I’ve never felt more like a true historian than when I’m doing research for a piece of historical fiction.
That may sound strange, sacrilegious even, considering that I’m an actual History student in my final year at Universirty, who has spent the past two months writing a 12,000 word academic dissertation and pouring over 18th century documents in restricted archive sections. But all of that paled into nowt as I read the accounts needed to ensure the accuracy of the short story I’ll (hopefully) be posting tomorrow.
When people talk about doing research for their historical fiction an image is conjured of someone who pours over dates and places and the names of rulers and battles. The reality is that sort of stuff is simple to check (clue: Wikipedia). Real research for the historical novelist involves delving into the stuff that the vast majority of academic works simply pass over – what time middle-class gentlemen usually sat down to breakfast in 17th century England, what Boston smelt like at the turn of the 19th century, how heavy a full suit of plate armour was.
I find that attempting a fictional retelling of true events focuses the mind wonderfully. For example, the short story I recently wrote deals with a real-life skirmish at Monck’s Corner during the American Revolution. I have never read a history book that appropriated more than a paragraph to describing this event, which saw almost fifty people killed or wounded. But looking back at primary sources, desperate to pick apart every scrap of information, I found myself assimilating far more than I would have with a cursory academic fact-check; the timing of events, the nature of the surrounding countryside and, my personal favourite, looking at portraits and trying to come up with fitting adjectives to describe the character’s features. None of this would fall within the purview of the academic historian. But by burying myself in day-to-day minutiae I feel as though I’ve built a closer link with the past than I’ve ever experienced with my formal studies.
So if you want to get under history’s skin, try writing about an event from people’s perspectives, rather than just reading about it.