There are so many historical times and places that fascinate me – Ancient Rome and Egypt, Medieval England and France, Renaissance Italy…I’ll be the first to admit some are more interesting to me than others. I’ve always been less interested in American history than other places (sorry, I have to admit it!). But for every rule there are exceptions. I love New Orleans as a city, and the same for neighborhoods in San Fransisco. There is fascinating history eveerywhere you look if you look hard enough.
So how do I find historical times and places in which to set my stories? I start with a general idea of what I’m looking for and hope to find a set of historical circumstances where a story can fit!
I start here. I know I will be looking for a specific time (Medieval era), a specific place (Jerusalem), which in this case translates to a historical era (The Crusades). In this time period there will be notable historical figures (Richard the Lionheart, Saladin) and organizations (The Knights Templar – first they existed in this time and then they were destroyed, both exist as possibilities).
There’s a legend about the Templars and the Holy Grail (here’s an artifact of interest).
There’s also a legend of Robin Hood being a disinherited earl because he left his lands behind to (you guessed it) go on Crusade. Between what is real history and the stories, there’s already a lot here.
These are really fun books – says every history buff ever. They tend to be big volumes ranging from the beginning of history to a certain cutoff date, and then they’re organized to provide a high level overview of history by eras (like The Age of Exploration) or by a specific country (think China or Japan or Russia), with general historical trends discussed and mentions of important happenings, dates, and historic players in the mix.
Depending on what you look for online you can find anything from a 100,000 foot view to fan pages of a time period that are in the weeds. These volumes are fairly solidly between 20,000 and 50,000 feet – broad trends highlighted with specifics to find more information later.
I inherited this book from my Dad – it’s an older version, but I use it a lot to look things up as I do historical research. It’s still a basic resource I’ll turn to for both brainstorming new ideas and researching specifics on a time period.
The Smithsonian’s resources are fantastic – well put together and easy to use. I collect these books just because, and I don’t turn down a sale on a Smithsonian book, EVER. Worth every penny.
Just because a resource looks like it might be designed for a younger audience doesn’t mean it won’t be easy to use or have great information. These books make it easy to find information quickly, and some authors work to find interesting facts to add to hook young readers on history.
I’m as not as big a fan of the “visual” history or timetables type of references. I find sometimes that they are hard to read FOR ME – it’s a preference thing. There are plenty of resources focusing on the visual over a lot of words on the page and they can have interesting information as well, depending on what actions or activities the author calls out as significant.
And here’s the exception to the rule. I had a high school history teacher who did a map test with every class he taught (I did NOT do well, by the way), but I do love maps – and there’s a lot of information contained in a single image or image series with maps. These resources are great – especially for things like military history or technical items like ships or how things work!
So you saw with my initial keywords that I gave for my Crusades for Cristendom example search. Between names and locations, organizations and legends, there’s no shortage of keywords for me to use. I typically start with a brief brainstorm to get started and follow the breadcrumbs, tracking the items I find as I go in EverNote, which allows me to keep pages by topic all in one place. I can clip notes on books, web pages, articles, or whatever else I might find and keep those information tidbits organized.
General sources like Wikipedia or encyclopedias or the time tables of history usually refer back to more specific resources – and then voila, that gives me a list of books and articles that in turn will list even more in-depth references, if I need to go that far. I prefer to do a big search first and gather as many resources up front as I can, and then I can return to find specific facts of interest if I need to.
The more “in the weeds” the information gets, the more likely I am to go looking for a secondary source to confirm the veracity of the initial fact. There’s nothing wrong with tracking down sources, even for something as “lightweight” as historical fiction!
I think I became a historical romance writer because I get to buy writing books, and romance writing books, and historical research books, and history books – of course I am very happy to live near my local library and the library system has a free “Ask a Librarian” service where I assemble my questions and we go through them, whether it’s requesting out of system resources, or finding the information I need about Viking settlements on Greenland or whatever else I need to know.
