Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Institute of Historical Research Workshop Day - some notes

A couple of months ago I attended a workshop at the Institute of Historical Research faculty at the University of London.  The workshop consisted of informal lectures and discussion about how to put the history in historical fiction. Dr Simon Trafford from the institute ran us through ways of accessing the history through available resources.  Eleanor John from the Geffrye Museum talked about house interiors through the ages accompanied by illustrative photographs, and I discussed my own creative process in putting the researched history into a novel.  Here's the original url to the workshop - we're hoping to repeat it in the future.

Below, as requested by several readers, fellow authors and friends, I have finally got around to putting my notes online and I have also put the worksheets here from Dr Trafford's handouts with some useful information.  These are at the end of the blog, and they apply to the UK, although if you reside elsewhere, you may also find them interesting.  You will have to click on them to enlarge in order to read them more easily.

My talk Notes

IHR CONFERENCE:  Researching Historical Fiction.  

For those of you who don't know me or my work, I write  mainstream, popular historical fiction. If you were looking for authors of similar style I’d be roughly on the same page as  Alison Weir, Bernard Cornwell, Sharon Kay Penman,  Helen Hollick.  One reviewer called me the inheritor of Anya Seton’s Crown, but one shouldn't believe all the hype. I am me and in the end I have my own voice

I suppose I should talk a little bit about how I came to writing historical fiction in the first place. The story part is simple enough. I can remember telling myself tales from first having language and memory. I learned my craft from reading widely and from repetition. I told myself stories verbally throughout childhood exploring and changing beginnings, middles and ends, introducing new characters and new dilemmas to the same story and making it different just to see what would happen.  I was having great fun without realising that I was teaching myself the art of storytelling.

I came to historical fiction in my teens via visual media. I did not read much historical fiction  as a child, it was mostly myths, legends and the hero’s journey,  but I'd always loved historical adventure films. In my early teens the BBC aired The Six wives of Henry VIII starring Keith Michell. Falling hard for the latter, I began writing a Tudor story, but didn't get very far and put it away after the school holidays, even though I’d enjoyed the experience. The following year the BBC put on another program dubbed from the French on children's TV. It was called Desert Crusader, was set in the 12th century and starred a handsome young knight in flowing white robes galloping around the holy land having adventures.  Aged 15 now, I totally fell in love and began writing I suppose what amounts to a fan fiction story. However it grew from those beginnings into its own story and then a novel.  I didn't know anything about the holy land in the 12th century, and had to begin researching. I think my mother despaired of me. She would ask what I wanted for Christmas or birthday, hoping that am I want girly things such as clothes and make-up, and I would request Sir Stephen Runciman’s History of the Crusades volume 1 and 2 or some other research book.

I wanted my novels to feel as real as possible.  In order to visualise the world my character’s lived in, I had to know the history, and the history was the underlying skeleton on which my story was built. The more I researched more interested I became and the more I wanted to write about the period. I began to find out what was often taught as correct history in schools or popularly perceived wasn't true. I discovered that contrary to what Dorian Williams said on the Horse of the Year Show, the warhorse of a mediaeval knight wasn't some whacking great shire beast, but a creature akin to a Welsh cob about 15 hands high. I discovered that rather than having to be Conan the Barbarian to lift a medieval sword, as long as you were fit and trained, you could easily handle and wield the 3-4 pounds that  a sword actually weighed in the 12th century. This was all intoxicating information to me because it was opening up a whole new world. It’s one I've been researching for 40 years now, and I realise the more I research, the more I need to know.
Of course if you are writing a historical novel it's not about dumping all that knowledge in the text. That's the last thing you want to do.  Your aim is to entertain readers, not bore their socks off. Research is about informing yourself so that you can walk with confidence in the world you are creating. It's about credibility.  Robert McKee in his lectures on story structure in film script says in his 10 Commandments for the writer,  ‘thou shalt know thy imaginary world as well as the one thou livest in.’ Wise words.

I view authors of historical fiction as bridges between the reader and the past, and this is true whatever genre you write in. Readers tastes are wide and varied and what they want and what you yourself are drawn to write, will affect the kind of bridge you build. Some readers are only after entertainment when they come to historical fiction. They want a good story but basically with a fancy dress or wallpaper background. Others will be looking for rich and detailed novels that explore the past in more depth and minutiae.  Sometimes the bridge you build will attract readers who really should be crossing on one better suited to their requirements and expectations. With my novels I have seen a review of The Greatest Knight saying 'I was expecting more romance. I wanted to be wooed by the hero.' And then another one saying ‘this novel is too romantic.’  Or there's too much fighting, or Not enough fighting.  You have to take on board that you're not going to suit every reader’s taste and that readers bring their own ideas and prejudices to the reading of the novel. You can't legislate for that. Just build your bridge the best you can and how you want it to look, and build it with integrity.  Don't sweat the stuff that's out of your control.

