Sunday, 28 October 2012

A piece of historical theory you need to know

The problem when doing any kind of history is deciding on what it all means. You have all these individual facts, but what's the story? What's the message? What meaning jumps out of them at you? If you don't have some kind of analysis... well, the only way you can do that is by making a dry list, which won't be much use to your novel or historical work.

Historians used to think that the meaning would just come out of the facts at them. That they would somehow understand the underlying truth of it all if they just stared long enough. There's a problem with that, which is essentially that the meaning you get is the meaning you bring with you. I'm not talking about bias. I'm talking about the simple division between historical fact, which happened, and what those facts mean, which is made up by the historian to explain the facts.

Every time you make a historical judgement, you insert yourself into the picture. Every time you find a pattern, you again. Every time you focus on one aspect rather than another, or decide that one thing is more important, that's you. Even if you think you aren't doing much with the history, just finding background details for a novel... well, which background details are important enough to include? What attitudes do you choose to show? What bits of history are you commenting on through their inclusion?

Accept that while facts are facts, the story at the heart of your history is made up. Now accept that there is nothing wrong with that. Life gets easier once you do.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Historical Research for Writers: Archives

When doing historical research, you may find that you want to work with original documents. There are many reasons for this. It represents the most effective way of doing high quality research, and the only way that avoids being derivative of others. It is necessary for anything academic. It also gives you a much more direct insight into the time you're playing around with. So, how do you do it?

First, find your archival source. Many have transcripts online these days, from census records to even quite obscure sources such as medieval fight books and official charters. Project Gutemburg has a lot, while general sites on areas of expertise will often be able to point you in the direction of more. Forums can be your friend here, as people will often post links or upload copies of out of copyright documents.

If it isn't online, you may need to visit in the flesh. That means finding where to go. In the UK, the National Archives keep records of many public archives throughout the country, along with their contents. General books on the topic may contain references to key archival sources in their bibliographies, along with their locations. A little travelling can bring you face to page with anything from fourteenth century minster charter collections to an original Domesday Book. Generally, they get the cushions in the archives. You don't. Getting access is mostly a question of asking, then possibly paying a fee for access to the library.

Consider whether you really need or want the original. If you're doing serious academic research, then yes, it's a good idea to check for charters people might have missed, or phrases they might have mis-translated. Otherwise, you might find that books of collected primary sources might be just as good, if not better. They still give you access to words from the past, but suddenly, you might not need to learn Latin, or learn to read seven hundred year old handwriting. Plus, sources from several places can be collected together. Generally, there are series for major sources of archival material, such as the Admiralty, the royal pipe rolls, archiepiscopal papers, etc, as well as one off volumes for individual institutions, often produced by regional historical societies. Large university libraries will usually have many of them, or will at least know where they can be found.

Finally, keep your objectives in mind when reading them. It can be fun to go through aimlessly, but the danger is that the wealth of material can make it easy to be overwhelmed. Ask questions of the archival material instead. Literally write out a set of questions, and search for sources that could answer them.

Remember to think about why the sources were written. We get a lot of material from old trials, for example, because they tend to be some of the few records ordinary people show up in for some medieval towns. The danger is that we then think that medieval people were a bunch of criminals. Think about who was writing it and why. Then think of all the uses you can put it to that have nothing to do with what they intended. Charters, for example, are sometimes more interesting for who was there as a witness than for their content, because they help to place important people in particular places at particular times.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Historical Research for Writers

I thought, since my PhD is in history, and I'm currently working on a project based around modern history for a client, that I might take a moment or two to reflect on ways writers can go about historical research. It's useful whenever you have something set in the past, or when you want to bring in historical references. It is, I think, essential for most fantasy writers, who often neglect the fact that culturally, they are writing some sort of generalised European Middle Ages without fully understanding how things fit together. I think I'm going to have to do this in several parts, so for now, I'm just going to look at some general priciples, for those people who don't know where to start.

