This comes up from several people every October
on the NaNoWriMo forums -- mainly because no one is much there
the three months earlier that they should have started. Then
some poor soul starts a thread asking for sources.
Now, you and I know that they want a couple
of sites where, for a few hours of work, they can know everything
they need to set a book "in the Middle Ages" or "in
the Twenties" or "in the Civil War." (Um, which
civil war, folks? British? French? Mexican? American? Roman?)
After all, they seem to think, how much can there be
to learn? At first, finding these, you laugh at their "instant
fix" wishfulness. In a few years you just roll your eyes.
Now, I just wish they'd give us some better criteria.
O ye historical newbie, all the answer people
wish you would tell us ...
1) the country. The Middle Ages in
France and England are notoriously different, as are Los Angeles
and New York in "the Thirties." Face it: the USA is
several times the size of Western Europe and, except for the
use of English, can be very disparate. Its regions count like
European countries. Make this as tight as possible: Yorkshire,
not England, or even just York and its vicinity is your story
isn't travelling much. Otherwise, you'll get a bunch of irrelevant
stuff about London.
2) the class, age, and gender of your main
character. A 25-year-old male farmer lives a different life
than a wealthy merchant's 16-year-old daughter.
3) a year, not a decade or a century
or era. It is better to say "around 1923" than "the
Twenties," starting with "the Twenties" is not
an integral period, except on a calendar, promoted by really
lazy history writers (I won't even call them historians) or editors.
Almost all decades are fake divisions. 1928 is rather different
than 1923, and 1932 very different than 1938, but 1928 and 1932
aren't as different, though they are in different calendar decades,
and on different sides of The Crash. In the 14th century, 1328
is way different than 1378, even in France. (There's a little
pan-Eurasian trauma in there called the Black Death.)
4) what you want your character to do,
that's important to you and the story. What the character does
is called the plot, and if your plot requires going to the Holy
Land on Crusade, that's a certain time window because those Crusades
weren't happening all the time. If the character is going to
be an early woman doctor or lawyer, there's a cut-off start date
for different areas of the world. If the character is going to
be a wife who owns property, it has to be after the Married Women's
Property Act and such. Your plot may fit another country or era
that you couldn't well pick, with your vague sketchy knowledge.
Tell us what you need your character to do, and we can make better
suggestions as to location and era. No, no one is going to "steal
your plot" from this. Starting with there are no such things
as new plots: it's all been done before. You're stealing someone
else's already, even if you don't realize it.
If someone thinks the people who wasted, ah,
spent their time answering the person's questions are just too
picky about mere facts -- "This is historical fiction!"
-- they should not be writing it with expectations of greatness
(I mean, you can write anything, including about pet gerbils
kidnapped by The Lost Socks).
Because, to the readers, it's historical
fiction. You're supposed to be their time machine for a visit
in the period. Sure you can have eccentric characters, but you
can't have the whole society way off from what it ought to be.
The fiction only is in the characters you
create and their adventures: you do not "fictionalize"
a setting. It's just the wrong word. If you change the setting,
it's called alternative history, and that's a form of
specfi in which the changes have to be given a reason for existing
that's important to the plot, and the rest of that can of worms.
If you don't give your changes the althist treatment, then it's
called lazy writer or ignorant author. No one wants
My favorite story about an author who thought
facts and heavy research were optional took place at the Star
Market on Beretania in Honolulu (since absorbed into the Times
chain). I saw an obviously Hawai'ian woman pick a novel off the
rack, read the back, and put it back with a look of disgust.
When I got there, I saw it was about a fictional Princess Raiulani
of the Hawai'ian royal line. I at least checked inside before
putting it back. When I glanced back as I turned out of the aisle,
I saw someone else putting it back.
The author was advertising that she had done
extremely little research. I would guess she knew something about
Maori, who are also Polynesians, and thought that was good enough
though the languages as well as the cultures are quite distinct
-- starting with the Maori never had a Europeanized monarchy.
