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Writing and Historical Research

I was chatting on a forum the other day, and the conversation sparked the idea for this blog post. When writing your novel, what is the best way to incorporate research and historical details into your writing? I’m not sure there is a best practice for doing this; everyone most likely has a method that works best for him or her. Some like to do a lot of research and planning up front, while others choose to research as they are writing their novel. I can only share what my experience has been and what works best for me.

When I began the first draft of my novel, I had a basic knowledge of the medieval period, and I had an idea for a story, and so I just started writing. As I was writing, I went to the library and collected books and read as much as I could about the time and location in medieval history I wanted to cover. I focused on Medieval England and France, around the turn of the 13th century. By the time I finished the first draft, I had learned so much more, and I realized I had a lot of errors, and for the second draft, I spent time correcting these errors with the new knowledge I had gained. But I never stopped researching. Throughout the second draft, I was constantly reading new books, and even after I finished the second draft, there were still new things I had learned that I wanted to incorporate in the third draft.

I’m currently on the fourth draft of my novel, and there are still things about the Middle Ages I’m learning. Just yesterday, I was talking with a knowledgable historical fiction author, and she informed me that the term “chain mail” was actually a term created in the Victorian era and was not used by people in the Middle Ages. Simply the term “mail” would be more accurate. Now, I have to be more conscious of this in my writing, and for the fourth draft correct any misuses of this term. As many medieval historical sources I have read, I have never noticed the distinction between “chain mail” or “mail” before. Either the sources referred to it as both “chain mail” and “mail” interchangeably, or they failed to mention “chain mail” was a term conceived after the medieval period.

The important thing is to never stop learning; you can never know enough about a certain period of history, and there are many areas left open for interpretation and debate that the writer will have to make certain choices about in his or her novel.

6 thoughts on “Writing and Historical Research”

  1. An important issue to keep in mind is how to relate to your reader. Historical research will lend authenticity to any story, and historical correctness is always a plus, but when your reader can no longer read the novel without having to stop every few minutes to Wikipedia what’s going on, then you might have gone too far with historical accuracy.

    I feel that there are certain artistic liberties that must be taken to keep your reader engaged – it might not be totally accurate – but your reader will know what your talking about.

    For example, I too had no idea about the uses of “mail” and “chain mail,” but would “chain mail” be more preferred since today’s reader is more familiar with it? I’m sure it’s a fine line to follow, but perhaps it’s best to err on the side of familiarity.

  2. Clint, you make some good points. There have been plenty of historical fiction novels I’ve read where the author used terminology I wasn’t familiar with, and it became confusing. I think it’s also important for the author when he/she introduces a new term, to somehow briefly inform the reader of what he/she is referring to, a description of some sort, and then the reader will know what you are talking about as you use the term throughout the rest of the novel. You should only have to describe or explain that term the first time it is used, however.

  3. I agree that you never stop learning about a historical period. Especially in mine (early medieval, aka ‘Dark Age’, Britain), where new archaeological discoveries can dramatically change what we thought we knew. I wonder how many people thought Scyld’s ship in Beowulf was just an elaborate metaphor until the Sutton Hoo ship-burial was discovered in 1939?

    With regard to archaic terminology in historical fiction, it’s always a balance between period flavour and accessibility. Too many period terms can baffle a reader who’s new to the area, no matter how familiar they are to the author. It can also be surprisingly difficult to get a precise definition of exactly what the ‘correct’ term was at the time, as we often have only limited sources that can be interpreted in more than one way. I try to lean towards the side of accessibility, so I use archaic terms sparingly, and where I can think of a plausible modern equivalent I use that – e.g. ‘food-rent’ for ‘feorm’, or ‘militia’ for ‘fyrd’.

  4. Carla, I agree with you. Striking a balance is important. Many times I prefer accessibility, but the more I learn about the medieval period, I like it when writers use terminology specific to that period, such as “fyrd,” to use your example. Bernard Cornwell uses the term “fyrd” in his Saxon Chronicles series, and before I knew anything about the medieval period, I would have preferred he used “militia” so I would know what he was referring to, but after learning this term through my studies, I am now comfortable with authors employing such terminology. Cornwell also does a good job of normally explaining what an unfamiliar term is in such a way that it doesn’t come off like reading a history textbook. He weaves it into the story well, which is an important skill for any historical fiction writer to perfect.

    In reference to the term “chain mail,” I think most readers would understand the term “mail” and know it is referring to “chain mail,” but for a term such as “feorm” — I had no idea what that term meant — it would probably be a good idea to use “food-rent.” Excellent thoughts.

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