Stephanie Merritt (SJ Parris) is the author of the bestselling historical thriller series about Giordano Bruno. The latest book in the series, Execution, is out now. She is also the tutor of Curtis Brown Creative’s six-week online Writing Historical Fiction course. For Historia, she shares six tips on how to get going with your historical research.
Every historical novelist will have a different approach to how much research they do before writing. I would say it depends very much on the scope of your story. You need at least to be familiar with the larger background – what system of government is in place, who are the rival factions, what is the dominant religious faith, what happens to those who believe differently – and also the small, everyday details. For example, what are people’s clothes made of? What do your characters eat and drink? What do their houses look like and how do they heat them?
Here are some of the research methods I’ve found helpful:
1. Background biographies
I would recommend starting off by finding a couple of good background histories for your period aimed at the general reader. I’m a big fan of the Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press – if you’re not sure where to begin your research, it’s worth taking a look at their list of titles. They have literally hundreds of brief books by experts in their field offering a helpful, concise overview of a subject, from which you can find areas you’d like to explore further.
2. Internet research
Be wary of relying too much on sites like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a fantastic starting point for finding your way to obscure historical characters or digging up background on events; I’ve used it myself more times than I can count. But treat it as a stepping-stone to further reading, not a definitive source in itself. Every high school history teacher can tell when a student has copied their essay from Wikipedia, and your reader will instinctively feel the same if that’s where the bulk of your facts come from.
3. Libraries and archives
Most of us who are not trained historians don’t have the skills to make sense of a lot of archive material. Depending on your subject matter, it may be that you want to look at original sources, but I would always recommend starting with material that has been filtered for you by professional historians.
Local museums can be treasure troves of material, and cathedral libraries and archives are usually open to the general public; some university libraries will allow access on application. But if you don’t have a local library, you will often be able to find material online.
4. Visit locations
If you have the resources and the time to spend visiting the places where you want to set your story, don’t hesitate. It can be very helpful to get a sense of where your characters once stood, and such basic aspects as how long it would take them to walk from one point to another. I set two of the books in my Giordano Bruno series in English cities – Oxford and Canterbury – where the essential layout of the town has not changed much since the sixteenth century, and many of the buildings that my characters would have visited can still be seen.
When I was writing Heresy, I stayed in Oxford and timed myself running between two points in the novel to check how long it would take Bruno when he was being pursued. It mattered to me to get that right, because if I say he got from A to B in ten minutes when anyone who knows Oxford would know it couldn’t be done in less than half an hour, I’ve lost my reader’s confidence.
But if you can’t get to your location, you can probably get around it with research – for example, by looking at old maps from your chosen period.
5. Activities and hobbies
If you are interested you could take part in some more practical research, and this one is entirely up to you. I know historical authors who have taken up falconry, archery and fencing because they felt it would help them write more persuasively about those things. I know others who joined historical re-enactment societies in order to experience what it was like to take part in a battle wearing armour.
6. Kill your darlings
One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction is coming to terms with the fact that a lot of that lovely research you’ve spent so much time on will never make it into your book. At least, not explicitly. This is actually a good thing – we’ve all attempted to read a historical novel where the author is determined to share every single thing they spent the last year finding out.
Frequently, for the sake of moving your story along and making it believable, you’ll have to leave out a lot of the detail that you’ve uncovered in the course of your research. That doesn’t mean it’s been wasted. Everything you’ve learned will have contributed to your understanding of your story’s period and setting, and it will inform the novel, even if you don’t write every detail down.
This advice is adapted from Stephanie Merrit’s Writing Historical Fiction course material.
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