The 50 Books
Need to Read
Write an Historical Novel
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
and you can start to do this.
This is your guide to the fifty to look
for, in learning order.
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