Maybe she researched Tahitians, instead. But not Hawai'ian language,
in the least, so it was unlikely she knew anything about the
How did we know this by a mere glance at the
There is no R in the Hawai'ian language. The
historical Princess Kaiulani could be fictionalized as Haiulani,
Maiulani, Paiulani, but never Raiulani.
What should have been her best market for
the book became her worst, because ...
by skipping research she was disrespecting
her readers' intelligence and knowledge.
Since the later 1970s, every schoolchild in
the state learns some Hawai'ian. She couldn't even get straight
the common terms malahini and kama'aina. (Newcomer
and non-Hawai'ian native-born.) You get that in the tourist literature
on the flight in, so you don't try to demand the kama'aina specials.
None of us wanted to spend the money to find how much else she
So just as writers look dumb when they put
a silencer on a revolver, they look dumb when they don't do or
ignore other research -- especially in the most research-heavy
genre, historical fiction.
Back to the big question: can you
go from a vague movie-fed idea to ready for time-travel in thirty
My mother raised her children on the idea
that we could do anything we wanted to, provided we were willing
to put in the work necessary.
I would like to amend that with short people
don't make pro basketball players, and starting after a certain
age you will never be able to hit certain ballet poses for more
than your own satisfaction. If you are a slooow reader, no, you
can't do this in 30 days because you have to knock off a book
every day or so.
If you can read that fast, or you have some
background (like it's Near
History so you've seen lots of movies of
the period, not just about the period), yeah, you
can do it. It'll make writing 1700 words a day look easier, by
comparison, than reading 50-100,000 a day.
First, you need a guide. You can't trawl research
sources to find relevant books and do the reading. Some
of my guides for 50 Books will
help. Whenever possible, I've put links in them. Books to download
free -- easy. Books to buy, you need to find at the library or
order them in the first week of October, if not earlier.
Make sure they're shipped first class, rather than media mail,
or you won't get them in time.
Also, as the last person in the original group
with a surviving interest, I am now hosting Historical
Novelist's Center, whose unsorted lists may give you
specialty books you need. I add and update links as I can.
Now, the 50 Books
concept is based on the idea that you have the time to read and
be thorough. We're talking a NaNoWriMo zero draft here. Spelling
and punctuation are optional! So don't worry about authentic
period voice, huh? It's not about style. It's about figuring
what will work for the plot and where the characters are coming
from mentally, socially, and legally when they make their decisions.
December for polishing, November for story-telling.
For NNWM, I have found it works perfectly
well to type <<describe street>> or <<describe
opera house and audience>> and then get on with the dramatic
interactions. What I needed to know is that there was
an opera house in that town, or whether restaurants, rather than
chophouses or taverns, were where they would eat, not what kind
of chandeliers they had. Unless I needed them accidentally to
set fire to the place, in which case I'd better know if the lighting
is flame or bulb.
Ask people on the forum what they consider
the one book you must have to write in the period well.
That's given as a special at the top of each of the guides I
put up, if I have one you can use.
Let's see if I can cut the core 30 down to
a bare bones of 20 or less. Remember, you will have special areas
you will need to research for your particular story. From December,
do the regular 50 Books and
correct or fill in as you need. The ones you don't need so much
I'll shove to the right. If you happen to have one or find one,
1). A general history of the time,
not over 200 pages.
I would count crawling links all over Wikipedia
your first day. Do remember wikis can have unproven statements,
but usually in contemporary controversial subjects. But so can
printed encyclopedias! I'll never forget a 1990s Britannica
that claimed the ancient Egyptians had iron wheels on their chariots,
when no one ever used metal wheels on chariots. Remember,
opinions on some interpretations change, though the facts
like dates rarely do. Use Wikipedia's Create a Book function
to save all the good pages, then organize it and download it
as a PDF on your machine for fast reference.
Remember the principle that your earliest,
lowest-level research is the most likely to be corrected by later
2.) An "everyday life" book of
You don't have time to flail around
with all ages. Most of these cover "the Middle Ages"
or "the Victorian Age" and that's quite loose enough
-- really, too loose. Look in the YA section of the library,
not the children's, and check adult, too. If it's Near History,
you can also crawl Retronaut,
for a couple of hours, which has more humor than not. They do
have a chunk of 1800s and earlier, mostly odd objects like artificial
hands of the 1500s.
