Guest Post by William F. Hager
Researching historical fiction can be a daunting task, one that can cause delay in completing a manuscript, frustration, and self-doubt. But fortunately it doesn’t have to. Instead, research can turn dry, dusty history into bright, imaginative fiction that pulls the reader into your historical world, living and breathing your characters’ lives. This article will provide a brief overview of the kinds of sources available to writers of historical fiction and the best applications to bring your characters and eras alive in the reader’s mind.
It should be noted, however, that it is unnecessary to delay the development of your manuscript by devoting endless hours to research. I recommend a brief introductory study to get a feel for the history, which will help make you comfortable enough to begin the writing process. It would be (and has been) awful to get near the midpoint or later only to discover your story’s history is inaccurate.
When dealing with sources, there are traditionally two main types: primary and secondary. This article will also delve into a third for which I will assign the title Internet.
The first type, primary sources, are works that were written during a specific era. Examples include The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Beowulf, and the Icelandic sagas to name a few western examples. These are essential to any researcher because they offer a deep dive into the specific age. Want a description of Victorian men’s fashion in the mid-nineteenth century? Dickens is your primary source. Need to describe the inner workings of the Althing at the heart of twelfth-century Icelandic politics? The Eddas are your guide. Wondering what words were common among the Beat generation? Look no further than Kerouac.
Primary sources also provide essential components to the narrative, such as authenticity, voice, feel, diction, depth, style, and pacing. They also provide you, the author, with a fundamental knowledge about your subject matter. Elements of your narrative will spring to life without you even realizing it.
Secondary sources, on the other hand, are sources written, typically from an academic perspective, about primary sources. These include dissertations, articles, essays, books, journals, and anything else commenting on or analyzing primary sources.
When you look at secondary sources, however, you can even break this definition down further into those conducting an analysis of a primary source and those examining the material aspects of primary sources. For example, Tolkien’s famous essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” examines ideas behind the analysis of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem. It does not, however, discuss the primary metals or techniques used in the forging of swords in northern Europe during the Migration Age.
Both of these types of secondary sources can be helpful and will add to your breadth and knowledge regarding the original work. Also, secondary sources discussing the material aspects of primary sources and the age in which they were written are gold to authors of historical fiction. They can provide everything from the kinds of dye used in clothing, to foods consumed by different classes, to bathing habits and everything in between. This is where you will find the minute details that will color your history and bring it to vivid life.
A third category of source has emerged that I struggle to define. “Tertiary” does not quite seem to fit. “Internet” is too general, but it will have to do. Using simple Google searches of relevant names or key terms can reveal a wealth of information. These sources are not typically peer-reviewed, and their accuracy can be called into question, so tread carefully. Cross-reference information you find with other sources to ensure accuracy.
That warning aside, recreationist groups or independent scholars who take the time to create a website and fill it with their own research, experience, and advice can be excellent sources of information, often from someone who has devoted hours of research to their area of interest. Don’t be afraid to mine these for bits and pieces of information, perhaps a descriptive name or a synonym. Maybe someone online has actually fabricated the type of cloak your character is wearing over their samurai armor in medieval Japan or knows the colors of a specific regiment’s flag when they took the field at the Battle of the Somme. These types of sources proved invaluable while researching and writing my own works of historical fiction set in the Viking Age.
Researching historical fiction may seem an insurmountable task. However, having an understanding and knowledge of the specific period obtained from the different kinds of sources will inform your characters, enrich your narrative, and deepen their world. Detail-oriented research rips the narrative out of the past and brings it to life. This creates an emotional link for the reader that grounds them in the setting, the sensory descriptions, and helps them feel your characters’ experiences.
William Hager is an author and editor of medieval historical fiction and high fantasy.
His first novel, The Wanderer, Book I, is forthcoming.