Perils of Research

If you’re like me, you get a great idea for a story, do a bit of research, and promptly get so lost in the research that you forget to write the story (I’m still irked over the loss of that novel about Byzantine iconoclasm. Maybe I’ll get it back. Someday).

But that’s only one of the perils of research, and in this post, I’d like to focus on the ways a writer can be tripped up by the research itself, particularly in historical research, since most of my (limited) experience is in that field.

• Bad/missing primary sources- You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again: Primary sources are a great way to learn about a period in time. These are first-hand accounts of an event, and though they’re not perfectly accurate, the reader can be assured that the material has passed through only one filter- that of the writer or artist. Secondary sources can be useful as compilations of primary source material, but that material has been filtered through an editor or writer who brings their own biases to the table. That person is likely to leave out an important detail, simply because he thinks it’s not important or he had to shorten the chapter and dontcha know, the birthplace of the third wife of Philip II of Spain was the least important thing in the chapter, so it got the axe. (For those who would like to know, the lady in question was Elisabeth de Valois, and she was born at Fontainebleau. And yes, I went down the rabbit hole of research when I looked it up.)

Primary sources aren’t perfect. Even if the writer is trying to be accurate and unbiased, they often show an incomplete picture of an event- accounts of battle are notorious, since the witness can’t be everywhere at once. One hundred fifty years later, we’re still trying to piece together exactly what happened at Gettysburg.

One way to get around this shortcoming is to read many different primary sources, preferably from people who have opposite opinions on other subjects. Just like in writing, if three or more commenters independently come to the same conclusion, their opinion is probably worth a second look. The key word here is ‘independently’. If commenters talk to each to each other before writing their accounts, they are likely to muddy the waters. Unfortunately for historians, the human memory is very suggestible.

And of course, there are periods of history for which no primary sources are available or the sources are so obscure that useful information is found only by accident. Writing has only existed for a few thousand years, and any time in a society’s history before the advent of writing is considered prehistoric, even if we’re referring to American Indians living pre-European-contact in the early 1600s. Prehistoric peoples left us artifacts that can technically be called primary sources- for example, the Lascaux cave paintings- but we have so little context for studying them that their meaning remains a mystery. (Cave paintings can, however, provide useful information about the animals living in a particular area and the materials available to the painters (and therefore, the scope of their trading networks), so even obscure sources can be helpful.)

I’ve also found tangential primary sources to be useful- diaries, letters, and the like. Unofficial accounts, if you will. The average Joe will record information that’s important to him, and while he’s subject to bias (more on this later) information can be gleaned from around the edges of the writing. Sometimes the details that were unimportant to the writer, can be wonderfully useful to a researcher. Samuel Pepys, writing in the late 1600s, certainly didn’t mean to give historians an account of ladies’ fashion, but he did leave us a rather pervy description of Lady Castlemaine’s undergarments, which he spotted from a distance as the items were hung out to dry on wash day. His gratification becomes our insight into an obscure area of domestic history. Laura Forster, a Victorian lady, wrote in her memoirs that her childhood nursery had four shelves, one for each child’s toys, which sounds completely normal until we realize that she had four brothers. It never occurred to her that she had no shelf on which to display her possessions, even though each of her brothers did. One bit of evidence isn’t enough to make generalizations about the way the Victorians treated their children, but it certainly says something about the Forsters’ parenting methods. And neither of the above examples meant to tell us about ladies’ undergarments or Victorian child-rearing, but the information that crept in by accident is no less useful than an official account.

• Secondary sources that pretend to be primary- People lie. They pretend they were present, when they weren’t. On purpose, by accident, it doesn’t matter to a frustrated researcher attempting to reconcile Grandpa’s story of storming a Pacific island in WWII with the other accounts. And the resulting yarns are subject to the same pitfalls as secondary sources that admit to being secondary sources.

• Political spin- Everyone has biases. Modern journalists went through a stage of pretending to be unbiased, and got away with it because of technological limitations, but that façade is cracking open, mostly due to the advent of the internet and blogging.