3.) General transportation
Find out how people get around town, then worry about long distance
only if someone has to sail the Channel or fly the Atlantic or
take a train overnight. There are sources in the 50
Books guides. You may need long-range travel times to
co-ordinate events. If you can't find them in October, swear,
write on, and revise it in December.
4.) General costume
12.) Specific dress styles, for your decade.
You need about 20 minutes on general costume,
just to see if your guessed-at year is something you can't deal
Manifesto is a free online resource for this. Wikipedia
is poor on costume.
When you have a year, you want the main outline
of clothes, so you know if ladies have lots of petticoats or
one of those hardware underskirts like hoop skirts, bustles,
or panniers. Search for your year and place: again, French
and English fashions can be rather different, let alone Norman
In Near History, dress changes fast:
anything five years old is out of fashion and next year's is
only barely imaginable. If you're setting in 1976, you don't
care what they wore in 1969 or 1978. (And please remember, by
1970 "Mod" = "out of fashion": I'm hearing
people call Disco shag carpet "Mod.")
Also free: A
History of Costume by Carl Köhler, edited and
augmented by Emma von Sichart, and translated by Alexander K.
Dallas (1930; New York, G. Howard Watt).
That gets you into Near History. Then you look
for copies of Photoplay Magazine and other fashion sources
at Internet Archive.
You can get a general idea of your specific costume just in an
hour or two, just so you know where the hems are and whether
men wear trousers or tights. Don't get married to any descriptions
of "sexy clothes" you invent without research: you
probably have them wrong for the era. Just insert <<describe
how sexy he/she is>> and go on. I still remember, like
a vivid nightmare, a romance where the heroine wound up dressed
from the latest Frederick's of Hollywood catalog though it was
something like 1830 and there were no lace stockings, suspender
garter belts, or the like. Another had a Cavalier wearing a black
satin shirt and skin-tight breeches (white linen, always,
and really baggy breeches). Descriptions make words, but they
don't make story -- if you want to finish the draft with the
important stuff, skip the sunsets and ballgowns anyway and get
on with the interactions.
| 5.) Specific transportation
The later in time you are, the more
this matters, as you have more choices. For now, just say the
person drives a carriage, and worry later whether it's a curricle
or a dogcart. Especially December for which colour, year, and
model of sedan or roadster. Me, I just ask my husband for Near
History automobiles: he carries it in his head. Ask on the Historical
Fiction forum and get back to writing without waiting for the
answer. With luck, I'll spot your question and ask him.
6.) Etiquette, and I don't mean morals
I still consider this crucial because
these are the books about how the upper classes spend their days,
and what the middle classes imitate. You can learn so much about
the world through these. When I was in high school, my best friend
got a 1914 etiquette book. The world it revealed, of calling
cards and paying visits, precise parameters for dress by time
of day, event, and season, was a stunning revelation. I've been
collecting old etiquette books ever since as one of the best
portals to the past. However, before 1830 or so, it's Lord
Chesterfield from the 1780s; from there back to the Renaissance,
Babees' Book, for English Renaissance, then for the
Middle Ages it's the
Knight of La Tour Landry. In earlier periods, you can
learn as much if not more about etiquette reading the fiction
of the day, like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Check the
Library of Congress's American
Memory site for their Dance
Manuals, of all things. It isn't all American, in fact
none is until the early 1800s, and foreign books continue strong
7.) Spectator entertainments, a general
Let's lump these together. Don't devote 2000 words to a theatrical
entertainment's description if you haven't studied theatre of
the time: put down <<description of play>> and pass
on to what's discussed in the box or on the benches. Presentation
was all extremely different before electric lighting. Equally,
don't put too much wordage into the description of card play
when you may find out they didn't have cards yet, or only the
wealthy did. For example, Texas Hold 'Em is a relatively new
form of poker and would look way out of place in the Disco Era,
let alone earlier. If your story is set in the theatre, you do
need to know the styles and limits of their time. My suggestion
is to go to Amazon or Alibris and get a textbook for Theatre
History. Also, don't rely on everything before 1960 being "ballroom
dancing" position: your cavalier is not closely holding
the lady he dances with, but only touching her hand.