  1. Get a general overview. Historical research is like doing a jigsaw where each piece is composed of smaller pieces, which are in turn composed of smaller pieces, which are... you get the idea. You can end up doing one corner of things without understanding the implications if you don't get a broader view. A general textbook, or even Wikipedia, may help.
  2. Work out what you need to know. My PhD contains a reference to herring renders in Domesday Book, not so much because medieval canons were big on herring, as because I'd found it interesting and come up with a way to get it in. There's a danger in any historical research that you get sidetracked by research into civil war hats when you should be looking up the battles, or vice versa.
  3. Check the date of your history books. Some of the 'classic' history books you may remember are fifty years old, Or more. Opinions change, as does the information available to historians. It's easier to start with something more modern. Not least because the modern ones will reference all the older ones if they're an academic text, letting you use it as a guide to everything else you need to read.
  4. Don't rely on one book. If you only read one, you don't know if this is the one proposing a radical and ultimately flawed view that no one really subscribes to. And make sure you read books, as well as just websites. Most websites on history are done by enthusiastic amateurs who don't necessarily know as much as specialists in the field.
  5. Do (just) enough. You need to do enough research to be authentic, but for most novels, you don't need to know every last detail.
  6. Get access to primary sources if you're doing a work of history, or even if not. Archives will have them, and many will be available online (project Gutemburg for example). They will give you a feel for the time much more quickly than many textbooks, even if they only cover a very narrow range of things.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Where Does Your Villain Live?

If you have villains, baddies, or just general antagonists in your story, then presumably they have to live somewhere. Or, if not live, at least show up somewhere for your heroes to interact with them. But where? After all, piranha filled volcanoes aren’t that easy to get hold of these days.


Actually, that’s sort of the first point, which is that the location should be appropriate for the individual concerned. That should be true in both practical and symbolic terms. The practical ones are “could this character get hold of this location or show up in it?” A slightly miserly neighbour, for example, is not going to have his own Tower of Doom (unless he’s been watching the pennies to save for it) but he might have a bungalow. A firm of accountants probably wouldn’t work out of a magical world (unless they were were-accountants, forced to do tax returns every full moon), but they might work out of a block of Georgian offices.


Notice that they’re specifically Georgian offices. Now, what about if they worked out of modern glass fronted ones, or an office above a shop? Don’t those things immediately tell you something about the accountants concerned? The same should be true of the locations you pick for your antagonists. I’m not necessarily saying that their home should look like it belongs to the Addams Family, but it should always say something about them.


Sometimes, of course, what it says is that they’re very good at fitting in. The villain who lives in a sweet little house just like the hero’s can be an interesting trope too.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Rules and Regulations

Villains and creators of villains, I would like to draw your attention to some of the new League of Ultimate Evil (UE) regulations floating about (not to mention those spherical things with all the eyes. Who put those there?) Failure to comply with them could result in exposure to liability, or at least to the Big Red Eye’s gaze of doom.


1.      In response to a campaign from the Council for Elven Safety, it has been decreed that all dungeons, pits of doom and castles should provide protection for their little pointy ears. Noise in the workplace can be a real hazard. And if they happen not to notice your minions creeping up as a result, that’s their problem.

2.      Chronomancers, mad scientists and possessors of wormholes, please note that the latest UE working time directives limit the working week to no more than three hundred hours.

3.      Please note that night school qualifications are no longer acceptable for Stage Two and above Minion positions (Knight School ones may be, at the discretion of your Inhuman Resources department). Only degrees from accredited universities are appropriate for Stage Four and above. These include the University of General Griminess, Black Pit of Doom University, and the University of Hull. No, we don’t know why either.

4.      Blades of Infinite Sharpness must now be clearly labelled “caution, may be sharp” in elven runes. Alternatively, corks for the end may be provided.

5.      All Things must be correctly classified according to type. If you need assistance with this, UE qualified inspectors will be happy to help, though they would appreciate it if you were happy to help them after they’re eaten by the Things.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

IWSG:Three Things

This is for the insecure writers support group. There are two or three things that are hard for me when it comes to writing at the moment, but it's the way they interlink that makes things really tricky. The first is simple workload. Because I do this for a living, I have to write at a rate that is like doing Nanowrimo every month. It should be good that I'm getting the work, but truthfully, I've reached the stage where I've had to cut back a couple of clients just to keep things manageable.

The bigger danger that comes from this is that now so much of me is invested in writing. Writing is the main thing I do now, rather than a hobby, so when things go wrong with my writing, it's hard to keep a distance from them. Even simple things like edits or rejections feel like more than they used to, and that gets in the way, because perfectionism is one thing no writer can afford.

But what they feed into are moments when I wonder if it's all worth it. When I don't actually love writing, and then I feel guilty for not loving it. Because what's the one thing people always say when you tell them you write for a living? That it must be a great job. Must. There are moments I love, but there's a pressure that comes with the idea of doing this for a living, and it's the pressure that says if you don't love every minute, you're doing something wrong, or somehow not being grateful enough for the opportunity.