Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels, by William Dietrich
As a journalist, I had to go to the place I was writing about.
It works for fiction, too.
When I write historical novels, I want to feel the heat and cold, smell the markets and sea, walk the old parapets, caress the iron of the cannon, heft the slave chains, finger the sword hilt and even sample the food. There’s a restaurant in Trier, Germany, which serves ancient Roman recipes.
I enjoy travel. Research takes me places I wouldn’t otherwise go, and forces me to notice things I might otherwise miss.
Sometimes serendipity lends a hand. I arrived near Newcastle, England, to research the story of a young Roman woman on Hadrian’s Wall… only to learn there was a university lecture that very evening about that very subject.
A livestock disease meant there were pyres of burning animals as I explored, lending a grisly March mood to Hadrian’s Wall.
I took a guided tourist jaunt in the hills above a Tibetan town, only to have a Himalayan squall drive us into a Buddhist nunnery – which inspired a new location for my thriller Blood of the Reich.
I was pleasantly surprised to find signs in Israel pointing out that Napoleon marched this way and that, a useful aid in exploring for The Rosetta Key.
While I didn’t like the lack of air conditioning in a humid summer stay at Antigua’s English Harbor, a colonial British naval base, it did give me a feel for the humidity that my hero experiences in The Emerald Storm.
Everything is potentially useful. A urinal at a Portsmouth naval museum had a poster above it on historic sailor alternatives to toilet paper.
Unless you have unlimited time and money, research travel should be carefully planned. I usually have an outline of my novel. I buy guidebooks and plot out forts, castles, palaces, historical neighborhoods, museums, and battlefields. This often requires driving. Nowadays I bring along a GPS, but I’ve had plenty of misadventures in the past, like trying to reach a Crusader castle and finding myself the wrong way in a Jordanian town with goat herds, market stalls, and swarms of curious children surrounding me.
I read ahead to gain direction, and buy more histories when I’m there. Guides and maps are easy to buy on site and almost impossible to find at home. Museum bookstores are goldmines. I look not just for historical first-person accounts, but guides to local plants and animals that my characters might encounter.
Local guides can provide wit, color, and insight. That quaint Irish harbor? No longer a seaport because overharvesting of oak trees for warships started erosion that silted it up. History becomes not just political, but environmental and social.
Stop and stroll. What does the place feel like? How does the light reflect? How turgid is the water, what size is the old tree, what do cobblestones sound like (rolling suitcases are a substitute for wagon wheels and horseshoes) and how about wood smoke, beer halls, and garden plantings? How dim is the lighting?
That lovely dress weighs forty-five pounds? That musket is as clumsy as a two-by-four? I interviewed a historical re-enactor in Britain who described being run over by a horse in a mock battle.
Can you find a night sky away from electric lights? Or walk a battlefield instead of drive it to get a sense of its size?
Your impressions will worm into your book.
William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com
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