Early Britain and Ireland were known for bards and travelling storytellers, but the idea of a king’s pet musician is a little less well known. Reputation was important, so petty kings and warlords hired storytellers to talk them up- sort of a one man spin doctoring business. And of course, the bard, wanting to keep his cushy job, made sure to praise his lord as much as possible. Since there was a tradition of intermingling history and legend within Ireland in particular, no one cared very much. Genealogies in particular were favorite points of stretching the truth. Every British king wanted to be related to King Arthur, even though there may not have been such a man and even if he did exist, he was hardly the savior of Britain. The Irish king Cormac mac Art has two different mothers, depending on which ancestry was more politically correct at the time. But who was going to contradict him? If the king was pleased, he paid the bard and chopped off the heads of anyone who dared to say nay.

A thousand years later, Shakespeare was a Tudor propagandist extraordinaire. If he hadn’t been, he could have been arrested for treason, which at the time didn’t only refer to ‘giving aid and comfort to enemies of the kingdom;’ treason in the late 1500s and early 1600s was more along the lines of, “You awful person! You said the queen is old and fat and is subject to death just like everyone else! Off with your head!” So dear old Will had a good reason for wanting to play nice with Elizabeth I and later James I, who was closely related to the Tudor family. As a result, historians spent four hundred years thinking Richard III was a hunchback (though he did suffer from curvature of the spine, it wasn’t severe enough to make him appear hunchbacked) among other strange fibs.

Political spin also pops up in modern scientific papers. This isn’t a political blog, so I’ll gloss over some of the gory details, but I will say: How many times have we seen two contradictory studies published at the same time? Studies on all kinds of subjects- homosexuality, mental disorders, even things like salt intake, have been discredited by later research, when they’d been previously venerated as the Holy Grail of truth by powerful people pushing an agenda.

But surely science is science, right? Not exactly. Science has become a matter of grant money. People make a living by designing and conducting experiments, and if the funding source wants a particular result, the pressure is on to produce that result. Scientists, like all people, are also subject to their own set of biases, and may unconsciously design an experiment to fall within certain parameters that confirm those opinions or, more innocently, make the best use of the equipment and resources available to the scientist.

• Lost in Translation- Many scientific papers are written in English, but archeologists don’t always follow that rule, as I learned when looking for information about the Sarmatians. These steppe peoples lived north of the Black Sea in Roman times, and since they’re not of huge interest to most of the world, a lot of the scholarship is written in Russian and Hungarian, neither of which I speak/read/write.

Poor translations can be worse than no translation at all, because the fact that a translation existed tends to make people think that it’s accurate. We see this in historical documents- translations of the Bible, for example- and in modern journalism.

Nicolas Sarkozy got into a spot of trouble in 2005 when he used racaille to describe a group of rioters who were busy burning cars in a residential neighborhood. Racaille is usually translated as ‘rascals’ or ‘riff-raff’, neither of which are horribly offensive, but certain papers translated it as ‘scum,’ which lent a much more perjorative cast to Sarkózy’s comments and led to various special interest groups accusing him of racism (hello, political spin!).

• Definitional drift- I talked about this a bit in A Brief History of English and Why it Matters.  Definitional drift is the idea that a word changes in meaning over time. It’s a relative of poor translation. Jane Austen’s use of the word ‘condescending’ is one of the most obvious examples. We tend to think of it as a perjorative description, but Austen was writing at a time when it was only starting to take on that connotation. Another example is the Southernism, ‘Bless your heart’, which sounds very nice, but depending on context, can be a superficially pleasant way to say, “F*** you.”

The best way to get around definitional drift is to read secondary sources along with your primary sources. For most periods in history, at least one Ph.D student has done a dissertation on language during that time, and will be able to help. Books titled ‘Daily Life in …” can be useful for understanding those pesky changes in language and customs.

So what’s the point of all this? Am I trying to scare you away from doing research? No way. Research is important, and each of us has to find a style that works well with our writing style. I’ve found that I need a very brief overview of the subject to be covered, then I mark points of uncertainty within the text as I write, and look up the answers afterward. But I’m a pantser, and that works well for me. A plotter might take a crash course in say, ancient Greek textiles, before ever putting a word on the page.

Your method of research is less important than the doing of it. No matter what subject you write upon, at least one of your readers will have studied it in greater depth and will correct your errors (as I’m discovering while writing these posts. Thank you, all; you’re making me into a more conscientious writer).

Detail isn’t everything in a good story. Some writers make entire careers with scant attention to accuracy. But it does help, and if you do good research in a way that suits your style, your readers won’t be left wondering why a basketball just bounced through the hall of your medieval castle or your quail hunters are loading bullets in their shotguns.


