The 50 Books

You Need to Read

to Write an Historical Novel

It's become a tidy little theory of mine that, barring your having been a ravenous reader in the period for years, if you get a yen to write an historical novel of any sort, you're going to need to read around 50 books to get to know the Earth-like alien planet that another historical era amounts to.

Even if you've been a big fan of, say, Classical Greece or the Middle Ages or WW2, you will find that you need to know more of everyday life detail than you have probably picked up in hobby reading. As a former wannabe in Classical archaeology, and an SCA armiger, I can state that my hobby reading was not on all the right subjects for histfi in these periods, so yours probably hasn't been, either. My husband, who taught history for LA City Schools, will confirm that when he went to write in a period he could have taught, he had very little of the detail he needed. It's just different kinds of things.

Fortunately, the information usually is out there. If it isn't, then you get enough around it to make an intelligent guess, and if no one knows, well, there's no one to call you out, either. For example, the Viking Answer Lady points out that there is no record of a Viking wedding ceremony: you'll have to make one up that seems to fit them.

As well, you need to concentrate your focus on a particular place at a particular narrow time: Paris, 1250, not "Medieval Europe" as a whole. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens lived in rather different Englands, as you might see from their work -- not just in time, but in class, which counts in most cultures.

If it takes 50 books to know the period well enough to write in it, then it only takes maybe another 20-30 to write a series of several books. Once you have daily life down, it transfers from one story to another. What you look for later is new settings, new lifestyles or skills, different historical personages and events with which to embroil your characters, whether new protagonists in the same period or your existing characters.

I'd also like to remind you that you will probably read fifty because at least four or five of them, maybe ten or twelve, will turn out to give you nothing new except a dab here and there. Once you get well into a period, you will find that all introductory books repeat 95% of the same information, so reading six of them is not a waste of time, just repetitive. This lets you hear the same information in different words, pick up those few dabs, but you do need to learn to scan for what's new amid what you already understand. (And sometimes that dab of difference is just the piece of information you needed desperately, from when a street name changed to how they dressed their hair.)

Now, despite reading so many books, I often find that there is one book I live out of once I begin writing, the one I constantly reach for because it covers so many day-to-day items. When I seem to have developed one like this, I'll put it above the list, because it may be the first book you should get. Maybe not, if your focus is different, but it will certainly be illuminating at least a dozen books in.

Easing In

Long ago I decided that people do not learn best by having every known detail about a certain person or event crammed into their heads, then moving on to the next person or event. Rather, it works better to start with a general sketch of the era and slowly refine closer and closer to the details. This is especially true of novelists rather than historians, because you don't necessarily have to understand the great world outside of your particular mountain valley or cluster of villages, especially when your characters wouldn't know or care how the king lives. So this list is designed to go from the broad introductions to levels of detail only you can decide on. All I can do beyond the opening is point you toward things you might forget to check.

Another odd aspect of my attitude to research: I do not believe, I know, without a doubt, you will get a certain amount of misinformation in your introductory reading, and sometimes in the later books. Be willing to let go of what you have in your head when it turns out to be inaccurate.

Many people are taught that anything they learn first must be right, but the deeper you dig in history, the more "errors of common knowledge" you will find you have been fed. The newest book is not always the best, though: sometimes it just has five layers of "transcription errors" and exaggeration behind it and is positively inaccurate. On the other tentacle, in some fields, like vikings, anything before 1980 that isn't a primary source should be avoided. You simply must learn to judge sources.

In general, people will get last to primary sources (books written in the time or about the time by people only a generation removed who interviewed oldsters), but I recommend going to them as early as possible. Yes, newspapers and autobiographies are primary sources and they can be full of bias and error, but at least they will be those of the time. It also lets you mentally challenge secondary and tertiary sources as to "Why are they ignoring what old Whatsisface said? He was there!" Academic authorities also are inaccurate at times. Sometimes, for decades a certain area of history will be full of baloney because that's the academic fashion enforced by the heads of departments, and if you don't play along with their interpretation you don't get tenure, or you don't get raises. Classical studies are notorious for this.

So you get to become your own expert, give all these authorities a hard glare, and tell some of them you are not including their folderol in your version of the time.

Fifty books, and you can start to do this.

This is your guide to the fifty to look for, in learning order.

copyright Holly Ingraham

Return to Home Page