It's my last regular post of 2015, so I thought I'd go right back to basics and talk about research. And how the whole process of research has changed almost beyond recognition over the last couple of decades.
When I first started tinkering with the idea of writing historical fiction, I was ruled by a zealous desire to get right back to primary sources, to seek out the truth behind myth and assumption , to leave no stone unturned (and a thousand other clichés) and in the end to write a historically informed story.
This was back in the 1990s, and things were different then. Detailed research meant sifting physically through endless documents and charters, located in countless archives up and down the realm. Travelling to and from these archives cost money, and there was one slight problem.
I’d just been made unemployed, and I had no money.
But if I’d learned anything useful from working in the cultural heritage sector, it was that history isn’t exclusive to a few interesting places around the world. History is everywhere. People make history; it’s how they live their lives that’s the grist to any historical fiction writer’s mill.
Armed with that knowledge, I stepped outside my front door like some intrepid cub reporter and went in search of a story. I visited the local library, checked out the local history section and read through some of the antiquarian accounts for the area. I soon found inspiration in John, 1st Lord Sempill's rapid transformation in fortunes following the murder of King James III in 1488.
There followed an awful lot of research. But thankfully, life was made easier by the fact that our antiquarian friends in the Victorian and Edwardian eras had this wonderful habit of persuading old families to open their charter chests and allow the contents to be transcribed and translated. Many collections were subsequently published, but these invariably took the form of vast tomes which were usually released in very limited print runs. Consequently they tend to be found only in major reference libraries or in the reference sections of small local libraries.
Using these volumes is similar to the kind of detective work which underpins any kind of historical research. You find the period you’re particularly interested in, you seek out as many documents as you can, and you cross-reference exhaustively, until eventually you have the framework for a story. At the same time, you must keep an open mind to your findings, because the antiquarians don’t always get it right and sometimes you get conflicting information which you either evaluate objectively or deliberately favour, if it so happens to serve your storyline better. It’s great fun, but it’s also very, very time-consuming.
Generations of historians have pillaged this raw material for years, which means that it is possible to cut out the middle man and use secondary sources in preference to the original primary data. When I was writing Fire and Sword, I cottoned onto this pretty quickly. I was happy to put my faith in the work of certain historians, because I trusted both their academic integrity and their abilities, and I'm still convinced that their work has not yet been challenged. I don't think it's wrong to say that my historical fiction is as much a product of these secondary sources as it is the primary sources which relate to the actual events themselves, and to be honest, I don’t have a problem with this. I personally think historical fiction should be a reflection of the intellectual frameworks in place at the time of writing, because let's face it, we'll never know what really happened until someone invents a time machine.
At some point, I will be settling down to write a third book in the series. But next time, the research process will be very different. In recent years, there’s been something of a revolution in the way in which historical sources are accessed. I’m talking of course of the internet, and the ever-increasing range of digital resources which are available there.
I can now sit in the luxury and privacy of my study and surf the holdings of Scotland's national archives on-line. That means I can map the timelines of each and every character I’ve recreated for my novels in a level of detail which has hitherto been unthinkable. Many of the old genealogical volumes which I’d hunted for hours to find in countless libraries can also be downloaded free of charge.. The same is true for early mapping, and for a wide range of archaeological reports. In other words, there is no excuse for shoddy research!
Building a detailed but believable world is as crucial to historical fiction as it is to science fiction and fantasy. You’d think with all these resources to hand, creating such a world would be easy. Instead, the challenge may now be greater than ever. Before a writer can create something new and different and distinctive, their first task must be to sift through a veritable mountain of data and decide what is relevant and important. The data is not the end in itself: it is instead the starting point in a much more difficult exercise. That is, creating believable and sympathetic characters who represent individuals who once inhabited a world which was real, and physical.
You can’t do this in the warmth and comfort of your study. You have to take a deep breath, and step outside, into the real world. Then and only then can you apply what you've learned through your research in a more practical sense, experiencing the world as your characters once knew it and learning to see through their eyes so they can tell their own story in a convincing and believable way.