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On Research To Write Historical Novels, by Ben Kane

Research is an intimate part of writing historical fiction. It’s the foundation upon which each good story rests, and as such, it needs to be robust and well-laid. In my opinion, without a good basis in reality or fact, historical fiction becomes either historical fantasy or alternate history. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with those genres – I’m fond of them myself, especially the latter – but they fall into a different classification to the books I write.

Research can take many forms, but the methods that I find most useful are reading textbooks, studying the information on relevant websites, visiting museums and/or historical sites, and attending re-enactment events, where I can soak up the atmosphere and talk to the men and women who work so hard at helping us to understand how life was thousands of years ago. I like to buy small items that have been made as they were long ago. The bookshelf over my desk has a whistle, a bone hairpin, a little oil lamp, a brass whistle, a blue glass and other Roman trinkets on it.

Some textbooks can be very dry, full of details that tell us much about the structure, politics and  customs of ancient society but which reveal precious little about the real people who lived so long ago. Nonetheless, there’s great enjoyment to be had – for me at least – in soaking up some of the huge quantity of information to be found inside the covers of textbooks. At times, the knowledge doesn’t always seem relevant, but it often becomes useful at a later time.  There is also a guilty pleasure in spending a few days in a café, reading texts and making notes. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like real work, although of course it is!

I’ve learned to be careful about which historical websites I trust enough to use information from. There are literally just a handful, which are generally run by academics, universities or re-enactors. Sadly, an awful lot of other sites just cut and paste articles that have been posted elsewhere, which means that inaccurate information is perpetuated. As a rule of thumb, if the historical information isn’t referenced, don’t believe it!

Museums have been places of great interest to me since I was a child. Back then, I could easily spend an entire day in places such as the Imperial War Museum in London. I can still do the same now, but I am usually searching for a specific item or exhibition. It can also be tremendously useful to spend time in the historical sites where men such as Julius Caesar may have stood. I’ve been to Rome three times, and on each occasion, I have never failed to find a large number of facts/details to use in my books. In October 2011, I was lucky enough to make a one week trip to Italy, during which I retraced the route taken by Spartacus in his epic struggle against Rome.

One of the highlights of this trip was the large arena in Capua. It was built about 50-100 years after Spartacus’ rebellion, but it stands in the same spot as the previous building, in which he would have fought. Tiger bones and other dramatic finds were discovered there in an archaeological dig during the 1930s. I couldn’t help but feel moved as I stood in the circle of sand, with the angled seating all around me. I felt the same way when I went to the narrow ridge that lies high above the narrowest part of the ‘toe’ of Italy, where Spartacus and his men smashed through the Roman defences that had penned them in. Most of all, I felt it in a valley not far from Naples, the probable site of Spartacus’ final battle against the general Crassus, and on the extant section of the old Via Appia, which lies in the southern suburbs of Rome. That is where some of the 6,000 crucifixes that were erected all the way from Capua would have stood. Being in the exact place where some of Spartacus’ captured men suffered their savage fate was a strange and slightly unnerving experience.

And so despite the fact that nothing physical  – buildings,  writings, clothes or weapons – remains of men such as Spartacus, their memory lives on in certain places. I think it will do so forever.


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Spartacus: RebellionThe Road to Rome (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)The Silver Eagle: (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles No. 2) (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of Rome    Arrows of Fury (Empire)My Brother's ShadowMarrying Mozart

Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this, Ben. Your warning not to trust the web sources is a very important one. It is tempting, but such temptations are best resisted. I do not mind “dry” sources–as long as they are trustworthy. It is better for me to have dry facts I can then use and re-imagine than to be charmed by someone else’s vision of the past…

    February 8, 2013
  2. Thank you Ben. I’m not entirely sure I accept as a whole your statement “…without a good basis in reality or fact, historical fiction becomes either historical fantasy or alternate history.” I find that historical fantasy/alternate history feels incomplete when it is obvious the author did not do their research – often to the same extent that a historical fiction author goes to. To boldly change the facts for a fantasy history, one must be entirely aware of what happened in reality. When this isn’t true, a reader feels cheated, as if the intimate secret between them and the author – that the history presented is not as it happened – has been stolen from them.

    Like you , I do enjoy historical fantasies and alternate histories – I even write them – but I do think there is a difference between Fantasy and Historical Fantasy.

    Thank you again for a great article.

    February 11, 2013

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