In the Middle East, as in the West, we are left with the gaping chasm between myth and reality. Crusade historians sometimes try to yell across it but usually just talk to each other, while the leading churchmen, the scholars in other fields, and the general public hold to a caricature of the Crusades created by a pox of modern ideologies.What better way to help bridge that chasm than by constructing a new myth around the real history? But in order to do this with OUTREMER, I've had to familiarise myself, on a deeper level than ever before, with the details of the history itself. This meant research, and lots of it, though to my surprise I've found it far more enjoyable and absorbing than I expected at the start.
A couple of regular readers recently asked me to share some of what I've learned since beginning the research for OUTREMER about eighteen months ago. Here are their questions, and my answers.
|"This place was built by giants. All gone now. All dead. We do not even remember its name."|
For me this is a narrowing-down process. I get an idea for a story set in a particular setting; and if it's something I know very little about, I'll get an overview history and read through it. Usually something will jump out at me: a story that needs to be told, or an obvious high point in the narrative of the history. That means doing closer research on the period, which feeds ideas into the plot bunny, which helps narrow down what I need to research.
Story and research bounce off each other all the way down to the final spit-and-polish on the final draft. You can't do all your research before you start writing--at least, I can't--because most of the time I don't know what my characters will be doing or where they'll be going till I get there and realise what it would be logical for them to do. The bouncing effect also applies to characterisation (I need to write about the characters before I figure out what they are like, and figuring out what they are like helps me write about them) and various other elements, which is why I think multiple story outlines, drafts, and edits are so beneficial. The thing emerges en masse. There is no step-by-step process.
|"If I go with you, you'll die."|
I like to buy sources, and I've bought about six physical books for this project, four of them second-hand. Others I've been able to access as ebooks, borrow from friends, or find in our own family library (homeschoolers tend to have enormous libraries). One particularly expensive but indispensible book I requested at our library and they bought it for me, and I've had it out on loan pretty continuously ever since.
How do you resist the temptation to record everything in case you need to use it for the story? Do you have a very good memory that you rely on, or a very systematic method of choosing and recording facts and helpful sources?
When reading sources, I tend to take occasional notes of things that particularly strike me as neat or relevant, but to begin with I have no idea about what's relevant and what's not, so I don't sweat it too much; just try to amass a big knowledge bank. I am not a systematic person by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, but I have a reasonable memory, and I know how it works. I resist the urge to record everything by dint of being naturally bone-idle. I keep a list of each book I read, and my current plan is to go back and read some of them again when I start work on the second draft. By that time I'll have a much better ability to go and check specific facts against specific aspects of the story.
|"A man grows weary of death."|
Yes, everyone has those fears, and you overcome them by actually writing the novel. You simply are going to miss some things; because you simply do not have a time machine. Sometime long after publication when it is too late to do anything about it, someone will point out your mistakes and ridicule them. You will die a little inside, smile politely, and make a note for next time.
(Note: This is true even if you are not writing historical fiction. Everyone makes mistakes.)
In other instances, you will change things on purpose for the sake of the story, because if you had intended to write something 100% historically accurate you would have written non-fiction. You will also rack your brains over long-unresolved historical debates and wind up making heroes or villains out of characters you are, in reality, not 100% sure about. This is also painful, but it's imperative to choose a side if you want to tell a compelling story.
As far as attitudes and ideas prevalent at the time, the only way to get your head around these is to read as many primary sources as possible until you can step inside the worldview of the people you're writing about, until you react to things in the same way the people you're writing about would. For practical minutiae of daily life, I spend a lot of time Googling or Wikipedia-ing specific questions. What kind of locks and keys did they use in Mameluke-era Egypt? Exactly the same kind as they used in Antioch 200 years previously, in case you wondered, and they weren't the familiar classic iron keys. Google Books is very good for this kind of question.
|"Woe! Woe! The heavens have spoken!"|
Actually I find that this is pretty easy. Just read primary sources and fiction written during the time period you're writing about, and then draw on those.
I tend to do different things with style depending on what I'm writing about. I normally try to avoid obvious archaisms (no thees or thous) while avoiding obvious neologisms (like "OK"). To create the special atmosphere of a time period or setting, I try to copy quirks of diction in the source materials. In Pendragon's Heir I consciously tried to reproduce the distinctive style of diction used in Malory, especially in the more mythic passages. In The Bells of Paradise I drew inspiration from Shakespeare and Spenser, again in the more high-flown contexts, because of the Tudor setting.
However, in OUTREMER I've opted for a slightly more updated style. There are two reasons for this. First, archaic (early modern) English would be as out of place in the Palestine of the High Middle Ages as contemporary modern English would be. This is because a) the English were speaking Anglo-Saxon at the time and b) all the characters are speaking Greek, Syriac, Arabic, or French anyway. Second, dearly as I love the past, I am actually living in, and writing for, the present; it is a service to my readers to present my story in a way they find easy to read, even as I draw on original sources for attitudes and quirks of diction; and as important as it is to be authentic to the past, I am at home in this era, and must be authentic to this as well.
|"I am surrounded by children."|
I think you really need to familiarise yourself with the existing history, and then either copy a specific event and transpose it to a new locaton/time/cast of characters, or find a kind of event that happened regularly, and use as many elements from that as you can.
Know what's fitting. A revolutionary nationalist uprising fits into Italy in 1848, regardless of whether one actually happened then; it does not fit into 1050s Paris. Generally, if the same kind of event was happening in the same area of the world among people of similar beliefs at about the same time, then I'd call it historically plausible.
|"I am not the last of the Bisharas. I am the first."|
In researching OUTREMER, since it was a time period I knew so little about, I began with a few overarching books on the time periods I was specifically interested in.
I was honestly a bit nervous about researching the Crusades because I knew it was a controversial affair and I assumed today's historians would subscribe to the regnant myths. However, I had a helping hand from Providence when I discovered another author also writing historical novels of the Crusades, from a similar point of view. She'd written a positive review of Rodney Stark's God's Battalions on Goodreads, and when I went snooping in her other reviews, I found a treasure-trove of recommendations for books by some of the foremost Crusader scholars working today, along with helpful reviews of the same.
Another way I've discovered good books is by looking in the footnotes and bibliographies of books by authors I've come to trust. When I wanted to learn more about the Assassins, for instance, I was looking at Bernard Lewis's The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. A lot of the Goodreads reviews complained that Lewis's work was an inaccurate representation of the Assassin sect, but all the venerable historians I read referenced the book. When I read it, I found that the views the Goodreads reviewers found so repugnant were limited to a short final chapter (and were by no means as dubious as the reviewers made them sound).
The other thing that helps you evaluate the books you're reading is, quite simply, copiousness--if you read, very thoughtfully, a whole lot of different books on the time period, not only will a lot of the details get anchored very firmly in your mind (through repetition), but you'll also hear so many different viewpoints on the same matters that you'll be able to weigh them up and evaluate them much more wisely.
Do you have any other questions about researching historical fiction? Ask in the comments!
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