Please note: I do not intend this post to be an exhaustive list of the research materials available, but just enough to get you started. My specialization was in ancient history, with comparative fields in medieval Europe and the Ancient Near East. My writing has taken me as recent as the Early Modern period but that’s it. So I won’t be covering things like newspaper articles, photographs, sound recordings, or other resources available to those studying the more recent past.
One of the trickiest parts about incorporating historical research into your writing is knowing where to start. When I began my historical fantasy novel EYES OF WOOD, HEART OF STONE, I decided to set it in mid-14th century Scotland, approximately 200 years before the earliest mention of the ballad of Tam Lin (1549, The Complaynt of Scotland, for those who might be interested). At the time, I wanted the story to focus on Tam Lin’s ancestor, and though I later changed this to his father, I had done too much research to bring the story forward in time. I also had medieval Europe as my comparative field in graduate school, which should make the research that much easier, right?
Cue maniacal laughter.
EoWHoS was my project for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2019. Writing it during NaNoWriMo may have been a big mistake. Trying to write a complete draft of a novel (even zero draft, as mine tend to be) in thirty days is a big enough challenge on its own. Trying to do this when writing outside one’s expertise makes it that much harder. I would not attempt to write historical fiction or historically based fantasy for NaNoWriMo in the future unless I did considerable outlining and research ahead of time and it was a period I knew very well already. It’s also a good idea, whether you are participating in NaNoWriMo or not, to have a system down for marking the places you need to research later, like an asterisk or a TK. That way, you don’t have to break your writing flow to do research; you can look it up and come back later.
When it came time to revise EoWHoS, about four months later, it was 2020, we were in the midst of a pandemic, and the libraries were mostly closed. Wheee!!!
So here are some of the resources I used while researching EoWHoS and how I used them. Hopefully this may give you a starting place as well.
Wikipedia is a great place to start your research. It is a terrible place to finish it.
When it comes to research, Wikipedia gets kind of a bad rap. This is to some extent well-deserved. It is maintained by volunteers, has been censored by world governments, and found guilty of systemic bias, although the latter has been said to improve over time (“Wikipedia,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified September 21, 2022, 07:51, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia). However, what I would say is the best feature of Wikipedia is its list of footnotes and references at the bottom of the page. Here you can see the sources used to produce the Wikipedia article, so you can read them and decide whether you agree with this interpretation. It is also an excellent place to find resources for future exploration and research. For example, when I visited the Wikipedia page on the ballad of Tam Lin, I found a link to Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle’s entry on Tam Lin from Folklore The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotate Bibliograph of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World (https://web.archive.org/web/20171201033318/http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/C039.html), which then, of course, gave me further links to explore.
Academia.edu: How to do research without leaving the house.
Like I said before, I was researching EoWHoS and attempting to flesh out the historical setting of medieval Scotland during the middle of a pandemic, which is hardly the ideal time. I could check out ebooks from the library (more about that later), but some of the most relevant books I needed were too old or not popular enough to be available in ebook. There was also information I needed, say on medieval obstetrics or bread-baking, that was too specific to warrant an entire book but was still necessary for me to know. Enter academia.edu. This website was an invaluable resource for the kinds of articles I needed for my research and is available for free. (There are even more resources available when you use the paid version, which I haven’t opted for yet.) I use Scrivener for drafting, which gives me the opportunity to save the articles, websites, and other online sources I need into a separate file in my project. That way, when I’m in the middle of a scene and need to remind myself exactly what powers (and mischief!) the Amadan Dubh was credited with, I have it easily accessible. Below is a screenshot of my research folder in Scrivener:
Books: when I invested, when I didn’t, and how to decide.
As I mentioned before, my comparative field in graduate school was medieval Europe, focused on England, France, and to some extent Italy. I actually started out as a medievalist in undergrad and while the “churchly bits” rather turned me away from medievalism as a specialty, I still find daily life in the Middle Ages a fascinating topic. Therefore, even before I started EoWHoS, I already had quite a few of the Joseph and Frances Gies books, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Village, etc. on my shelves. I also found A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer quite helpful, and worth the purchase price. These books are intended for a general audience, not to be purchased by research institutions, so are relatively affordable, as well as being books I might find helpful for other projects in the future.
“Ah, but aren’t these books on medieval England, Kim?” you may be asking. “And didn’t you say you were writing about medieval Scotland?”
Well, yes, that is true, although the particular region of Scotland I was focused on was the Borders region, sometimes English, sometimes Scottish, all times stubborn as the Dickens, or so I hear tell. But I did need some specifically Scottish reference materials. Academia.edu and JSTOR helped, but I needed more and wasn’t able to find anything at the library (remember; it was closed to browsing at the time). I found Medieval Scotland, 1000 to 1600 edited by Edward J. Cowan and Lizanne Henderson on sale for around $30 paperback (as I recall), not too much to invest even if only for this project, which in turn led me to Henderson’s own Scottish Fairy Belief. That one I purchased in part because I knew it would be helpful now, fascinating even later, and might inspire another book or two.
YouTube, re-enactors, and living history.
As a historian, I know well the value and essentiality of primary sources. As a novelist, I know contemporary authors do not always tell us what we most need to know. These authors take for granted the aspects of daily life we most need to flesh out our fictional worlds, particularly if they are more interested in the great deeds of the 1% than the habits of 99%. Of course, there are agricultural manuals such as Varro’s De Re Rustica, Le Bon Berger (The Good Shepherd) by Jean de Brie, medieval cookbooks etc., and I do recommend the author of historical fiction check them out. However, I would also encourage those attempting to write historical fiction and fantasy not to overlook the work of modern recreationists, who post videos on YouTube, participate in the Society of Creative Anachronisms, and the like. Historical reenactors take their work seriously: you can find people who have studied medieval blacksmithing, sewed their own 19th century gowns, or recreated the hairstyles of Roman empresses using period-appropriate tools. To research my fiction, I have watched videos on spinning nettles into yarn, sacrificing a piggy bank to the Greek gods, and medieval court dancing. YouTubers will often share their source material in either the video itself or the box below, might respond to comments or even have a website where you can contact them and pick their brain.
I hope I have provided at least a decent starting point for your historical research. One of the greatest things about and also the biggest challenges of researching your historical or historical fantasy novel is that reading one source often leads to reading another, and the job can grow exponentially as you do it. You might learn fencing to get your fantasy fight scenes down, and suddenly you have a new hobby! An encounter with a glassblower at the local renaissance faire might lead you to joining the Society for Creative Anachronisms, or maybe you’ll take riding lessons and become a proper equestrian yourself. Have fun! Just don’t forget to come back to finish your story when you’ve learned as much as you need.