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Monday, December 12, 2011

Harvesting Between the Lines: On Researching Historical Novels


Evan Ostryzniuk is the author of the English Free Company series, the first book of which, Of Faith and Fidelity, has just been released by Knox Robinson Publishing and is available wherever fine books are sold. 
I've been reading Of Faith and Fidelity and admired the way Evan is able to put the reader immediately into the sensory experience of his chosen time period. I recently had the opportunity to ask him how he achieves such a wonderful effect and what his historical research methods are like. This is his response. 

Solid research is the foundation of any respectable historical fiction. That much is obvious, but the blessing and curse of the digital age is the sheer enormity of material easily available for review. It is a blessing because the author can delve far deeper into the period milieu than his predecessors, and therefore is given the opportunity to produce a historically rich text larded with myriad detail; it is a curse not only because of the time required to go through the thousands of pages and hundreds of images related to the topic at hand, but also because with the greater information at the author’s fingertips come higher expectations from the readership. Convenient anachronisms or inventions are much harder to get away with now. Therefore, as an author I have to strike a balance between extensive research and pedantry, or archival tourism. The novel has to be written some time! So, I have developed a number of strategies to cope with this challenge, which at heart means that I have to be picky. To use a fishing analogy: I cast wide into the vast ocean of information, but my net is woven to catch specific species of fish.

One research strategy I employ is to define my approach from the central theme I want to develop in my novel. While the English Free Company series has a set stable of characters and takes place within a restricted period (usually less than a year), each novel has as a uniting thread a specific idea built within the context of the time. For example, Of Faith and Fidelity considers the meanings and challenges of… well, you get the point. Therefore, I direct my research towards drawing out aspects of that theme from my study of the more concrete and banal needs of the plot. Not surprisingly, I use Chaucer as a primary source, and so when I study the "Knight’s Tale," for example, I look for direct and indirect references to notions of faith and fidelity, whether in his conversation with the other pilgrims, in his gestures, or in the tale he tells. Of course, I have to be convinced that Chaucer was employing contemporary cultural norms in his writing, however exaggerated, otherwise I might embarrass myself in my own writing, but subsequent research confirms his sincerity. When I take the theme for my next novel, I will read the "Knight’s Tale" again, bit with a view to a different set of needs.

My novels are character-driven above all, since because the events depicted in the narrative are historically true, there is a degree of inevitability about how some of the plot plays out. Therefore, my intention is not to offer a textbook discussion of the era, which Wikipedia handles just fine, but to draw the reader in through more personal details, including dialog, gestures, movements, carriage and disposition, acts of violence or courtesy, that are specific to the time and place of my novels. This leads me to a second research strategy. While some aspects of human intercourse and custom remain universal – everybody eats, for example – time and place are evoked by describing how and what they ate, and no less importantly the social, political and symbolic meanings of the meal. I am not interested in writing long-winded passages about medieval fortification or crofters’ huts for the sake of placing the reader in the novel’s time and place. For me, the reader can simply download a photo of one or the other and glance at it when need be as they read my novel. Above all, I want to bring the people to life and encourage the reader to engage with them, and to do that I need to develop many angles of the characters and lard the text with precise but flowing interactions. That requires an immense volume of research because it requires me to pick up on the small almost trivial aspects of primary sources, which is every writer’s dream resource. I will read Chaucer, Gower, Froissart, Langland, or Boccaccio as much for their casual deployment of everyday customs as for their deeper abstract themes and language.

The pretentious response to the reason why I am attracted to the late-14th and early 15th centuries is to claim “the Renaissance” and let that word speak for itself. However, the truth is that below and beyond the earliest murmurings of Humanism and innovations in literature and business are other events so historically important, diverse and fascinating yet bunched together chronologically that it arouses the curiosity about how this could be. This period offers the Great Schism in the Church, Black Death, Hundred Years War, Turkish expansion, final flowering of chivalry and courtly love, commercialization of warfare, all of which throw up their own diverse stories. Even more attractive to me, as someone who lavishes most of his attention on characters, is that this period is intensely personal. What I mean by that is that this was a time when personalities on many levels were paramount, and their interaction extremely sophisticated. And I don’t just mean kings and queens and nobility, whose personalities are key in every age. The period 1350-1450, especially in northern Italy, saw the rise of famous captains, famous merchants, famous bankers, famous artists, famous lords… In other words men and some women of all but the humblest classes became individuals, as opposed to simply serving as members of a well-defined order. That is one important aspect that I develop in the English Free Company series. Another attraction of the period is the paucity of historical fiction related to those years. Much has appeared about the era of Machiavelli and the Borgias, on the one side of the divide, and the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine on the other, but not a whole lot of stories have appeared on the years in between. This neglect surprises me, as well as offers me an opportunity to show my fellow authors and readers what they have been missing!