9.) Public Hospitality, including food
and dining, including what sort of public dining was available,
as well as where a stranger in town stays.
Restaurants are modern. This topic
includes table manners, as in some times and places men and women
do not dine at the same table, or the rigors of seating by rank
mean you don't get to choose whom you sit with. An etiquette
book may cover it, or in earlier times you will need a book or
site on dining out or public hospitality. It's naturally important
to know whether your characters will go to a hotel, a hummums,
an inn, a caravanserai run by the government, or put up in the
back rooms of the big temple.
| 10.) Recipes for period
Just type <<describe the sumptuous/vulgar/piteous meal
served>> and go on. December for what that entails.
11.) Marriage and family.
Modern marriage laws and attitudes
are generally more or less wrong before 1970. The farther back
you get, the less married women are human. Kitchin, S. B.
, B.A., LL.B.; A
History of Divorce ; 1912; London : Chapman
& Hall, Ltd., covers all but Near History. Frankly, unless
you watch 1930s movies, you've probably never heard of a breach
of promise suit, but I pivoted my 2012 NaNo on it.
|13.) Religion for the time
Only if you're going in religious
places. If your plot is very oriented to religious subjects,
you may have this down well enough from whatever got you interested.
But if you haven't done your reading, it's not wise to pivot
your plot on an uneducated guess.
14.) A fat history book of the area and century as an introduction
15.) A history of the most influential country at the time (country
16.) A history of its rival (country B).
17.) A biography of the leader of country A
18.) A biography of the leader of country B
19.) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
20.) A history of the country you are setting
in, that era.
A large encyclopedia article may do. You don't want to lose a
war or misplace a Crusade. If you refer to a famous event of
the past, make sure you have the date right.
| 21.) A biography of
the leader of the country of your setting.
22.) An everyday life for
the commoner/lower classes of your time and place.
This is both the peasant farmer and
23.) An everyday life for
the upper classes of your time and place.
24.) An everyday life for
the middle class of your time and place.
25.) An everyday life for
women of your time and place.
Because the other books will often ignore how women spend their
day, or give an inaccurate stereotype.
Once you know your city or country, and year,
these four are the
most important books you can get. This is life, and how your
characters think and believe, and what shocks or soothes them,
what they fight for or against. That is, if they're good
everyday life books. An "Everyday Life in the Middle Ages,"
claiming to cover life for 1000 years, from the Arctic Circle
to the Mediterranean, and from the Atlantic to the Danube, is
obviously giving you very sketchy information, with bits from
all over or having the practices of one time and place stand
for all -- which is just wrong. Especially, England rarely
represents common Continental practices, whether in 50 BC or
|26.) An auto/biography of
someone like your protagonist, or a book as much as possible
focused on people like that. Mainly
because these are so hard to run down in some cases. If you can
find one, or are inspired by one, it often gives you a great
relevant chunk of the everyday life.
27.) A book on houses and furnishings of
the period, if possible.
Because you may make the house or furniture integral to the plot.
You can't hide in the closet when the houses don't have closets,
or sneak down the hall past closed doors when there aren't halls,
just rooms opening into rooms. What's the heating? How much privacy
do you have? Illustrated
History of Furniture from the Earliest to the Present Time
by Frederick Litchfield (1903; London: Truslove &
Hanson Limited; New York; illustrated by John Lane 1892-1903)
will get you through some of the basics for free. In Near History,
you can find pre-fab house catalogs and decorating books at Internet Archive.
In the later 1800s Godey's Lady's Book had a house plan
28.) A book about courting, romance, and
sex of the time.
