The hardships of documentation

Documenting yourself for a historical novel isn't easy. It takes some guts, lots of patience, and *organization*.

Guts, because you have to read lots and lots, about things you didn't know, or you thought you knew, but now are starting to realize you weren't even that close.

Patience because getting to the information isn't always easy. The further you go to the past, the hardest is getting reliable information. Any kind of useful information. Historical, archaeological, hoplological, cultural, linguistic, social . . . You name it, and I can show you what we don't know it's about 90% of what we think we could know about it, which will probably raise up to 99% once we dig a bit under the surface . . . Besides, once you have that information, you find that more is less, because your favourite historian of the time was, well, biased, and the next one gives completely different numbers, names, places or even events. What's right? What happened? Heh, that's where the fun really starts . . .

Organization because, well, you are dealing with zillions of facts, data, names, places, movements, situations, most of them unknown to you before the fact, and you must become *intimate* with them, or it won't work. *Organiçação* as the saying goes . . . *Get Things Done*? I wish I could . . . Anyway, complexity is my third agnomen (after Simius Excalibor, I am called Difficultas. OK, I am not, but you know how this works, right?), I'll manage . . . (I hope)

Lastly, it takes actually starting to write. Alaric? It will be in NaNoWriMo, next November. And I will finish it. I would like to. Not necessary (except for publication) but nice, nevertheless . . . It will be done, yeah.

*Bí go maith* (which is irish for "be good", now that's an official EU language, I can do a bit of a show of my habilities, ahem :-).


Alex Bordessa said...

Not to mention documenting the progess of the actual writing - words count, chapters, synopsis, motivations, goals, etc.

The trouble is with research, most of it won't show - or rather shouldn't, unless the writer is wanting to bog the reader down in historical facts, rather than the story. If they want want to concentrate purely on the history, then it's time to rethink and perhaps write a non-fiction tome. Many historical fiction authors find that research is more interesting than writing the novel. Some never get to put pen to paper from what I've heard, as there's alway another fact to chase!

I make sure I know the history, then let the story 'grow' from there. Even then, sometimes there are gaps, so I leave a space in the writing whilst I verify what *might* have happened (I do 5th/6th century Britain and there are very few 'givens', but a lot of 'maybes'!)

Good luck with your novel :-)

Excalibor said...


Indeed, documenting yourself may lure you into the depths of historical research, and you may never get out from there! It is also because we love History and its value to teach us that we do this crazy thing (I mean, we love to read and write, and doing crappy romance is probably easier, and you surely get some serious laughing in the process . . . not that good romance is easy, but crappy surely is)

I'm getting a bit desperate about this whole crazy idea, indeed. The amount of documentation is small enough that I can't use it for barely more than plot, but big enough to show a huge amount of things you definitely got wrong. And we know how picky we are with others' works, specially when Hollywood got it wrong (when did it got it right?). I'd hate to be called names because I didn't do my homework, it's going to be hard enough because I'm a lousy writer, LOL. Historians not getting things straight for us is another dimension, some POVs are so opposite they are actually covert wars between academics . . . In the end, you have to commit to a theory/hypothesis/thesis and walk that path, even if it's proven wrong later. That or you get crazy and never end that quest.

Not for me, too many plotbunnies hopping around my head, and too many "good" friends pushing me to "finish something". Not that they were going to read it, mind you. But I guess they find it amusing. And they also have a point, as well.

Well, let's see how this novel goes this Nano, I have several other historical novel projects I want to try, one of them rarely documented, and the other one too well documented in History, therefore both will be a challenge as well. I will write Alaric, and then we'll see.

Alex Bordessa said...

You're very right about choosing a path and going with it. That's exactly what I've had to do with my 5th century writing. I'm making sure I get the material culture right (artefacts, etc.) but the actual history for this period is mostly a matter of opinion rather than fact, so I had to choose which way to go. Having too little to go on is almost as bad as too much. However, since we're writing fiction, we can make-it-up. Generally, I'd put more weight on the quality of the writing rather than the research behind it, though I'd want the research to have a rock-steady baseline. I guess that reflects my own position - the research is the (relatively) easy part, it's the quality of my writing that worries me!

I'm currently reading Bernard Cornwell's latest, and he's quite up front about being a novelist rather than an historian. Quite right too, but he's history is good, and he gets the right feel (for his 9th century set book at least!) so I wouldn't criticise him. If he's got, eg. the date the Danish Army went up the Thames wrong or changed it slightly (I haven't checked, btw), so what? There may be somebody reading it who is inspired enough to do their own research, and then they'll find out for themselves. But initially, it would be Cornwell's writing that got them interested in the field. And that, I think, is the major use for historical fiction - drawing people in, making the past seem real, encouraging interest in history.

I'll have to check out this 'Nano' thing you mentioned!

Excalibor said...

Nod... crazy as it may sound, I think historical novel must be novel first (entertaining) and historical next (educative). Both ingredients are a great combination, and it's possible that many people may grow from it.

As for Nano... National Novel Writing Month, it's crazy, frenetic, absolutely fantastic... a concentrated dose of writing, a revulsive of creativity, you gotta have to try: you'll love it


Gabriele C. said...

Organization is the easy thing for me because I've been dealing with research in history and literature for ages now. :)

I'm also getting pretty good at the prewriting stuff, outlines, character bios and such.

But the vault of never-ending research - don't get me started on that. I didn't do any research for my first novel, though I knew a few things already, but then, the whole thing was never planned in any way to begin with (plot? what plot? lol), and now it sucks mashed potatoes through a straw. So I did some more preplanning and research for my other projects, and the research never seems to end. 2nd century AD looms is just one thing to check. ;)

Wynn Bexton said...

Ah, the research! Yes, I understand it very well. I like doing research but know very well it can keep you off track and away from the real writing. Yet it seems never-ending some times.
I've been fortunate to do a lot of on-site research for my novel about the fall of Alexander's dynasty, and have some good contacts with classical scholars. But non-the-less, you have to do your homework properly or someone will notice where you've slipped up.