One of the sayings that I get irritated about is when people talk about historical fiction and say ‘If I want facts I'll look in a history book.’  Sometimes to judge by my research reading on Eleanor of Aquitaine, chance would be a fine thing!  But that aside, of course story is massively important, but in the case of historical fiction, the story should rest solidly on historical integrity. No author can get everything right, but there's nothing to stop us trying and doing the best we can. If you are twisting history to suit the story, then you're not a good enough writer. Part of the fun of being a historical novelist is working out how the narrative can weavein the historical facts and remain a thumping good story.  It's like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and if you work at it they will fall into place. There's no need to shift a battle or a date by a couple of years.  Work with it, work around it.  If you do the best research you can and don't warp the history while telling a bloody good story then the historical detail anoraks will stay off your back, the people who just want a story won't notice, and everyone's happy except the extreme whingers and trolls who will moan whatever.  Simple.

When I first began writing I wanted my characters to live in a world that felt as real as possible which is why I began asking my mother for all these research books for birthdays and Christmas.  However my early work was still very much a case of characters wearing the right clothes having the right weight of sword riding the right sort of horse, but the mindset -how they thought about things, how they felt about things was still pretty modern.  So it's not just a case of getting the physical details right, but also of establishing the right mindset. Don't ask what would I have done in a situation, but what would they have done? How would it feel in 1200 to be 13 years old and told that you had to marry a guy in his late 30s?  The character might indeed be grossed out and horrified. She might find herself beaten and locked in a room by despairing parents unable to understand why she’s being so disobedient. It's a shame and a disgrace to them. It’s more likely given the social upbringing of the times that the girl would feel at best proud to go through with it and at worst resigned, because it's her duty and she’s helping her family.  She might feel that here is a strong protector. She might feel honoured.  The 21stC reader might think oh my goodness this man is a paedophile for taking a 13-year-old bride, but at that time, 13 wasn't childhood. You became an adult and you entered the adult world with all the adult duties and responsibilities. It was a different lens. Even for those who did not marry childhood ended as one became a teenager.  You have to think outside your own box and into theirs and bring the reader with you over the bridge.

So how then do I go about researching a historical novel when I write it?
It's a blend of many aspects, and we are currently blessed with more information than at any other time in the history of the world, even if the piddling little fact that we really need to know is often hidden away in a JSTOR article that we can't access - but we have learned more from Simon today on how to get around that!
I digress. I have a manyfold approach to the historical research that goes into my novels.

1  I read primary sources. For my period it's mostly ecclesiastical with a few bits of secular writing here and there, so one does have to take into account the biases of the church, and also the biases of one's particular chronicler. Gerald of Wales for example is a man with a very poisoned pen and one should always, always doublecheck his statements and ask is this at face value?  This is what he says of William Longchamps, Bishop of Ely.

 He was short and contemptible in stature and crippled in both haunches, with a big head and with the hair on his forehead coming down almost to his eyebrows like an ape. He was very dark, with little sunken black eyes, flat nose, snarling face. His beard below his eyes and his hair above them were all shaggy; his chin was receding, and his lips  spread apart in an effective, false, and almost continual grin, which he very suitably used as a disguise. His neck was short, his back was humped, and his belly stuck out in front and his buttocks at the back. His legs were crooked, and although his body was small, his feet were huge. He also accuses him of being greedy stuffed with ambition, sexually perverted unscrupulous.

One needs to take statements such as this with a big spoonful of salt, but then it leads one to wonder Why  was Gerald saying this? What were his thought processes? What axes did he have to grind above and beyond his usual snarkiness? What’s fiction, what’s fact?  ALWAYS  question whatever you are reading.  The primary sources will give you an idea of the mindset of the time - the thoughts behind the world in which your characters live - politics, social attitudes. It helps to look at the world from both sides of an argument. To look at the pros and the cons, because one size never fits all. People still had individual ways of thinking, but one can get an idea of the broad scope.  Read widely in primary source, then you get the nuances of the time and they'll sink into your subconscious and you’ll absorb them by osmosis.

2 Secondary Source
This is where all the academic works come in covering a broad spread from the life and personal times of the person I’m writing about to wider social and detail issues. It also brings in archaeology. The things they touched and handled. Where were they found? What are they made of? What were they for? I'm quite amused sometimes by the notion that just because something is set further back, you can't find out about it, or there aren't as many books about it. I think Hillary Mantell said that at our last talk, and I would have to disagree with her on that point. She just hasn't looked. Let me tell you, there are enough works at Oxbow books on my particular period to fill a mansion. You can find out everything you need. One of my tips for any sort of reading when you're writing historical fiction, is not just to read the books that you know are essential to your novel, but to browse material as a matter of general interest. I pick up many interesting books on my core mediaeval subject matter just by pottering, and they can add so much to your writing. It's as if you didn't know you needed it until it popped out at you from the pages. There are books that might seem obscure but you never know when they're going to come in handy. So I have such titles on my shelves such as the Archaeology of Rabbit Warrens, On Farting: language and laughter in the middle ages, or the Devils Cloth history of stripes and striped fabric. None of these things are immediately necessary to my novels - except perhaps the farting one where in TO DEFY A KINGg we encounter Roland the Farter, a man who actually lived, and held his lands for the task of coming to court each Christmas to perform a leap a whistle and a fart in front of King Henry. I am waiting for Eleanor of Aquitaine's reaction when I get to book two of my trilogy!

