How to Do Historical Research for a Book That’s Fun!
People often ask me about the research that goes into writing tales of the past. I won’t diminish the importance of the “work” part – of going to primary and secondary sources of the period you write about to be sure you have your facts right. But research can also be fun – it can be part of other things that we love to do.
For me, one of those things is travel. There’s nothing quite like being in an old place and soaking up the atmosphere to get one’s imagination working about what life there was like long ago. Stand in the kitchen of a fourteenth-century castle and imagine the fire roaring in the huge hearth with pots hanging from hooks and meat roasting on spits being turned ever so slowly by the kitchen boy known as the “turnspit” – because his job, of course, was to turn the spit.
Look around the fifteenth-century brewery on a vast estate and marvel at how the water was pumped into the vats to mix with the grain to form a mash. Walk slowly through an old cathedral and imagine the stonemasons who built the sturdy walls and beautiful vaulted ceilings – or look up into the ledges in those vaults and see burial boxes of kings who lived in the eighth or ninth century.
History becomes so very real.
Another thing I enjoy is browsing antique shops. Even if you’re not buying, they are a great place to discover old objects that can make their way into a story one day.
I take pictures. Lots and lots and lots of pictures. You never know when you’ll have a story to tell about a particular place – or when a story you’re in the middle of needs a detailed description of the site of a fortress or the furnishings in an eighteenth-century drawing room or a coat of arms carved in stone above an elaborate fireplace.
And I’ve found another use for those pictures in helping to bring the world of the Second Son Chronicles to life in the Gallery page on the website for the series.
I also read other authors – historical fiction or non-fiction – learning from the research they’ve already done. But, of course, I do verify what part of an author’s work is factual and what springs from their imagination before relying on it for my own work.
So, for me, research is something I’m always doing. When I set out to tell a story, I always have a solid foundation for the time and place of the narrative and for any historical characters that may figure in the tale.
But one of the really delightful things about all the technology we have today is that “just in time” research is always possible.
In Pestlience, there’s a reference to the main character’s son, Geoffrey, being breeched – that important milestone in a young boy’s life when he starts wearing breeches instead of a dress. As I wrote the sentence, I couldn’t remember for sure at what age this usually happened – but a little searching on the internet reassured me that Geoffrey was just the right age.
I hope you enjoy the Chronicles as much as I’m enjoying telling the stories.