I once read a historical fiction that was just okay. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything special. After finishing the book, I read the author’s note and was shocked to see that she had done an enormous amount of research. She read over two dozen books on her topic and spent who knows how long on some very thorough websites. This author knows her subject!
The reason this surprised me was that, honestly, she could have written the same book by reading a few Wikipedia articles. She had her facts right, but it had no flavor. The book didn’t delve into the spirit of the time period.
For example, she read not just one but several books about medieval warfare. She could have described her battle scenes just from watching Lord of the Rings. There were horses, swords, and blood, but nothing to distinguish the setting from any other.
Moral of the story: Research is pointless if you don’t know how to use it.
Think of all the books you’ve read that take place in modern times. Those authors know everything there is to know about the twenty-first century; clothes, food, entertainment, current events. Yet many mainstream novels are bland with hardly any description. Knowledge of our surroundings does little to help our ability to describe them.
Here’s some advice that can help:
Copy Details While Reading
When I do my research, I take note of as many little details as I think I might use in the future. While reading about Rome, I learned that the only women who wore togas were prostitutes. I thought that fact was interesting, so I wrote it down even though I wasn’t sure I’d use it. Later I needed to add a prostitute to my book, so I had her wear a toga.
I also found out Romans didn’t have toilet paper, but had a sponge attached to a stick that they kept in a bucket of vinegar. Everyone in the household used the same sponge (yuck). I didn’t end up using this detail, but I put it in my notes just in case.
Seek Out Details While Writing
Often in the middle of the writing process, I’ll find an opportunity to add a fact I don’t know. Example, my characters might be eating breakfast and I don’t know what Romans ate for breakfast. They might go to the market and I don’t know what kind of objects Romans might buy. These are all easy to find on the internet, so I often stop what I’m doing, look up what I need (write down the source of my info, of course), and add it before I continue.
If you don’t like the stop-and-go tactic, you could add notes in the middle of the text, such as ADD BREAKFAST FOOD HERE, or make a separate list of things you need to look up.
Make the World Unique
Every place and every time is unique. Think of how different Texas is from California. Think of how different the US is now from how it was the 60’s. When you write about your setting, ask yourself: What makes this time and place different from any other?
What are your character’s values, experiences, worries? What’s popular? What do they get excited about? What were their surroundings like at that exact time?
Example: Sacred Fire takes place during the Second Punic War when Rome was still a Republic. Historians hold the Republic on a pedestal as a time of Roman valor and shun the Empire as a time or corruption (which is why everyone writes about the Empire.) The Second Punic War had a strong effect on the Roman people – they all thought they were going to die – so Rome was different during this time than any other time in history. In order for my book to succeed, I need to demonstrate that.
When I first started Sacred Fire I didn’t read much historical fiction, so I didn’t know it was okay to make stuff up. I knew nothing about Roman history and was terrified of being criticized for being inaccurate. I trusted myself so little that I double-checked everything.
One of my characters bought a necklace, for instance, and I didn’t dare guess what kind of jewels a Roman might use. I found a picture of a necklace excavated in Pompeii made of emerald and mother of pearl, so I have her wear that necklace.
I believed this nervousness turned into a strength. Even if I had guessed my facts without getting caught, my book wouldn’t have been as interesting. I could have had my main character eat chicken for dinner without knowing whether or not the Romans ate chicken, but that doesn’t sound as interesting as dormice, snails fattened on goat milk, spiced sausages, oysters, or bread dipped in wine. I wouldn’t have come up with something like that on my own.
Here’s a rule of thumb I swear by: the truth will always be better than anything I can make up.
And above all… have fun! Learning about your time period should be exciting! When the research starts to be a drag, you won’t be able to utilize it as well.