Research: down in the weeds

Since I’ve just finished a historical fantasy novel (the one I’ve been calling Book of Secrets, but now it’s Shadow of the Crescent) set in Italy and Constantinople in 1480-81, I enjoyed the recent column here on historical fiction and had so many thoughts that I decided to save them for a separate post instead of flooding the comment section.

If you don’t like doing research, or can’t at least tolerate research, historical fiction and its offshoots are probably not for you.

And if you love doing research, it’s all too easy to fall down the rabbit hole. I’ve got enough background information for two more books set in Renaissance Italy; all I have to do is come up with a couple more plots. And my family is very grateful that, at least for the time being, I’ve stopped looking up from my research materials to share some intriguing details about ganching, or the use of a hanged man’s skull, or the reason some alchemical recipes require that you bury a bottle in a heap of manure for a specified time.

if you want to do something set in a popular time and place—Tudor England, Regency England, the US West, WWI Western Front—you need to do enough digging to get it right.

And the less popular the time and place, the harder it can be to get those details. For this book, I had a plethora of information on Renaissance Italy, but you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get descriptions of Constantinople between the conquest in 1453 and the period of Suleiman the Magnificent. I did a lot of extrapolating from 16th century sources, deleting buildings known to have been built after my target year and borrowing details that probably didn’t change much. If I read Turkish I would have had access to a few more sources, but I wasn’t willing to delay the writing of the book for a couple of years while I learned Turkish. Creative vagueness can be helpful here.

One of my rules of thumb is that the harder it is to find certain details, the more likely you’re going to be able to fudge things. By collating several sources I was able to put together a detailed chronology of Turkish attacks on Italian states during the 1470’s and 1480’s, but I gambled that my readers wouldn’t notice that I changed that chronology slightly to suit the plot. Granted, if I were writing military history I probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with that.

…getting into the mental world of a different time and place can be very hard.

I found that letters, diaries, travelers’ notes and other first-person accounts were helpful here… although, as Alma says, the farther back you go, the trickier it becomes. Fortunately all I had to do was meet readers’ probable expectations of characters from this period, while accepting that actual condottieri, necromancers, or Janissaries would probably fall over themselves laughing at all the stuff one inevitably gets wrong.

And if you guys want to point and giggle, I’ll let you know when the book is available on Amazon.

14 thoughts on “Research: down in the weeds

  1. The book sounds intriguing. I try to review one fantasy/SF book each month. If I could get an advance copy, I can post the review about the time it comes out. (Assuming you let me know the release date and there isn’t anything better that month.) Ask Sarah Hoyt or Dave Freer how to get in touch with me.

    I don’t guarantee a review of any book sent me, but I do guarantee if I do review a book the review will be positive. I view my role as recommending books to my readers, and there are still enough good books around that I can do a weekly review on that basis.

    1. Thank you! I don’t think I have your address; email me at margaretball7 at gmail dot com?

  2. My family also gets a little cross about my love of sharing offbeat details, and mine aren’t nearly as offbeat!

    1. I’m fortunate that the other folks at RedQuarters are historian-minded, so bouncing cool bits off of them doesn’t cause as much eye rolling and yawning as it might.

      1. My husband’s military-history-minded, so he gets his revenge by telling me details of naval battles I never heard of. And one daughter wallows in true crime stories. I really don’t think they have room to complain.

  3. And the less popular the time and place, the harder it can be to get those details.

    Oooh, boy, can I sympathize with this one! I have a romance novel set in the Edwardian Era, and as far as I can tell, no library in the state has any books on day-to-day life in that time. I ended up having to substitute the latest Victorian stuff I could find, hoping that the differences between 1899 and 1904 weren’t actually that big.

    And I suspect that, if I can’t find any books on the subject, very few other people can, and no one save a handful of subject matter experts is going to be bothered by anything I got wrong. But I’m bothered, darn it, and I really wish I could have found the right research materials. However, if I’d waited for those, I’d still be waiting to start the book.

    1. It will self-combust if the pile is large enough, and conditions are correct. It smells as bad as you’d imagine. (Although a burning hay bale almost rivals it. Almost.)

      1. They used to collect ammonium nitrate from dung-heaps to make gunpowder. If there’s enough of that under the burning pile, it might explode. That would be interesting.

  4. I overflow with irrelevant details. I irregularly post long lists of irrelevant historical details to my blog, in interests of getting them out.

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