Tuesday, May 3, 2016

All Your Research Questions Answered

One of my goals for OUTREMER, aside from telling a good yarn and telling it well, is to help bridge the vast knowledge gap between Crusader historians and the general public. In an excellent article for First Things magazine, the Crusader historian Thomas F Madden described the gap like this:
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."
The story idea/knowledge gap: You can't have a reasonable idea for a story if you haven't researched the historical period first, but how do you know what specific areas to research if you don't have a story idea yet?

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."
In researching, do you actually buy your sources so you can access them as needed? (In that case you must have a massive library of books you will probably never use again.) Do you rely on online sources instead (free or otherwise)? 

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."
I'm petrified of misrepresenting an era in any way big or small, whether in regards to the practical minutiae of daily life or the attitudes and ideas prevalent at the time. Do you have the same fears, and how do you overcome them?

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!"
How on earth can you hope to create decent historical dialogue when that is the thing probably least recorded about any time period? Do you choose a style and forget about being particularly accurate in a literal sense?

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."
When you need to invent a fictional event, how do you decide if it's historically plausible enough?

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."
How do you know where to start researching, and which books are trustworthy?

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!

For more OUTREMER aesthetics, make sure to check my three Pinterest boards dedicated to this epic story!

8 comments:

Joseph J said...

This is great, thanks a lot!

So to sum up, to write an historical novel you need to read, read, research, and read at every step of the process. I can see that owning books would be pretty important in that case. For someone 'bone-idle' you sure chose a labour-intensive medium!

It must have been pretty tough to write historical fiction before the modern library, nevermind the internet. I wonder how many books Sir Walter Scott had access to when he was doing his research, and how accurate his sources were. Its amazing what the internet can do in terms of filling in facts and details, like the key example you mentioned. I guess before the internet people just had to make up a lot more.

Its exciting that we have the ability to be so much more historically accurate these days, but I guess you have to be careful not to let it bog you down. It boggles my mind that many authors still put so little effort into research, in part I think because of the chronological arrogance of the 'progressive' ideology that views the past as unworthy of attention. There is a series of detective books written recently set in Victorian Toronto, my area of interest, but they are so light on detail that I couldn't read more than a few chapters before I got bored. Somehow they were considered worthy of being turned into a TV series, which in itself is unwatchable due its constant inability to view the past outside a narrow lens of politically correct issues (as well as poor directing, acting, and script).

How can one even hope to understand the past without being an historically literate Christian? I just watched A Knight's Tale and it was appalling how they treated Christianity. But its not just Christianity - wealthy modern secular people live in a bubble of unreality because of our comfort and irreligion. We are divorced from nature, family, craftsmanship and mysticism, the vital elements of almost all human life previous to our own. All the historical data in the world does not mean we will really be able to comprehend the past and therefore create good historical fiction. I think I have a better shot at it, but I'm not confident enough to venture further back than the Victorian era, which is the doorway of modernity. I'm glad you are able to shed light on a misunderstood time and place that is so much more remote.

Jamie W. said...

I agree, Joseph, and I think that brings up an interesting point: being a part of the Christian tradition helps us understand the past of that tradition, and I think the past of other traditions too. Partly 1) because being a part of any long tradition opens your mind to the way the past works, those elements of "nature, family, craftsmanship and mysticism"; and 2) because Christian doctrine in particular is a historically-minded doctrine and pays attention to how history is laid out.
But here's the question: given that, I wonder how a Christian author can best understand completely non-Christian pasts? Ancient China, or the Aztecs, or something? Clearly such times/places are very different both from each other and from the whole history of the Christian West (and those pre-Christian aspects of the West that have been retrospectively baptized). How do you get inside the head of people whose fundamental worldview you don't share--whose worldview maybe doesn't exist anymore?
Presumably I should have asked this when Suzannah was collecting questions for this post, but alas, I only just now thought of it. Anyone have any ideas?

Jamie W. said...

And of course--thank you so much for doing this, Suzannah, this was an amazing post! I've already shared it with one of my writer friends, much to our mutual delight.

Joseph J said...