Here’s where what I need to know starts getting close enough to the weeds where I need specific information – like “Who were the Knights Templar and why did the Pope banish them?” or “How did you get to be a Knight of the Cross, etc.” especially since the idea is to tempt the last poor Templar left in Jerusalem and seduce him to the Dark Side of the Force. If someone joined for a trip to the Holy Land or because he was a second son, that’s an easier argument than if he’s a poor boy who genuinely believes.
I purchased this book to be my general introduction to the Crusades. I also purchased one from the same publisher on the Knights Templar. They are general and provide more of an overview, but they fit in my budget – and I’m guessing I’ll be revisiting this time and place again so it’s not just about the Crusade for Christendom this year.
If money were no object I would probably buy this hardback to make it easy to have permanently available for research purposes – instead I will be first looking at it as an interlibrary loan, and then I’ll evaluate a purchase, most likely on Kindle. I am old school and prefer to actually read a book instead of an ebook, but that’s a preference I will happily overlook once I can evaluate and confirm the quality of the resource.
This is another quick summation of the entire history of the Crusades, covering several hundred years of history. This might be a worthy addition to a crusader collection, but the first real question to ask is “How many books on the Crusades does one writer really need?”
This is a paperback, but it’s also a text book, which puts it at an automatic disadvantage, as it will be more expensive to buy. Also, depending on the quality of the scholarship, textbooks can simply quote other textbooks.
When vetting resources for purchase I look for a volume that meets certain criteria:
After all this, I will say it – I try to avoid buying books that are so specific they only cover one series, or element of life in ancient times, or whatever. I don’t want to become an expert in Medieval weapons on Crusade – I want a history of weapons from rocks to ICBMs that has a special Crusades chapter in it.
Instead, I spend a certain amount on high-quality history magazines like these:
Nerd again, I get my magazine and it’s always interesting, but sometimes they mesmerize me with the subject matter – it’s that good. The writing is stellar, the photos are stunning, the subject matter is mostly in my wheelhouse, there is no downside here!
The same is true of Smithsonian Magazine – these are the best of the best for providing a high-level consumer experience explaining historical topics. What do we know, what don’t we know, what do we think we know, what are scientists trying to find out? It’s a great read for adults and kids both.
I look for information on my history topics of interest by creating Google alerts for them. Weekly I get results delivered to my inbox – there usually isn’t a huge amount, but sometimes great minds think alike and there might be an article while I’m working on a project on that same topic. With an alert, I don’t have to spend a lot of time searching after I’ve generated that first initial set of keywords that brought back solid content. Plug those items in, create an alert, and then Google does the work for me – I can even program all my alert emails to go into a special folder where they will wait for me to be aboe to get to them if I haven’t had a chance because I’m working on something else.
The same authors tend to follow the same topics over time – I include writers who specialize in the eras I’m interested in as keywords in my alerts and I either get new articles they’ve written, or announcements of new publications of anthologies or compilations of their old articles. Sometimes they write their own books as well, that instantly become must haves for my bookshelf.
All of these resources are secondary – someone else writing about the time and place. Primary resources are direct historical documents or artifacts from the time and place under study. The Magna Carta is one primary resource used frequently in historical English research. There are also special techniques for studying primary resources. One thing I found out doing collegiate historical research was that the surviving documents that were deemed important from certain meetings of lords in England were copied – and “important” witness names were signed and recopied to the new documents, where the total listing was usually truncated. And why is that important? Because during the Black Death suddenly different names arrive on the documents from the time – presumably because the old important family representatives are gone (they either fled the Plague or died).
For my historical fiction usually I don’t go this far into the weeds, but there are definitely places where I can see where a first person narrative or more detailed historical research would be required to bring the flavor of the era and the action to life. I always make note of the primary resources I find while doing other research, and that’s where experts and my local library (especially university libraries) can be really useful – they have both what I’m looking for and the experts to help me find and interpret the documentation!
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