  1. If you are researching something set in the period-formerly-called-the-Dark-Ages in Europe, archaeology is starting to make up for the lack of written sources, emphasis on starting to. And if you do not read/speak multiple languages, you have the same problem as with historical sources. I have a small stack of German anthropology/archaeology books because none of the material is available in English yet.

    1. Point being, sometimes non-history sources may provide the info and details you need when histories are not available/so biased we don’t even know how biased they are.

    2. The question I have is, what if one doesn’t have access to primary sources? I have memories of a discussion happening (I think on ATH) where a lot of libraries were going ‘general trends’ and a lot of the older books being sent to landfills. I’ve visited a few public libraries here and at least 1 TAFE one, and most of the content was pretty generic, with some relevant manuals for courses offered at the TAFE. My own personal library is probably more extensive, but I wouldn’t consider any of the books I have ‘primary sources.’

        1. I battled mightily with the spam bin, fought off SEO booster spams and untangled the clutching lines from another spam that really shouldn’t be offering that sort of thing in public, and put it back into comments! …Where it now appears as a top-level comment, instead of a reply to Shadowdancer.

          WordPress Delenda Est!

  2. I scurried around the room, frantically looking for something that could be used as a weapon. The only thing was the blunderbuss hanging over the mantle piece. I pulled it off, scraping my hand on the wire that was holding it in place. Checked to see, if by chance, it was still loaded. No such luck. But it was in good condition, still oiled up, and turned out to be a working reproduction, not an antique. Now we were getting somewhere!

    Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything on the mantle in the way of powder or projectiles. I started tearing through the drawers and cupboards of the cabinets in the room. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Just to be thorough, I checked the tops of the cabinets. Third one I checked I found a box of .308 bullets. Oh carp. You can’t use those in a muzzleloader. Or can you?

    Flash of inspiration. I pulled the bullets out of the shells and poured the powder down the muzzle. Then I tore a piece of my t-shirt, wrapped the bullets up in it, and rammed them down the barrel on top of the powder. Checked the pan and was rewarded with a small pile of powder in it. I pulled back the hammer, cocking the gun, and faced the door. Big hairy monster was about to get an unpleasant surprise.

      1. Actually, that depends on a couple of factors. How massive and strong the chamber and barrel are, how tightly the projectile is rammed down, even how big the touchhole is.

        Loading modern powder in shotgun shells with slugs or shot and firing them in old 8 ga. or 10 ga. shotguns designed for black powder, yeah, NOT a good idea.

        Modern replica blunderbuss with a half dozen bullets wadded into some cotton t-shirt material? Not going to be a problem. You’re not getting chamber pressure of 60,000 psi, and not going to get 3000 fps velocity out of them. Regular shotguns develop about 11,000 psi. Blunderbuss a lot less. You might get 800 to 1000 fps, which is going to put some hurt on the target, and given the alternative is being chewed up and killed by a monster, the risk is negligible.

        Of course I not only grew up shooting just about everything civilian under the Sun, and some military; I’ve also done stupid things like shoot tennis balls from cans using whatever powder was available, smokeless or black. So the experience is there, add some additional research, and it works.

        In the vignette’s case, the more likely result is too much blow by and not enough pressure to propel the bullets fast enough to cause serious damage. However, most living creatures, and probably some undead, don’t like getting a face full of hard objects and burning powder. So hero may not kill the monster, but it should give him some breathing room.

  3. I am curious. What led to the “loss” of your Byzantine novel? I ask for a reason.

    In the story I am writing, (have written?) one of the characters is in the habit of telling his sisters “bedtime stories.” As one of the young girls is determined to grow up to be a hooker, (He attempts to dissuade her, and wagers she will grow out of this childish fascination) her favorite bedtime stories are about the famous courtesans of various historical periods.

    So, one night, he tells the story of Justinian’s wife Theodora, who, when younger, was a stage actress, which means she was very likely a “kept woman” at some point. So, the story of Theodora and the Nika riots is a story the sister ate up. “How a Teenage Hooker saved the Byzantine Empire for a Thousand Years.”

    1. I don’t recall exactly- it was a few years ago- but I vaguely remember reading up on the various people involved and thinking that I couldn’t turn any of them into a sympathetic character to form the basis of the novel. My skills just weren’t up to that sort of thing.

      Of course, the fact that I don’t remember probably means that I should take another crack at it. Someday. When I have time. And skills.

