a difference of personalities. Some people want everything mapped out, do complete outlines and synopses before writing, and some people don't want any roads, and would feel bored and finished with a story if they knew everything that was happening before they were at least three-quarters through with it.

No matter how creative you are, you need to complete the first tier before you can begin writing almost any scene. What you have seen in movies or read in other novels will not do: a frequent problem is misunderstanding what you were being shown.

Second Tier

All really good historical plots hang on some certain events, persons, or customs in history. If your story can happen any time and anywhere, you have an oyster, but no pearl. Now you are looking for something vivid to which to connect it, the grain of sand around which the pearl can form. Only once your story could not be moved in time notably, has it properly matured into an historical novel. Otherwise, you can do a lot less research by turning it into a science fantasy novel set on a far-future world among distant descendents of Terran colonists who gave up high-tech.

<Note: one of our writers said this was a great idea, and is saving herself a mort of trouble by taking her story out of medieval Navarre to a "close parallel Earth, in the Pyrenees area in that era" so the politics can be what she likes.>

Some of you will have been lucky enough to start research with a flame of fact already burning a hole in your brain. Constant readers of history, you will have tripped over a character or an event on which to grow your story.

If you haven't, the second tier of research should be dedicated to finding those grains of sand. It is usually that which you did not expect: finding out that poets could lay waste to a country with a satire, if the king were ungenerous; that being taken to war to attend his knightly master made a serf a free man; that in some times and places, many people chose slavery over freedom. It is always something that sets your mind on fire, so that finding out more about it is no drudgery. You can pretty well figure your pearl is on its way when you can't wait to tear into a promising source, rather than setting your jaw to face another book.

It is also at this point that you may have learned enough about the time and place to feel that it is not, after all, working out for the idea you had. Too often, parents and teachers have pounded into children's heads that "you must finish what you start." Nonsense! Life is too short to spend trying to write books that your subliminal self is flagging as losers. The feeling that this period is not going to work for you may stem from finding out that people were not doing the sort of things you thought they did, that they were more straight-laced or more libertine, were more learned or more ignorant, or in some manner simply don't suit the image you had.

It's time to reassess. Does the period still interest you? Start plotting a new story based on your discoveries. If the period is what bores you, start shopping for a new time and place. If Georgian England has bombed out, maybe a Graustark (fictional but authentic country) in the Germanies will do. Perhaps you need to drop back a few centuries, or a few millenia, even.

Eventually, your plot should jell enough that you can begin to see where you must research in depth. Remember that research and creativity are a give-and-take relationship. If you happen to find an excellent book on falconry, don't be afraid to send your lords and ladies out with their gyrfalcons, or your peasant with his sparrowhawk, just because it wasn't in the original plan. Your luck of the draw in what books are easily available to you has been so kind as to hand you a "set piece" that will be authoritative and memorable. It may make up for the fact that you found out that men and women -- at least, lords and ladies -- don't dine together, so that the dinner flirtation can be saved and moved on horseback while out hawking.

Also, if you have found out that certain aspects of your time and place are simply unknown, you are now faced with either arranging the plot to avoid the problem area, or studying around it so deeply that you feel you can work out a reconstruction that will satisfy you and your readers.

In this tier, once you have settled down, you should be reading biographies of people of the times, and detailed histories, the sort that don't just mention the kings and queens, but talk about all the courtiers influencing them. You do not have to read ten histories of, say, the England of Richard the Lionheart. You need to read two histories, one more detailed than the general one you read in tier one, and then a university library detail history, perhaps. After that, concentrate on biography, both those written in the period and very modern ones. History tells you how countries evolved and where and why wars were fought. Biography tells you how people lived, acted, decided, and felt. A historical novel is a biography of your fictional characters, when it is not faction or fictionalized biography of well-attested historical figures.

This is also the level at which you should begin reading old texts of a general nature, like Pausanias's Guide to Greece for Ancient Greece, 600 BC to 150 CE, St. Gregory of Tours on early Frankish history, or Saxo Grammaticus for early Norse forays. In these often hide bizarre little incidents for which general historians can't find room, or which have been edited out of common knowledge by the academic mind police from the 1800's forward. These are often superb grains of sand.

The Third Tier

By this time, you should know so much about your period and place that not only could you pass a test for a semester history class about that century, but you might very well teach one. Certainly, you could deliver an interesting talk at a club.

In the third tier of research, you will be looking for particular details of life and behavior that will give your work authentic depth. Having decided to include the siege of Jerusalem, you will now hunt for plans of the city, translations of Crusaders and Saracens describing the siege, buy a Patterns from the Past tent pattern so you can see in what your people were camping, look for archeaological reports that might include what sort of pots, pitchers and arrowheads were dug up at the site. You will look into siege engines, military science descriptions of the event, and whether or not there were camels in the area.

But if in the exact same year you are instead dealing with a band of Saxons leaving Norman England and trying to settle farther north among the Scots, you will be looking at or for entirely different maps and site reports. You may look into North Sea fishing of the period rather than siege warfare, and the particular squabbles among the small kingdoms of the north, a mixture of Scots, Britons, and the descendents of the Norse, rather than the invasions of the Seljuk Turks.

Does your story take place in a quiet Georgian English village? Don't bother reading military science, but hunt down cookbooks and antique furniture guides. Exploring the seven seas like Captain Cook? The less said about shipboard food the better, after one description to settle its quality. You don't need furniture. But you'll be reading lots of books imprinted Naval Institute Press and the like.

In this tier, you must become so familiar with the trivia of life for your characters that you can imagine their surroundings in detail. It is not enough to know that a protagonist is wearing armor, or that it is plate armor. You must know how it fastens, and how flexible or constricting it is (not very, despite the crippled crab image often given to knights; they were usually able to fight dismounted at will; this is the sort of truth, as opposed to popular "knowledge" you should be acquiring at this level). It is not enough to know that women span and wove; you must know with what sort of spindle, that the spinning wheel is a Renaissance introduction only improved by stages, and on what sort of loom, vertical or horizontal, with hand-picked shed or how many leafs of heddles, if your heroine is going to be sitting down to her day's work.

At this point, you are probably well into your work, and researching as necessary for each scene, now that you know what most of them are. You already know how your characters think and act, though detail research may still give you some surprises, like hardly anyone knew how to swim or no-one ever eats fish. You are now hunting the little bits that will make the world of the story very concrete to yourself and your reader.

Now all your pearl needs is time for the last layers to finish, and a bit of polishing, before you're ready to present it to a buyer.

As you go through the bibliographies, you will see some books marked T1, T2, or T3 to suggest where they might fit in your research, but don't treat it as law. After completing the first tier, if you should happen to trip across a third tier book, go ahead and read it if it isn't irrelevant and everything else in Tier 2 is checked out this week, or still on order. It's usually not harmful. At worst you may just get a mite confused. At best -- wonderful things!

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