Historical Novel Research: Personal Experience, by Adrian Goldsworthy
Written sources are only one way of understanding a time period and it is always possible that there may not be many to tell you what you want to know. History is proverbially written by the victors and that can make it difficult to find the material to tell the story from other points of view. Non-literate societies present a particular problem, and so, for instance, there is no account from the British of Gaulish perspective of the Roman conquest and occupation of their lands.
Even when they are very detailed, written sources are only part of the story and we can add to or replace them with a range of different things. If you get the chance, it is always good to visit the places where you set your stories. George MacDonald Fraser and Bernard Cornwell often mentioned visiting the places they wrote about. Both had a background in journalism, and that experience does seem to give people the knack for quickly getting the feel of a place – the scents, landscape and people. Having a sense of these things makes it a lot easier to conjure up the scene on the page. It is advisable to do as much research as possible before you go, especially if the site has changed a lot since the period when your novel is set. The remains visible in the Roman Forum today are very impressive but represent a jumble of construction work done over the centuries. Landscapes can change quite quickly and so you need to be a little cautious about some details. Vegetation grows quickly and can be a recent import. Rivers may alter course naturally or be channelled by humans.
It is not always possible to get to the places you will write about. I have been to some of the spots where the action in my novels is set, but time and other work commitments have meant that I have not got to others. Good travel guides are useful for filling in some of the gaps, as are images of places found in books, TV, or on the web.
Museums are well worth visiting to look at objects from the period in question. For my novels it has been very useful to see the Napoleonic era weapons and uniforms in the National Army Museum in London, a lot of different regimental museums and the vast collection in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. You have to be a bit careful because colours can fade – the dark green of the dragoon coats in Paris all now look blue – and museums often contain uniforms that were not issued because they were an odd size, often too small, and this is why they have survived. Equally useful are collections of civilian clothing from the era. In Britain, the V&A is well worth a visit and there are other smaller collections in places like Bath.
You can find out a lot from books about all of these things, but it is nice to see the real thing. It is even better to get to handle the objects or replicas themselves. No picture or even description can quite convey the sense of holding a sword or musket and feeling its balance. Living History sites can be very handy if relevant, but the fullest expression of this sort of research would follow the route of re-enactment. I know quite a few authors who do this to help understand the period better and know what it is like to dress in the costume of the times. Although this is not something I have done myself, I have found it very useful to talk to re-enactors. In my experience they are always enthusiastic and their focus on the practical means that often enough they think long and hard about issues ignored by academic historians. There are lots of groups out there covering a wide range of periods and most can be contacted by post or email.
There are other things you can do to add a sense of reality to your writing. I learnt to ride a few years ago and have found that knowing a bit about horses changes the way I write about them. There will probably be lots of other things you can draw on from your own experience to flesh out the characters and setting in your story. In my case, a couple of years in the University Officer Training Corps at least means that I have had a small taste of military life and that does help when writing about soldiers, whether drilling on a parade square or tired, cold, and wet living in the field. Where you do not have any experience of something, then it never does any harm to talk to those who do or read about them. So if you are writing about farming then go and talk to farmers. Things may not be the same as in your period, but it may help a lot with atmosphere and mentality, or perhaps just with a few small details you can add to the story to make it more believable.
As with everything else, you need to be careful not to let detail overwhelm the story. It is also wise to keep any personal experience in perspective and avoid falling into the trap of believing that dabbling in something makes you an expert. Remember that trying something out once or twice is not the same as living it and so period clothes may seem uncomfortable because we are used to very different styles. It seems to be the rule that every time they do a period drama on TV they interview the lead actresses who talk about how uncomfortable it is to wear corsets and stays, and this is surely true. The difficulty is that it is hard to know how someone would feel about this if convention dictated they had worn such garments since young adulthood. Direct experience and experimentation are good things but we should see them for what they are and never forget to keep going back to the original sources.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website: www.adriangoldsworthy.com
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