Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Researching the Historical Novel by Allison Knight


Because I write historical novels, I spend a lot of time reading about the past. After all, things have changed - a lot. Of course, if you want to write about life a one or even two  hundred years ago, there are all kinds of great research sources available, dairies of people of the times, photographs, news accounts and letters of people who lived during those times. Just about anything your little heart desires.

However, if you want to go back to say a thousand years, or even seven or eight hundred years, you have a problem. There are very few writings. First, common people didn't read or write. They either didn't know how, if they did, they didn't have time.

There's almost nothing recorded about the lives of the farmers, or serfs, depending on your station in life. The nobles had some of their happenings transcribed by the minstrels of  the time but the performers tended to exaggerate the good parts and ignore the bad. Few songs survived to be passed down through the centuries because they were never recorded. Again, most of the people living then had no writing skills.

We do have the tapestries that depict life in the castles or battle fields, but if the tapestries were done for the master they often were embellished to make the master look good. There were no newspapers and few books, and very little that was recorded survived to this day. Paper was hard to come by and few people could write. Scrolls were often used for official communications, but ordinary messages were probably carried verbally.

So what is an author to do? Add to the lack of information, the misconceptions promulgated by Hollywood and you have a bigger problem.

With Battlesong, my medieval romance set in Scotland and England at the end of 13th century, I also had to find a Scottish clan living in the south of Scotland at that time. I certainly didn't want one of the famous clans, because mine would not be a very nice bunch of people. I spent hours studying the maps of Scottish clans and the dates they existed.

Let me list some of my problems writing about that period. Any suggestions are always welcome when it comes to finding information about these long ago times.

First there is the actual appearance of my characters. We have lots of information about what they wore, again from tapestries or paintings, but what did they look like? We do have the paintings of the nobles, but the appearance of the common people doesn't exist, except for the tapestries or paintings of the time. Were they tall, or short, with curly hair, or straight and how did they wear it?

There are records of deaths and births,  so we know people didn't have long lives. But, what kind of illnesses existed, and how were they treated? Most of the medical treatment was handled by the lady of the castle, but again, we know little about the herbs and treatment she used.

Of course, there is the food people ate and how it was prepared. No cake mixes back then. And what about the meat? They hunted for game, and we know they raised a lot of sheep. So how was it preserved? Salt was an expensive commodity. We have proof of that.  Some vegetables were grown, but in Scotland and England, crops don't grow well in the winter. And grain can mold.  So packaging was a problem. No plastic containers, no waxed paper, no tin foil. They wrapped their food in cloth, if it was available. But some of the foods we have today were either unknown then or considered poison. I love the story of the tomato. But that's for another time.

We have little information about daily life, although we can guess that without our electric conveniences life was tough. A couple of misconceptions need to be mentioned. Some of the castles had glass windows. They were little, expensive and the glass was wavy but they did have them. Also the walls of a castle were often painted or whitewashed, so they weren't the dark, drab places often depicted. We do have some knowledge of their entertainment, again from the tapestries, and certain celebrations were passed down from generation to generation until today, but we can only guess how much has changed over the centuries. You can get an idea of how that might happen if you ever played the game of telephone with your friends, where one person whispers something to one other and it's then passed around a group, until everyone has heard something. Of course, it's never the same as what has first whispered.

Then there's the inconsistency in some of the information available. Take the concept of the privy. Was the garderobe a privy as a lot of people suggest, or was it a closet? Did the shaft from the garderobe empty into the moat of the castle and what about the castles that didn't have moats? There were a lot of those.

And bathing?  Did they bath frequently? Many people say, no. but there are records of the lady of the castle helping with baths and that baths were always prepared for guests. So what's the real story?

I hope you see the problem, so what do authors do?  We guess. We make up names, descriptions, places, how things were done based on the limited knowledge we have and hope we haven't blundered too badly.

Will I stop writing about the times centuries ago? Nope. The third book of the 'song' series, is in construction at this time. Again, I'll have to make things up and hope I don't stray too far from the actual facts. Unfortunately, there's no way to check.

Happy reading!
Coming in August - Watch for 'Battlesong' the sequel to award winning 'Heartsong' from Champagne Books


Stacey said...

I enjoyed your blog, Allison. Very interesting. Sometimes readers don't realize what a a big responsibility authors take on to get things as accurate as they can. Those details found in thorough research are what draw a reader in, so I congratulate you on choosing to write about bygone eras, and doing a good job at it.

Sandy said...

What an interesting post, Allyson.

Aren't there books in the library you can check? I would think a university library would have the information you're looking for.

Allison Knight said...

Thanks Stacey and Sandy. As I mentioned, there just isn't a whole lot of information available even in the best libraries. So we guess, based on what we've read, or found.


Ciara Gold said...

I actually enjoy when there are discrepancies in research because then you can pick the situation that best fits your plot. LOL, but yes it is frustrating. As writers we dig and dig. I found the most interesting forum discussion once on toothpaste during the Viking times. They supposedly ground up cuttlefish bones into a fine powder and mixed with herbs to make a paste of sorts that they dipped fingers into to scrub their teeth. Of course, I was thrilled and am adding it into one of my scenes, but it took a lot of digging to find that jewel.

Libraries are a good source but I've found that a lot of the books are outdated. I've bought a ton of books from half price but even in these research books I find conflicting information. So yep, a lot is guessing to some extent and of course, our wildly creative imaginations. Too fun.

Great post, Allison

Cherie Reich said...

Great post! And, it is very difficult to write about a time where there are little to no documents.

Beyond libraries, you might want to find actual professors who special in the time period you are writing about. I know they are busy, but I believe there are some out there that would answer your questions or point you in the right way.

Celtic Chick said...

I'm not even sure you can believe written materials from those time periods. Writing is biased. For example, the Roman writers wrote about the Celts and said they were barbarians and from the archaeological evidence, that's just not true.

A lot of people were upset at Braveheart and how the warriors painted themselves blue. That wasn't done in the 13th century, but it was done in earlier times so maybe they were channeling their ancient ancestors who painted themselves in woad when they went to battle.

As far as bathing, I think it depended on the person. Some people like to bathe and some don't. That's the same as today. What I do with my main characters is I have one with a quirk for cleanliness and bathing. I'm sure people had those conditions even back then.

Most people didn't live very long then, but one of my main characters is based on an Irish warlord in the sixth century who lived and fought into his 70's so there are always exceptions to the rules.

Great post!

Angelica Hart and Zi said...

Kudos to you for an excellent article, it reallys establishes the difficulties of writing about a bygone era. Now, if we all just had a time machine to check up on the truth. Then again, reading an historical novel is somewhat of a time machine, and a whole lot more comfy then actually being there.

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