      1. The writers Eric Flint and David Drake wrote an interesting series of the Byzantine Empire, the protagonist being General Belisarius, who was Justinian’s best military guy. Worth reading if you have any interest in this admittedly hard to understand time of history.

          1. Also kinda amusing from a meta POV, especially if you’ve read Robert Graves’ novel, Count Belisarius. Drake makes extensive use of Procopius and his Secret History, whereas Graves just assumed everything Procopius said was a big fat political lie… if it was about Belisarius, anyway. He wasn’t so sure about the rumors about Theodora or Justinian.

            1. Procopius lost a lot of credibility with me with the things he claimed about Justinian. Walking around the palace without a head? A demon that never slept? Srsly?

          2. And David Drake’s second “Belisarius” based series: he did one called “The General” with S.M. Stirling with the serial numbers filed off. Six books in the main series, plus 3-4 other books that were only loosely connected. Good series though.

      1. You’re making me explain more than I wanted to relate. But y’all have way too active imaginations.

        The three kids are the result of a very happy, long-lasting marriage. Dad and Mom met when he was an enlisted man. She was dancing in a topless bar on Bourbon Street, and prolly turned a few tricks. They do not lie about the circumstances in which they met, but tell a sanitized, romantic version of their meeting. It’s actually a pretty touching love story.

        As a consequence, the youngest daughter has grown up with a romanticized, idealized version of her mother’s life story. (Think Pretty Woman.) With childlike stars in her eyes, she is thinking she will follow in her mother’s platform heels, and grow up to be a dancer/escort. Her family finds this amusing, and is convinced she will outgrow this ambition.

        The “bedtime stories” are a direct outgrowth of Mom and Dad’s inviolable habit of reading each night to their kids when they were babies. Any lubricious nuances are a direct result of your twisty little minds.

        Young hooker wannabe is a fan of “Fallen Women” fairy tales like Theodora’s, Bad Girl makes Good Horatio Alger (Whoreratio? sorry, couldn’t resist.) type stories. So Son scours history to find such stories when it’s his turn to pull Story Night duty. These story interludes are part of the reason this novel is more accurately termed a framing tale.

  4. Primary sources or memoirs or letters are awesome. Reading how common soldiers or such lived a typical existence is interesting. Or how the founder of the Hudson Bay Company managed to travel so far and survive the wilds of North America and Hudson’s Bay. Language and translation sometimes are rather interesting. A good translator will highlight odd language or footnote it with how and why he translated a certain passage or phrase the way he did. Have to find more memoirs to read, just because.
    (oh and the great thing about memoirs is it will get you into the frame of the era sometimes you want to try writing in)

  5. But Blake, we don’t need to study history, we have Wikipedia!

    Don’t laugh. I’ve heard someone say that. And I’m reasonably certain they weren’t joking.

        1. Same here. (I can understand wanting to update ebooks for typos, errors, etc, but I’m a suspicious little thing and am cheerfully paranoid on a regular, normal day.

          Plus, I’ve lived in places where blackouts were, and can still be a regular occurrence. Candle + book = not bored. The only time I’m ever bored is when my head hurts too much to let me think, never mind open eyes or read…

      1. And I’ve never dropped an encyclopedia in the toilet. Can’t say the same about an e-reader or phone.

  6. The stuff the writer mentions that is not his purpose is about as unbiased as you can get.

    Sometimes you are really luck. Aelfric was an Anglosaxon monk who wrote a Colloquy to help the novices with their conversational Latin. He wrote on the topic of occupations. Every book I’ve read on life in Anglosaxon England goes into it, heavily. Because he had minimal axe-grinding in what he said about occupations.

  7. I’m considered OK at research, I have the advantage of being taught how to read research and write it. However, saying that, a caveat. Research is only as good as it’s sources, and even primary research can suck. That’s the non-technical description of primary sources without validation of supporting references, which means that research is only as good as the foundations it is built on.

    Currently, I’m writing a series of interlinked stories where I’m researching what I need on the fly. Mostly because if I stop to do the research I won’t be able to meet my goals of writing new words each day. This ride has been interesting, for obvious reasons, and because as one progresses along, little pieces of research fall into place.

    On a good day that leads to serendipitous things like finding out certain names have an extra layer of resonance that will add to the story. On other days one finds that two transliterations that look different mean the same thing.

    Oh well, live and learn. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning new stuff.