I've thought about this too, Jamie. Does being Christian help us understand the pagan mind? For an educated, intelligent, or simply wise Christian, I think so. As receivers of Divine Revelation we have been given a metaphysical cheat sheet on the nature of the universe. Over the centuries we have slowly worked out the implications of our theology and their application to every area of life. Standing on the Rock of the Church gives us a certain vantage point that enables us to interpret the world properly.

For example, a modern secular person thinks of all religions as more or less a lot of hooey. How can he possibly appreciate the psychological implications of a religious system and set of doctrines, much less a mystical religious experience which he doesn't even believe is possible? I think this is why liberals are incapable of really understanding radical Islam.

On the other hand, most pagans have been (are)syncretists, viewing other religions as partly or mostly true, and ignoring the many contradictions. They view other gods as potential allies or foes.

A Christian knows that pagan religions are a combination of human legend, demonic deception, and Divine activity working in adverse circumstances pointing the way to the truth. A thoughtful Christian can carefully unravel the complex threads of the pagan experience, neither discounting the supernatural nor taking it at its face value.

This is quite difficult actually, and the only good example I can think of is C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. Admittedly it is not historical fiction and is part fantasy, but I have never read a more compelling depiction of the pagan experience.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, I can't begin to imagine how tough it would be to do all this research in the pre-internet age. I should have to travel to libraries all over the world, most likely. Today, almost any information awaits the click of a key. It's marvellous to me that people like Sir Walter Scott or even ES Holt were able to put out such well-researched fiction.

Jamie, I'm so glad this post was helpful to you! I think it's still possible to get inside the heads of people from vanished pagan cultures so long as you have primary sources to study. I'm sure ancient Rome and ancient China probably have more of these in existence than the Central American civilisations, which is a drawback in depicting them.

However, I'd stress that it's one thing to be able to get inside a pagan worldview. The question is whether we should. I agree with Joseph--the Christian will understand paganism much better than the pagans do, because he sees its place in the context of Truth. Augustine's CITY OF GOD is a better evaluation of the pagan Roman worldview than THE AENEID is. However, neither was Augustine an ignoramus about Roman culture: he was intimately familiar with their history and culture. So we do have to study those worldviews as much as you can, through primary sources for preference, but never forget to critique them in the light of the Christian worldview.

This is actually the main thing that's uppermost in my mind whenever I'm writing within a pagan tradition. I did this in THE RAKSHASA'S BRIDE, in which I tried for an authentic depiction of a pagan (Hindu) worldview while critiquing it from a Christian perspective. As Joseph says, TILL WE HAVE FACES is the perfect example of how to do this well.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This is awesome! I go back and forth between enjoying my research hugely and then being scared by the size of everything I don't know yet, and the commonsense tactics you've outlined here have helped to calm me down and make me see the job as manageable. :)

Source materials are always a tricky question: if the library doesn't have it, you've got to decide which ones look like the best risk to spend money on. I'd pretty much already come to the same conclusion about re-reading the best ones for the second draft—I recently returned one particularly excellent library book which just had too much useful minutiae to try and copy down, with the resolution to buy my own copy later on. (One great discovery I just made: I can request that my library system purchase ebooks to add to their digital lending collection! Super useful, since several books I want to read are available on OverDrive.)

And yes, I love bibliographies.

Suzannah said...

Glad you found this calming, Elisabeth :D. I also read a few good posts online about how to write historical fiction that gave me confidence about things like altering historical details for the benefit of the fiction, or picking sides. While historical accuracy is important to me, it's true that at some point I just need to acknowledge that I'm writing fiction!

When it comes to deciding what source materials to buy, it helps if you know some people who are already experts in the relevant area, so you can get their recommendations. Still, I tend to view my purchases as every bit as important as the hundreds of dollars I routinely had to spend on textbooks in law school--textbooks that would be superseded and out of date within a year or two. Part of writing this book means giving myself a thorough education in the world I'll be writing about, the kind of education you'd only get at the postgrad level at a university. So, it makes sense if I read as much and as widely as I can throughout the whole project.

(But my project is pretty far-ranging, so that definitely impacts on the scope of my research)

Everest Inspirational Classics said...

This is awesome!

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