In my article, Writing Resources: Part I – What’s in Your Toolbox, I explored some must-haves for writers writing any kind of fiction. In this article, I’ll talk about some of the nitty gritty of setting a novel during a specific moment in time. Writing historical fiction in any genre adds an interesting layer of research to the process. But every single historical fiction writer out there will have a different view on when to step away from fact and let the fiction take over.
I’ve set my Highland Chiefs series in Highland Scotland during the early fifteenth century and during the reign of James Stewart, first of his name. So I needed research in a couple of areas: the political climate of Scotland during that reign, and how people, especially the nobles, thrived.The first book I encountered gave me the political vein which hooked me to create the backdrop for the entire series. Scotland: The Story of a Nation, by Magnus Magnusson is not only a really good resource, it’s an interesting read. That’s not always the case with history books. I love this one. Love the author’s logic in describing the events placing James Stewart I on the throne of Scotland and also those leading up to his assassination. From there, creating characters and a love story was not difficult at all.
I know some writers create stories from the character up. I write from the piece of history which inspired me and place characters in the setting to see what they would do. Every writer’s process is different and that’s part of what makes writing so fascinating to me.At one point, I’d been chatting with an editor who suggested my heroine wouldn’t have had the means or opportunity to read. That didn’t sound quite right and so I researched women reading and writing in the middle ages.
Me when I think I’m right about something = Dog + Bone.
The really nice part of this story is that I happened across Christine De Pizan (1364 – 1430) who is considered by many historians as one of the first feminist writers. I picked up a copy of The Book of the City of Ladies and was hooked! I couldn’t stop there though, and so I also picked up a copy of Medieval Women’s Writing. This part of my historical research was very enlightening and rather humbling. As a female writer today, I don’t have any barrier to publishing novels besides my own ability and willingness to put in the necessary effort to write a story folks will want to read. I am very fortunate.
Finding the political backdrop was the easiest part of the whole process. The next phase of the research is not yet complete by a long shot. I’ve purchased more books on how people lived, loved, and died and will continue to add to that collection. Why? Because a great deal of history of that nature was written by the French. They? Nailed it. So I’ve had to make a leap from what I read in those books, couple with what I know about the Scotland and apply it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
That challenge remains.
A really fun part of the research has been using my little Merriam-Webster android app. If I’m not sure of the origin of a word and if it’s appropriate to use in a fifteenth century historical romance, I simply pop it in my app and am then told when the word was first used. Websites like the Online Etymology Dictionary are helpful as well, but I like my MW app.
So what have I learned? That I’ll never stop learning and how fabulous is that? Below is a list of the books referenced above plus some others I’ve read through. If you have any specific questions about them, feel free to pop me an email or leave a comment.
Scotland: The Story of a Nation
Medieval Life: Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages
A History of Private Life Volume II
Medieval Women’s Writing
Medieval Costume and Fashion
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases
The Book of the City of Ladies