I am often asked, “What sort of research went into your story to bring it to life so vividly?”
The truth is months or even years of research. If I do not acquaint myself with the ins and outs of the periods I write about, how will I take readers back in time with me?
So where does an author start the research? What sort of research goes into a novel?
Gustave Flaubert (1821-80), the author of Madame Bovary, wrote, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” God is in the details. I find this to be true every time I begin a sentence in a novel.
I will demonstrate this with an exercise. We are writing a story together. The place is Greenwich Palace, the year is 1518, King Henry VIII has been on the throne for nine years. Our hero is an ambitious, out-of-town knight who has come to court to fight in the tournaments.
Page 1, Chapter One, first line: Hero wakes up in the morning.
What time is it? What does he see? What does he do? What does he think? And which words does he use in his thought process? In a modern day story, we would not be bothered by such trivialities. The hero wakes up in bed. His watch says 8:15 AM. He goes into the bathroom to shower, shave, brush his teeth, relieve himself, etc., and then pulls on a pair of pants.
Easy writing, boring events — unless this is all a setup, and our hero will soon find out that while he was sleeping, the world outside was destroyed by hostile aliens.
In our story, however, the historical details are the setup. Our words will draw the reader into the hero’s world. If we do our job well, the reader will suspend his disbelief and follow the hero into a passionate, thrilling adventure, Tudor style, without leaving the sofa. Our next challenge will be writing a gripping story that will hold on to our reader and not let go. However, if the reader does not get a feeling of the place right off the start, he or she may feel cheated, lose interest, and exchange our novel for one with a richer, more believable setting.
The same rule applies to movies. We will believe anything so long as the camera does not tilt aside to reveal the studio behind the Temple of Doom. If we catch a glimpse of a man in a baseball cap crossing a medieval battle scene, we will immediately assume the movie is a farce. And if it isn’t a parody, we will deem it a poorly done movie. We will not cry for the heroine if we see her makeup artist standing on the sideline, waiting to do touch-ups.
To preserve integrity, the author needs to know everything about the hero and everything about the world the hero inhabits. Not every detail will find its way to the final draft, but the author needs to know it before he or she can decide if it is important enough to be inserted into the text.
So back to our hero. He has just opened his eyes. What does he see? How does a Tudor chamber look like? Did people have private chambers or did they share? How can he tell the time? Did they have clocks in the room? Was 8:15 in the morning considered 8:15 then or did they have a different method for telling time? In ancient Rome, six o’clock in the morning was the first hour of the day. What was the rule in Tudor England? Also, did they have bathrooms inside their apartments, if at all? Did they have running water? Do not assume that they didn’t, because actually several of King Henry’s palaces did have water pipes and drainage, and the proper term for a bathroom was a garderobe. We should also determine if people cleaned their teeth in the morning and if so how. Otherwise, we won’t be able to pen a single word.
The simplest detail becomes a mystery. We cannot dismiss what we don’t know as unimportant, because the novel will lose its historical flavor, and worse, the story will come to a standstill. We cannot write what we don’t know, and we cannot invent the answers. The Tudor court, although alien to us, did exist. Writing about it is much like writing a sci-fi novel, only the rules were invented by others and are scattered haphazardly in dusty places, like libraries and museums.
The historical fiction novelist wears two hats: the storyteller and the historian. Every word must be checked, because back in 1518 they had different . . . everything! Even the English language was different. People in 1518 did not ask, “What time is it?” They asked, “What o’clock?” Men did not wear pants; they wore hoses or trunkhoses over stocks or strosses. They did not ask, “How are you?” or “What’s up?” They asked, “How now?” or “What news?” Cheating on your spouse was called a “love intrigue” — a standard occurrence considering that most marriages were loveless, and the English people were an unblushing lot when it came to lust. And so forth.
Some readers stumble over period language, others expect it. Finding the perfect formula that appeals to everyone is another great challenge.
Now let me complicate our experiment. History stops in the year 1518. Nothing beyond this point is usable. What’s more, not everything prior to this point was common knowledge in England of 1518. A great deal of the antiquity had been lost and not yet unearthed. Our job is to ascertain what our hero knows and how he came by the information. The deeper we go in the story, more questions will arise: How did they pass the time? What were the rules of jousting — and of courting? What games of hazard did they play and how? Who was who? What was what? How did they eat, dress, and curse? The multi-use F word was not in circulation in 1518. It was barely in existence.
By this point you must be thinking, “What a whole lot of boring work.” Still, wouldn’t you like to know about prisons, bawdy houses, poisons, intrigues, bloody battles, the secret lives of women, and love rituals of the past? Remember, God is in the details. Historical documentation is the author’s treasure trove. One never knows which detail will inspire a shocking twist or a riveting scene that will come to life on the pages and create a great moment.
©2009 Rona Sharon, author of Royal Blood
Rona Sharon is the author of critically acclaimed historical novels of intrigue, passion, and danger. Her latest, Royal Blood, is a tale of lust and violence in the treacherous Tudor Court. From her home on the Mediterranean Coast in Tel Aviv, surrounded by thousands of years of history, Rona brings her passion for culture and travel to her writing and never fails to deliver a story that carries a punch . . . and a dagger.