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Location Research For Writing Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington

Often the settings for historical fiction are far away and expensive to travel to. When your stories are set centuries ago, as are many of mine, should you still visit the locales?

While it’s certainly possible to accomplish realism without ever visiting the locales, I firmly believe that you should go if it is feasible.

I live near Seattle but, since most of my tales are set in India, my wife Sandra and I have travelled there six times over the years on lengthy trips (four times during the actual writing) and I’ve  personally visited almost every area I depicted. On one trip we took our ten year old son Shaun with us, and experiencing how Indians welcomed him and were attentive to him added an additional perspective on the society.

Visiting an area adds a depth of detail, authenticity and a feel for the unique spirit of a place that I think would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Importantly, if you don’t go you’ll almost certainly miss out on serendipitous happenings that can later be used to impart liveliness to your stories.

For example, unless your stories involve civilizations or societies that vanished long ago, you can meet local people who may be distant descendants of residents of the time you’re writing about. Try to get to know them and what they’re like. If you can, stay in local households, or at least in small family-owned hotels or guesthouses. You may be able to arrange homestays or meet locals through the non-profit organizations Servas or CouchSurfing. Many of my own best contacts and friendships came from Servas visits. These people you spend time with can answer many of your questions about their local area, such as “What’s that tree called? How is it used?” or “Why are those people doing that?” or “How do you live with such hot summers?” or “What was it like when you lived through that event?”

While the visits are fresh in your mind, make notes about the people you see or meet. With some modifications, you may be able to base your characters at least in part on actual residents of the locale. As mentioned in one of my posts on creating characters, I’ve taken notes on several hundred people I’ve encountered in India on various trips, and they provide a wealth of inspiration for devising people in my stories.

I also take detailed notes on vegetation, topography, farming activities, what people are doing in the streets, animals I see, weather events and anything else that may be of interest, including sounds and odours. These can provide background details later to add realism.

For example, as background research for a story depicting a major battle fought by the army of the famous Indian emperor Ashoka, around 265 BCE, I hired a car and driver to take my wife and me to the actual area where the fighting occurred. Almost nothing is known of that long ago war other than that it occurred and that huge numbers of people died or were taken captive, and that remorse over the battle influenced Ashoka to become a convert to Buddhism and devote the rest of his long reign to peace. Even though there were no obvious remnants of that ancient battle, I took detailed notes about the landscape. I sketched a rough map, including the locations of a prominent ridge and the major nearby river. I also shot numerous photos. Later, when I did the actual writing, I found that my imagination created a likely scenario for the placements of the opposing armies and my storyline about the course of the battle made crucial use of the ridge and the river. Those scenes are in my novella ‘Elephant Driver’, which is in my book India Treasures.

Once I even made a point to visit a place again that I’d already published a story about – the amazing, immense fortress of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan state – just to make sure I’d indeed gotten some important details right. Long after my initial visit, my ideas for the story changed during the actual writing. I ended up depicting an actual major siege and attack by troops of the Mughal emperor Akbar at the northern gate in my novella ‘Saffron Robes’ in India Treasures. The fortress encompasses a three mile long fortified table top ridge, and the  spot I focused on in the story was one I’d paid little attention to on my original visit. Fortunately, I found that what I’d written earlier was just fine.

Architecture is one of my keen interests. For my writing, I created the detailed fictional fortress palace of Mangarh, which is a major setting for a long treasure hunt and other events. In preparation, I visited numerous actual fortresses, photographing them and noting numerous architectural details as well as the feel of the buildings, the odours, and the effects of sunlight shining through latticework and stained glass. I eventually made a pen and ink drawing of the Mangarh fortress and an aerial view of the surrounding area, which I’ve included in my books. I think the illustrations aid the reader in visualizing the setting and help make it seem more real. More importantly, the depictions in the writing itself are richer from my visits to so many actual forts and palaces.

A key element in some of my stories is the hunt through my fortress of Mangarh for a hugely valuable trove of hidden treasure. On a visit to the interesting fortress palace of Bundi with an Indian friend, I noted a detail that later, when transferred to Mangarh, became the main clue to the location of the fictional treasure.

In anticipation of a novella in India Fortunes about the construction of the Taj Mahal titled ‘Master Builder’, I spent time at the Taj itself six times over four trips to India. I concentrated not only on the spectacular architectural details but on the feel of the building and its garden setting by the river at various times during the day, from mornings, to afternoons, sunsets and even with my wife and an Indian friend on a moonlit, foggy Christmas eve night. I also visited four of the earlier buildings in India that were likely inspirations for the Taj Mahal, all of which made it into the story. I made drawings of all these structures and included the illustrations in the book as an aid to the reader.

Not all visits to a site are productive. Over many years, I’ve been working at various times on a novel set in Elizabethan England featuring Sir Francis Bacon. I went to some effort to visit the site of Bacon’s ancestral country home of Gorhambury. Although the landscape of rolling hills, woods and fields was evocative, I was disappointed that 400 years after his time almost nothing of Bacon’s original house remained. I realized I needed to rely on what little is mentioned in writings of the time and on a single contemporary drawing of the house. However,  most visits are useful in some way, even just to file away in the subconscious for later inspiration.

What if you just can’t manage to get to the locales? Then read everything you can find about the area, both in print and on the Web. During your reading, take notes about anything that might be useful. There are often descriptions by early and recent travellers to the region that contain a wealth of useful details, including sensory details.

If you can find people in your own country who have emigrated from the area you’re writing about, interview them for details they remember from their childhoods. If it seems appropriate, have them review your writing before it’s published. To make your depictions as authentic as they can be, it’s desirable to do all these things in addition to traveling to your settings.

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Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com

Gary Worthington’s bio page

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Gary,
    I know what you mean by the settings in your historical fiction being far away and expensive to travel to. I set mine in Ancient Greece, but recommend anyone to visit the locals and archaeological sites you write about to get a sense of place, setting, and atmosphere. Everything you have mentioned resonates with me as I travelled this year to Greece for five and a half weeks and visited many ancient sites. I also visited my family’s island, Lesvos, where I noted down a lot of ideas for my historical novel I’m working on at the moment. It’s really worth it. Great post.
    Cheers,
    Claire

    September 29, 2013
  2. danielfbowman #

    Great post.
    When visiting a modern location, how do you avoid anachronisms like describing nonnative species or landscape that has changed?

    September 30, 2013
  3. A great post Gary, I think there are so many benefits as a writer to be gained by seeing, feeling and smelling the place you are writing about. Google Earth can’t give you that.

    September 30, 2013

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