RESEARCH FOR THE HISTORICAL NOVEL WRITER or WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
A few years back on this journey, one of my buddies said, “Hey, GJ, I envy you.”
“Because you are having all the fun of a college liberal arts major without having to pay, without having to get drunk or stoned, and without the constant distraction of young women.”
Took me a bit to realize it–the missing parts are not so bad–that he was and is right. What could be more fun than researching about long-forgotten young women fighting Romans, about what teens did two thousand years ago when they had time on their hands, and what adults did for the sheer hell of it back then? Or, as James Michener observed, “Obviously no college education could prepare a young man for all that he will have to do in his years of employment. The best a college can do is to inspire him with the urge to reeducate himself constantly.” Quoted from “When Does Education Stop?” (Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1962).
Research for the writer of history–fiction or fact–imparts to the author that perpetual chance to learn, to reeducate long after leaving whatever classroom halls the writer roamed during school days.
Then again, researching strikes me as the wrong word. Neither mice nor humans will live or die depending on the potion I inject into the fluffy little white things, not into anything white really. I just make little black marks on white paper. Nor will I find one more missing sub-atomic particle or a better water softener. (I’m in charge of dishes in our house).
To the historical novelist researching means something else. To one giant among historical novelists, Ken Follett, it sometimes means turning to Dan Starter of Research for Writers in New York City to help find specialists who know about the details buried in the past. Did some History or English or Art PhD candidate dig deep in the stacks of a great library for the nugget that a century ago water-repellent cotton was called moleskin?
To lesser modern-day historical novelists, Google might be the beginning and the end of searching out arcane things from long ago. But that’s a seductive trap. During the years of developing “South of Burnt Rocks West of The Moon”, I stared at every image I could find of relics left behind from the time of the Iberian Celts, from their fight against Roman oppressors. Found quite a few on the web and in books by history professors. I thought I had a pretty good notion, and who would know better is I got some little thing wrong? Well, I would. I kept looking.
Then, by the grace of the gods of writers, I took myself to some of the places I was trying to describe. The web images, the pictures in the books had not done any of it justice–like watching a baseball deep fly on a TV screen instead of in person from an outfielder’s perspective. That wall of the fortress at Sagunto is so much taller than I imagined, so much more imposing to the footman or the cavalry rider. And many cactus plants carpet the hillside running up to it. No snapshot on a computer monitor or in a book could impart the true sense of the real live thing. The February wind blew cold across that hill, over the walls and down through the inside. No one could ever clamber up and surmount that, but waves of armies did. Now, at last, I was ready to describe those things.
Politics are another trap for those of us trying to find the truths of long ago. Most accounts close in time to period I write about come to us from Roman historians, men good with words and letters paid by a Roman patron or by the Roman Senate. They would no more tout the virtues of the barbari surrounding the Roman Empire than would cats extol the virtues of animals that bark in the night.
In one sense, though, historical research is less daunting than writing a novel close to or in the present time where every spoken word, every coin and car detail must be exactly right. Some reader will know that the 1954 green Packard came in two shades of green, the darker green on the top, lighter green on the body. Get that wrong, the whole novel will lose instant credibility. Not so with chariots of two thousand years ago. Few readers of today will know the colors of those.
Ah, a last thought for the historical novel writer. Perhaps our next work should take place in the future or a world far away. That, we can invent–all of it–and not one reader will know the difference. Then again, what’s the fun, what’s the learning in that?