  8. To answer Shadowdancer’s question above: what do you do when you don’t have access to primary sources?

    1) Use interlibrary loan. I’m not being a smart-donkey. Depending on the source and the time period, you might be able to find things like collections of translated writings (Roman stuff for example – inscriptions, monuments, coins, extant documents), diaries, monastic chronicles, Chinese bureaucratic documents or oracle-bone writings… Look in university catalogues or WorldCat, and then try ILL. Some things don’t travel, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what is available.

    2) Try the digitized Vatican archives. They are amazing, but with the caveat that you need to be up on Latin and a few other languages.

    3) Good secondary sources. There are paper-compilations, Festschrifts, and other things that draw on primary source material and are heavily annotated and footnoted. Academic articles, and you can ILL those. Some university libraries allow the public to read materials in the stacks, or use their special collections, without being affiliated with the university, so long as you give them proper credit and follow their rules.

    3a) Good popular secondary sources. Personal example. I bought Barry Cunliffe’s big work on the development of culture in Eurasia. Then I mined the footnotes, found a lot of things that looked useful to something I was working on (an academic paper) and ILLed the monographs and paper collections. ILL costs $3/book for postage up here, and is a lot better than shelling out $$$ for a conference collection with two papers that you are interested in. I don’t know if you can ILL e-books, for those whose university systems might not participate in the system.

    4) Ask an academic. Contact someone who specializes in the area you are interested in, politely introduce yourself via e-mail, explain your interest, and ask if there are any sources they might recommend. This works especially well if you have read some of their papers or one of their books. Compliment their work, tell them about your project, and don’t be surprised if they make some recommendations. If they say no, you tried. CAVEAT: some university e-mail systems auto-block .aol and .hotmail addresses, so your request will not reach anyone.

    1. Good answer, thank you (I asked this primarily because I’ve noticed that public libraries are going ‘General Interest’; which is hugely different from the old days of ‘going to the library to look stuff up.’)

      I’m rather regretting now NOT studying Latin – I had the option of doing so and was discouraged by the parents who ‘saw no use in my wasting time with a dead language’ – I wish they’d let me also learn Russian. The discouragement came when I was very young.

      I wonder if Inter-library loans work internationally – specifically to Australia, famous for the ‘screw you, wrong side of the world shipping costs.’ (I’ve been wanting to order Larry Elmore’s artbooks, but tallied the costs at shipping was twice as much as the cost of the books; and Amazon is sort of meh over here because of shipping still costing an arm and a leg…)

      …I had more but I’m losing the ability to think thanks to wrong-sleeping-position neck-muscle strain migraine/tension headaches. (It’s been like this for a solid week now and it’s been severely limiting my time sitting upright.

      Still, it’s a relief that secondary sources can be okay, if they are good and have lots of footnotes and annotations that could direct one to further research.

  9. The lovely book called Ship of Gold in a Deep Blue Sea included intense research into every newspaper findable from 1857 after the sinking of a ship full of gold off the Carolinas. The research was all in service of finding said ship but the stories that ended up being told were amazing and full of details of life then. Want to know how to save the life of someone who was shipwrecked and has drifted for eight or ten days with nothing to eat? Read the book.

  10. I’d go so far as to recommend Ancestry, Family Search, My Heritage, Scotland’s People, British History Online, and tons of other original source repositories, digital and otherwise. There are map repositories, (One interesting one is Booth Poverty maps that show where people of certain incomes lived in London during the Victorian era, color coded by level. Newspapers are awesome too for recent history. Rumsey map collection. Lots of resources

  11. About translation: I acquired a history book entitled The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. It’s about Dutch Manhattan, and comes about because somebody finally bothered to properly translate the 16th-century Dutch records of the time. Which had apparently never been done before; an incomplete and inaccurate translation is the reason they used to say that the island of Manhattan was bought for $24 and a string of beads. The local tribe was not nearly so stupid; the sum involved was much higher, even prior to inflation, and was more closely related to a long-term lease, with one of the terms being “and we can come and have you throw us a party with lots of food on a regular basis.” (Manhattan had been a hunting preserve, basically.)

    Everybody assumed that those 16th-century documents had a) been completely translated, and b) didn’t have anything interesting, since they must have been accurately translated. I highly recommend the foreword of how they did get translated, because it basically involves a guy with a degree in 16th-century Dutch going to a conference and saying, what do I do now? to a person specifically looking for an expert in 16th-century Dutch. And that took care of 20 years his life…

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