I cannot imagine any historical fiction author not having been asked by an enthusiastic reader “But, how did you gather all that information?” If you’ve written- or read- historical fiction, I can see your head nodding.
Of course there are the standard answers that we all give, each of them true to one degree or another. First and foremost we read… a lot. One of the joys of writing a historical novel is understanding that a different point of view, new findings, or a unique approach to the storytelling can make even a well-known historical event seem fresh and inviting.
Then today there is the Internet, a literal treasure trove of information, some of it even accurate. We spend countless hours trolling for basic information, then drilling deeper and deeper to answer our own questions and to uncover details that will add depth for our readers.
Our reading and Internet research eventually surfaces a bevy of experts in our fields to whom we can write, email and interview. I love this part especially, because suddenly there is a human face, or at least a voice or electronic message, who we can call on for help. These unsung heroes, who get a scant mention in our Acknowledgements, are often our greatest assets.
But there is one other aspect of research for our historical novels that I think is too little mentioned and definitely too little used by historical fiction authors. That is actually visiting the lands, buildings and places where the history we describe takes place. Yes, things will have changed since the period about which we have chosen to write. But in my mind at least, there is no substitute for helping the reader actually feel a sense of place.
To transport our readers to that time and place we need to smell the forests ourselves, touch the soil, feel the desert heat on our skin, see the immensity of the cathedral and hear our own footsteps echo as we walk the labyrinthine hallways of the castle.
In my novels about the rise to power of Egypt’s first pharaoh (Narmer), his great-granddaughter (Meryt-Neith) who was the first woman king, and the last king of the First Dynasty (Qa’a), I felt I needed to experience Egypt personally. I was fortunate that I was able to visit Egypt several times. But I needed to get out of Cairo, beyond the tourist spots, and into the Egypt of the past.
One thing I did was visit archaeological dig sites to get a sense from the archaeologists themselves of the grandeur of ancient times. I found those visits tremendously helpful and made the acquaintance of Egyptologists who provided me with juiy details for my writing. But there was something far more basic that I was still missing.
Egypt is 96% desert, with a narrow ribbon of green flowing south to north, a water course we know as the mighty Nile River. If there is anything that defines Egyptian civilization, it is the contrast between the nourishing Mother Nile and the unforgiving Eastern and Western deserts.
So I contacted a sociology professor who had written a book about the Bedouins of Egypt and within months I was back in Egypt, living with a Bedouin tribe. That experience more than any other, taught me about what it meant to survive in Egypt circa 3,100 B.C.
I also spent countless hours on the banks of the Nile watching fisherman cast their nets at dawn or drop their baited lines from their boats. It was not a big stretch from there to imagine an ancient fisherman doing the same from his reed boat and pulling in one of the Nile’s famous giant catfish.
So there you have it. I’m a great believer in on-site research. Without it I think a novel suffers from platitudes, flat descriptions and factual errors. With it, a novelist adds descriptive elements that allow a reader to experience the sensory delights of time and place.