In the Q&A session after a recent talk I gave, someone asked how I go about the research involved in writing historical fiction. SInce I am now in the early planning stages for my fourth novel, it’s a subject that is very close at hand, and I thought I would say something about it here.
I have tried out a number of research strategies in the course of writing my novels, and I have settled on a method that works efficiently and effectively for me. First, I spend a number of months just reading about the era in which a book will be set. I read histories, cultural studies, biographies, and anything else that seems essential to a basic understanding. At this point I’m not sure who my characters are going to be, or even what the personality of the main character will be like, but it’s important to have a good sense for what their culture makes them likely or unlikely to do, think, or say.
As I study, I am making note of particularly colorful people and events, to see if I can figure out a way to work them in. As the chronology and cast of characters begin to emerge, I figure out a timeline and settings for the novel. Because I always have a strong female point-of-view character, I can then give her a date of birth, a name, a family background, a place of residence, and so on. From there, I build my initial plan for the novel, incorporating a broad outline of the key characters’ life stories into the chronology I have established. Unlike some authors I know, I don’t outline in any more detail than this, because I’ve learned from experience that the story will turn out differently as I get to know the characters better.
There’as an amazing point in every book where the characters take over, and I feel more like the recorder of something that really did happen than the inventor of it. Emile Zola called his works “experimental novels,” meaning that when a character is put in an situation ( i.e., a new experiment), who they are will drive what happens. That’s when a book begins to have a life of its own. I know generally how my characters will react to their situation and what decisions are consistent with who they are, but I don’t know exactly what they will do or say next. Sometimes they surprise me as my fingers fly over the keys, but I end up realizing that what I wrote was consistent with who they are at a deeper level than I had understood before. When they take on additional depth for me, they do so for the reader as well.
Because I usually get inspired to start writing before I have studied more than the best general sources, I stop often to fill in the gaps in my knowledge on a need-to-know basis. The advantage of this approach is that the research doesn’t drive the novel, but rather the needs of the novel drive the research. I don’t like it when a historical novelist intrudes to share background information, regardless of how interesting it is. To me that’s fictionalized history rather than historical fiction. The characters and the story have to come first on every page, and the task is to find a way to share interesting information through the characters. If a writer is thinking about how to build in as much as possible of the research he or she has already done, the priorities will shift away from the most immediate tasks at hand, character development and plot.
No research plan is perfect. It can be a little scary starting to write without having all the material I need. Perhaps in earlier times more research was necessary from the beginning. Today, with information about almost any topic available in seconds online, I favor keeping my mind as free as possible of anything except the immediate writing task at hand, and the floor of my study as clear as possible of stacks of books I may or may not ever use. And for that, my ever-patient and supportive partner (who shares that study with me) gives a big thumbs up as well!