Digging History – Alma Boykin
*This is Sarah. I’m okay, just really busy as there is surgery upcoming on the sixteenth of March, and I’m trying to get my house ready for sale before that. Meanwhile the lovely Alma Boykin has sent me this wonderful post on Historical research.*
Digging History – Alma Boykin
So you want to write a historical fiction book. Or you want to learn more about X historical thing, place, or period. There are so many books out there, “curated” and otherwise, that you are tempted to start grabbing at random. And that can be very rewarding, leading down fascinating paths and trails into new areas of knowledge. Or it can leave you staring at the page thinking, “OK, this is written in English. I understand ¾ of the words. But what in the name of little green apples is the author talking about?” When I’m trying to learn something in a new field, the technique that works best for me is a funnel approach. (This is also useful for writing non-fiction, but that’s a post for my place. Maybe.)
Start broad. How broad? Let’s say that you are interested in the French Revolution and what women did during those years. After all, we all remember Madame Defarge knitting at the foot of the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. You can approach the from two different directions. One is the Revolution in general, then women. The other is women in France, narrowing your focus to the years between 1750-1820. I’m going to start with the first approach, because it is the easiest if you do not have ready access to an academic library. What you want is a general overview of French history, to get an idea of what was France, who the main characters had been, and what led up to the mess that began in the 1760s.
Next comes a general history of the French Revolution. You have several choices, from the relatively small Oxford History of the French Revolution, to Simon Schama’s Citizens, to other popular histories. Once you have those, read them, making note of people and ideas of special interest. And then you go through the bibliography and endnotes, picking out titles that seem to have promise. This is where it can get a little tricky. At this point I’d start looking at book reviews and catalogue listings, trying to see what the author’s viewpoint and purpose is. You can get mired in theory very easily, or lost in subsections of the field (like woman as a symbol of the Revolution, from Marianne to the Goddess of Reason, and how societal ideas of womanhood clashed with the needs of the radical revolutionaries as viewed in light of M. Foucault’s theories of power. That’s probably not what you’re interested in.)
Again, start with the general and narrow your search. There are some books about women in the French Revolution, in English, that are fairly broad. If you get interested in, oh, non-noble or bourgeois women who opposed the Revolution, you’ll need to branch out again, looking at regional histories and books about events like the massacres in the Vendee. Perhaps you can find a history of a convent that was nationalized, and how the Sisters dealt with it. As always, check the bibliographies for possible titles. Histories of family life discuss women, and there are biographies of Marie Antoinette that range from “evil greedy queen” to “poor victim” to more reasonable. (You might look for Antonia Frazier’s biography of Marie Antoinette.) Madame de Stäel has also been written about, and left her own accounts of events.
Don’t overlook translated primary source documents. Some of the major public documents of the Revolution are available in English, and many at least touch on the role of the woman as citizen. The book “Dangerous Liaisons” was widely read in France at the time of the Revolution, and is available in English (as is the movie version).
At some point, on this topic, you will probably run into language problems. Not everything has been translated into English. I find this especially true the farther east in Eurasia I go, so to speak. Sometimes English-language reviews are available, or articles. Otherwise, well, that’s kinda that, depending on if you want to read the book with a dictionary in hand.
If you are doing research for a book, you may need to venture into more esoteric fields. For example, in order to get an idea of how an early-modern army moved, I found myself renting a book on the logistics of the Ottoman Armies prior to 1750. I got what I needed, but it wasn’t exactly gripping reading. On the other hand, a fat book about the Thirty Years War (not the precise period I needed but close) gave me lots of material for later works, notably the Alt-hist WWI and post WWI books. In order to learn about the climate of Early Modern Europe, before people kept temperature and rainfall records, Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie combed through parish and monastic crop records, using the dates of grape harvest and frosts, and wheat planting and yields, to sketch out the weather of the Little Ice Age (Times of Feast, Times of Famine). Dendrochronology has supported many of his findings, although we have more refined ways to use those same records today. I know someone who is using sailing reports from the United Provinces to give a fuller account of how weather affected the Anglo-Dutch wars (answer – a lot.) If you are writing a historical fiction about that time, these historians’ works can give you details to flesh out your setting and the problems your characters face.
American history in some ways is easier, because everything is in English and is easier to find, Interlibrary loan, or read on the ‘net. Even so, you might want to follow the same funnel process. How and what historians write about history changes, and what everyone knew in 1970 may be totally wrong in 2010. If you write about the Iroquois in the colonial period using what you remember from the plains Indians, because all Indians are the same, readers are going to wall the book rather quickly. If you describe Native Americans as peaceful primitives living in harmony with “Nature,” unless you are writing fantasy or just brush the topic and focus on a trapper and his Spanish love-interest, you may sell a lot to the SJW and neo-hippie crowds, but the rest of us are going to point and giggle, then buy a different book. Ditto medieval romances with sweet smelling castles, peacock served every night, and where no one dies of gangrene or plague.
And if the one book on the topic is a painfully academic tome of intellectual history *coughRudolph II Habsburgcough*, well, I’ve felt your pain. You have my deepest sympathies and I’ll happily loan you my crying towel.