The Devil’s in the Historical Details, Part I: Books and Libraries

So I’m writing a book set in 5C Alexandria. I know the plot and my characters intimately. I’m typing away at the seduction scene when I think, “Did they have underwear back then? If so, what was it like?” I know the handsome hero doesn’t unzip his pants but does he unbutton, unbuckle, untie, unwrap? Of course I could finesse this with a sentence like, “He dropped his garments onto the floor.” But it won’t be long before readers get impatient with generalities because the devil is in the historical details.

The sights, smells, sounds and descriptions of clothes, food, housing and transportation in a different time make the reader suspend disbelief and join whole-heartedly in the fiction. Valerie Anand, who writes historical mysteries (most recently The Siren Queen), under the pseudonym Fiona Buckley makes this point: “When planning a specific book, I read works on the period, and chase up such details as the layout of particular towns, styles of furniture, fashions of the time, laws in force, and technologies which existed then. I use maps a lot. I had my sitting room floor completely carpeted while I tried to work out whether one could or could not ride a horse from one point to another in a single day. I always try to be accurate, because there is always someone out there who will write in and point out your mistakes.”

Doing historical research can be daunting. Because I’m of a “certain generation” I hit the books first. More specifically, the local library. The research librarians are my best friends. Through interlibrary loans, I get almost any book I need. Libraries have access to hundreds of digital databases and research collections. You don’t have to be a scholar, just an interested reader. Anita Diamant (The Red Tent) made good use of her local university library to research her biblical story of Jacob’s only daughter. “I looked for artifacts about daily life – remedies for disease, what houses in Egypt might have looked like, roads in Canaan. It was easy to get overwhelmed. I had to stop a lot and tell myself that I didn’t need to become an expert on this. I just needed the details that serve my plot.”

I’m afraid I also like to buy books and keep them handy. One of the first I got was Persia Woolley’s How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction from the Writer’s Digest Books series. Woolley does a masterful job of sorting through how much fact and how much fiction is appropriate for what kind of tale, how to go about researching questions and organizing the answers. Another source is the Oxford University Press, “the world’s largest publisher of reference works” with hundreds of historical titles including an excellent series called Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt (Rome, Greece, etc.) which provides an encyclopedic overview of government, military, religion, trade and everyday life, among other topics.

For military research, I turned to Osprey Publishing. Want to know what a Roman auxiliary unit from Thrace wore and used for weapons? Check out Osprey-they offer hundreds of beautifully illustrated titles. I search on-line bookstores, specialty mail order catalogs, and museum bookstores, as well. To keep the lid on my book budget, I frequent the sale section of my local mega-book store and used bookshops where I pick up reference works at steep discounts.

Of course, books are expensive, heavy and take up a lot of space. In Part II I’ll tackle research on the web, interviews and site visits.

Additional Links:

  • Osprey Publishing specializes in illustrated books on military history with well-researched series from ancient to modern warfare.  Its output includes 140 new titles each year and a backlist of over 1500 titles. Osprey’s series such as Men at Arms , Campaign and Fortress are world famous and essential reading for military enthusiasts.
  • Oxford University Press — “the world’s largest publisher of reference works” — has a well organized site featuring general reference works such as Oxford Companions, illustrated histories, anthologies, atlases, encyclopedias, and scholarly and professional works on almost any historical topic imaginable.
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