3. I research on Internet.That has some wonderful resources these days and I expect everyone here uses it extensively. When one's been doing it for a while one tends to develop and inbuilt crap detector and know which sites to avoid. The Internet has made a terrific difference to the amount of primary source material available online, and I hope it continues to flourish.

4. Location, location! I go to places to gain a feel for the lie of the land, for what was there before, and to make a physical connection. I can't get to every place I'd like to go on writing a novel, but I try and visit a selection. I buy the guidebooks and just think  myself into time and place.

5. Re-enactment. The other thing I do is to re-enact with early mediaeval society Regia Anglorum. This brings artefacts out of the museum and into 3-D. You can interact with replicas and find out how it feels to use them. For example this cooking pot…. If I ever need to write a scene with one of these, I know how it will react on a fire, how its contents will cook, how long it can be left to simmer without a disaster happening. You can't get that from looking at a specimen in a museum.

I have to add that I also use the psychic is a form of research but I'm not going to go into that today as it’s a personal thing, and while I find it superb for adding to the blend, it's not everyone's cup of tea and it obviously works in a different way to the more conventional researches that I’ve mentioned above.  I find it immensely useful as a strand when developing my novels, but it doesn't fit into the cannon of the research we've been discussing today.

Then I add in imagination because after all it is fiction. It’s a story set in the past. All these research elements are like facets in a cut gemstone. It gives you different surfaces that glitter with their own light but are part of a whole, and depending on how you use that information, and  your own personal talent, you will either end up with something out of the bran tub, or a piece from Cartier!

The salient points are: (bear in mind this is my opinion and how I work - I'm sharing, but these are not the be-all and end-all rules of how to write historical fiction).

1 don't info dump. Take all this research, turn it into an essence and use it judiciously like the best perfume.

2 make sure your characters reflect the times in which they lived. Don't make them modern people in fancy dress unless you are specifically writing for readers who want that experience.

3 If you can't find something out, don't let it stall you. Use your best guess. If you have done the research, then your best guess is likely to be plausible. Sweat it, but don't kill it. Don't defame the dead.

4. Senses.  Use them.  The touch, taste, feel, sound, sights of the time are vitally important in giving the reader the sensory experience of another world.  They are a major building block of your bridge.  Check how your character would react to these things as well.  For e.g. I have a book on the senses in the Medieval period which goes into depth about people’s reactions to certain smells or colours.  While we have the similarity of the human experience, just check that it remains the same.

5 Language.  A knotty one.  I would say don’t use twisy twasery and don’t use ultra modern slang.  The latter can work but only if you really know your subject and your genre, the novel and your readers are in cahoots with you.  Think very carefully.  Plain, serviceable English will tend to be your best tool.

 6 Depth. Don't just take one source, take several. Don't be satisfied with the superficial report. Always look underneath - unless again you are writing a novel that doesn't require in-depth research.  I found this when writing a novel called A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE, about John Marshal the father of  William Marshall, star of THE GREATEST KNIGHT.  John is famous for having said of his little son who was a hostage and being threatened by death.  ‘That he had the anvils and hammers to get better sons than him.’ I began to wonder what would lead a man to say that sort of thing. What kind of father would do that? In our own time John has been vilified for that statement. What an appalling parent!  But when you begin looking under that surface, something very different emerges. That tale was told as a family saga intended to be recounted round the fire at night by family members, and John's action was viewed with approbation in his own time. The anvils and hammers were a pun on the symbols of the Royal Marshal. The remark was also a pun  on John Marshall's virility and a proverbial up yours at King Stephen.  The King is supposed to have been very tender hearted and to have prevented William from being hanged. He did do the latter and did play with the child, but not before he had let his men subject little boy to more casual taunting in the camp. There was a lot more than met the eye, but to notice it, you had to have read and studied beyond the superficial and beyond that one source and with an open, enquiring mind. 
CS Lewis talks in his Narnia books about the magic and the deep magic and that's it.  Knowing the difference between the superficial and the depth boils down to the finding out on many levels and then distilling it into your prose. 

Dr Trafford's tipsheets on finding out what you need to known  - click to enlarge

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Congratulations to Kate Atherton!  You're the winner of the Giveaway! I've e-mailed you.
I wish everyone of the 91 of you who entered could have won, but I'll be doing more giveaways in a few weeks' time.
Best wishes

Saturday, June 02, 2012


Just a note to say the Giveaway attached to the William Marshal Lecture post is now closed.  I will announce the winner tomorrow once I've counted up the entries and picked a number at random.
The next post, as soon as I get it written up, will be my lecture notes and a few extras from the recent seminar day at the Institute of Historical Research.