When I started writing my first novel, back when the world and I were young, I needed to research a great deal of history that most people, and myself, knew very imperfectly. I had decided upon an opus that dealt with the history of the Angles and Saxons who found their way to Roman Britain between 500 and 600AD and who found it ripe for the picking.
Research involved far different skills and activities then than they do today, and I intend to contrast the two eras here. The interest and pleasure I, as a writer of historical fiction, gained from my discoveries were somewhat equal to those I receive from learning some obscure new fact today. The satisfaction of inserting them into a narrative that may surprise and delight the reader is just as strong.
Even the stories of the change from Britanniae to Angle Land are much different today. Mallory’s “Morte d’Arthur’ was one of the few sources in the 1960s, even though it was a poem of dubious origin taken from earlier works that had been embellished to suit the chivalric traditions of the Middle Ages. There had been almost no archaeological study of the traces remaining on the ground. The British sources open to me were Nennius’ “History of the Britons” of 800AD and St Gildas’ “De Excidio et Conquestu Britannaie” of about 550AD. On the Saxon side there was little but King Alfred’s compilation of the “Anglo Saxon Chronicles” sometime around 850AD. The fact that the ‘Chronicle’ repeated the same actions under different dates and names didn’t inspire much confidence in historiography of the period.
Of course, the only name known to laymen and readers then was King Arthur—the gink with the Round Table. King Arthur was good enough for most writers and readers, so who was I to think of kicking him off the billboard? Well, I’ve never thought it worthwhile to write something that has already been written to death a hundred times. Arthur was a synthesis of characters from many other ancient stories, and never a real person. There—I’ve said it and romantics can cry their tears into a copy of Mallory.
My research did have its magic moments. I visited the British Museum to access some of the sources and in the old Reading Room of the British Library—yes, the circular room where Karl Marx, George Orwell, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Twain and a thousand others had preceded me—I was allowed to read a translation of “De Excidio” printed in the 1500s. Wow! It was a thousand years newer than the original but still so old as to make me nervous how I opened the pages. The old Reading Room is not connected to the library today—which is in new, larger premises, but it is open again for special exhibits and even has some books. One more pleasure lost in the move to our mechanistic age.
What of the modern age? I’m now researching a nearer history—the Regency in Britain and finding almost all my answers online. What did the Isle of Dogs look like when my characters visited a shipyard on the Thames in 1814? Following links (and starting at Wikipedia) I found maps, info, paintings, and even modern London details that threw light on the earlier time. My stories involve shipbuilding and I have some good sources picked up over the years—books bought during visits to the actual ships, the SS Great Britain of 1843 and HMS Warrior of 1861, that have details on the salvage and restoration of the ships and on the original machinery and construction methods.
Many writers of historical romance use the popular artifice of having their couple united by an unconsummated marriage so they might tease the reader between outcomes of annulment or eventual true love. Sorry, but that’s a bunch of cods-wallop too. The requirements for divorce or annulment before the Marriage Act of 1857 didn’t care two hoots about whether the union was consummated or not—they were far more realistic and only cared whether there had been adultery committed by either party. There is a great deal of material on divorce, separation (a mensa et thoro) and requirements for becoming legally (and religiously) married once you start looking into the matter. All surprisingly fascinating---I’m thinking of becoming a non-marriage counsellor once this writing is finished.
Some writers dread researching, and others revel in it, but the reader can be cheated without it. Here’s to delving back as far and as thoroughly as one can...for, what are you doing, Dear Reporter, if not researching authors and how they feel about their writing?