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On Research To Write Historical Novels, by Adrian Goldsworthy

As a historical novelist it’s more than likely that you will already have an interest in the period you are writing about and that is why you want to write about it.  Bernard Cornwell began his Sharpe series because he wanted a land-based equivalent to C. S. Forester’s Hornblower, someone to do for Wellington’s army what the latter had already done for Nelson’s navy.  More recently Allan Mallinson set out to write stories about a cavalry officer in the same style as Patrick O’Brian’s nautical adventures with their very strong period feel.  In each case the author had already read a lot about the era out of simple interest and that gave them a starting point in their research.  For me, the Regency and Napoleonic era, and especially the Peninsula War, had been a hobby interest for many years.

Yet however much you already know about the era you are bound to need to know more when you start writing a novel set during the period.  Some of this will be revision or looking in more detail at the events, people, and places involved in your story.  A lot will be the sort of detail you may never have worried about in the past.  A novel works if you can convince the reader that the world of the story is real.  Just how real depends a bit on the style of the story. If it is an adventure pure and simple then it may not bother the reader too much if nearly everything is wrong – Hollywood has been getting away with this for years.  If a movie or book are entertaining then for a lot of people that is all they want.  Even then it needs to make some sort of sense and seem convincing on its own terms.  With most really good novels you have the sense that the author has ‘lived’ in that world for some time.

When the book is set in the present day, this is mainly about observation of manners, styles, current events and attitudes etc.  Represent these convincingly and the reader will be more inclined to enjoy the story.  This means that the better known and more everyday something is, the more important it is to get it right.  Even today you can still write about the unusual, secret or closed societies and distant places, and there is a fair chance that hardly any readers will know whether or not you have got it wrong.

With the past it is harder to find out about the mundane, and the further you go back in time the harder it becomes.  Most history books tend to concentrate on the big events and the big players – kings and queens, politicians and generals.  Social historians try to cast their net more widely, but they are at the mercy of their sources.  Until the last few centuries it is rare to find anything written by people from the poorer levels of society and finding material written by women of any social class is even rarer.  For some periods it simply does not exist – just try finding material to give you the point of view and life experience of a poor woman in Classical Athens, an ordinary soldier fighting for Hannibal or Julius Caesar, or a Medieval peasant.  We only see the lives of these people from the viewpoint of the elite.  Archaeology may tell us about their living conditions, diet, aspects of clothing and material goods, and the rituals they performed.  It rarely tells us much about what they thought.

So if you are writing about the ancient world it’s a far harder business finding out about many aspects of everyday life.  If one of your characters is about to eat, what will he or she have, how will it be cooked and served up, and is this an everyday meal or a luxury?  In many ways this is background material, perhaps no more than a line or two in a scene that is really about the dialogue or something that happens, but it is important in making it come alive.  I have been studying the Roman world for all of my adult life, but I know that if I ever come to write a novel set in that era there will still be a huge amount of stuff I need to research.  In some ways the more you discover about a period and culture the more you will feel that you want and need to know.


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