You need it if you can find it. If you can't find it, fake it,
though that's asking a lot of faking in a romance novel. Which
may explain why many histfi writers say histrom is only fancy-dress
romance, not usually historical enough to mention. With occasional
exceptions of wonderul care that let me immerse myself -- yeah,
most histrom ranges from the cliche to the hideously ignorant
and confused, unless it's Western histrom. (Harlequin Historicals,
I'm looking at you.)
| 29.) A book for naming
historical characters properly.
Baby name books are so wrong. They
are all modern names, including that what is male or female may
have changed. But for November you can use anything! Just
don't get married to it. Ashley may have to become Helena or
Maude to not sound stupidly modern. There may be sites for you:
check the 50 Books guides for your
30.) Medicine of the time and place.
For general use, try the freebie, A
History of Medicine, 1945 Thomas Nelson &
Sons Ltd;. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, New York; it
covers around 500 BC to 1940 CE. There's a nice history of the
of bone fractures up to the 1500s from 1936: it includes
information on the Winnebago and Dakota tribes, along with the
31.) Climate, weather, and seasons.
Dang! I got it down to 18!
This may be one book on climate history that you use for many
Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
by Brian M. Fagan (2001, Basic Books) is an example, as it covers
what are often considered the most popular centuries for histfi,
900-1900. In Near History, newspaper archives will tell you when
the big blizzard shut down the city.
Of course, you need to go to the Perry-Castañeda
Library Map Collection site for historical maps and links
to other map sites.
That doesn't mean you have only 18 days of
reading. This is your basics of everyday life. After this
you have things particular to your story.
Now consider your plot plans. This is where
you have to ask for help, early in the month, so there's time
to do the reading after you locate the book.
If there's even the threat of violence, you
need to look into weapons and combat. To my astonishment, my
research for 1937 showed that karate was pretty non-existent
until the 1950s, except in Okinawa, and then it was covert --
except they were teaching it at the Honolulu YMCA. For the 1930s,
the martial art for your bully-trap to have is jiu-jitsu (not
jujitsu, not judo). What guns are available? Are guns available?
Modern research has shown gonnes in the Hundred Years War, not
just the Renaissance.
If it's a war story, do not do not do
not! assume that the old armies worked anything like
ours before 1910. European and Near-Eastern armies sending out
scouts to locate the enemy is a behavior of no earlier than the
1700s from what I can find, heavily influenced by the North American
wars. I have read too many first-person medieval accounts of
armies just tripping over each other unexpectedly, and they send
out light skirmishers to harass each other while the heavy troops
armour up. It seems scouting is, at best, post-Renaissance. After
the Renaissance, who's in charge of a unit is whoever raised
it or whoever bought a commission, until Near History. Our concept
of the professional military with training from the bottom up
and people assigned to different units at will just hadn't been
imagined yet. The Western military was still heavily influenced
by the idea of the feudal lord bringing his knights and
their men at arms, and they weren't going to be broken
up to work in a bunch of strangers.
Also, remember our modern ideas of "fair
chase" hunting date back only to Teddy Roosevelt in the
early 1900s. Before then, your Old World hunters will use dogs,
and noble hunters make a deer hunt an army-like procedure with
dozens or scores of dogs and huntsmen. Of course, then they may
face stags with a short sword, or spear a wild boar from horseback
(so dangerous a feat it was considered a worthy knightly deed).
For watercraft powered by wind or muscle,
I already ran up A Little
List for Lubbers to speed up your searches.
If you have an orphan, you need to find out
how orphans were handled back then. Foster homes are largely
1960s forward. Look up "orphan asylums" and "state
homes," as well as "orphanages." Before Near History,
the wealthy will have guardians, and the poor, if over 14, usually
get booted out to work in the world. Certainly 16 year-olds.
You have to remember that these weren't "children"
in the working classes through most of history. In many times
and places, they may be ignored by the state, or sent to work
in the mines.
... and so on.
used to say, "The past is a foreign country. This is your
passport." Now you get to build the time machine, or at
least time-viewer, in your head. But remember, it's foreign
and they do things differently.
Good luck and happy (research) hunting!