Research Threads

My work in progress is set in an ancient culture, around the time the Bronze Age was transitioning to the Iron Age.

This has rather significant implications for me as a researcher. Unlike writing a chick lit set in the immediate future or a dragonfest in an alternative fantasy world, I cannot look around me for facts or set my imagination free. Both of these would be far quicker, and those who write historical fiction of any sort are known to take longer over it. Instead, I’ve been keen to show real discipline in what I’m doing, having a firm idea about what is known and what isn’t about this particular place and time.

Today on the BBC news website you can see an example of genuine Bronze Age material. This stuff really happened and it’s someone’s handiwork from some 150 generations ago. Great quality fabric too, apparently. The finds on site are remarkable.

whittleseyfabric

There are elements of the world of 3000 years ago which have not survived, but I need to know enough in order not to leave gaping holes. Much of the time it feels like we have tiny pieces of the bigger jigsaw. We may have some writings, or shards of pottery, or fragments from archaeological digs, or contemporaneous evidence, but we don’t know everything. It’s tantalising. I would love to know more about the human side of the stories: the secrets, the unrecorded folklore, the family recipes, even the patterns on the clothing. What of the everyday stories of the people too unimportant to feature in the bigger scene? I think a lot of readers of historical fiction want to know details about those who never got recorded. Perhaps it validates all of us. All of us have a story, however little. When did our ancestors wake, and what did they do all day? How structured were their taskseat and how much did that vary in practice? Did people think outside the box much? How brutal were the battles, the seasons, the relationships, in comparison to the safe and settled life I lead? I have so little in common with them, and yet I want to find enough common ground to feel a connection. When did people usually eat? How often did they wash? What wooden or cloth items did they own? These organic details don’t usually leave clues, despite finds like those at Must Farm, above. Sometimes there is some great research to put you in the picture, such as Nathan MacDonald’s What Did Ancient Israelites Eat?  which is a readable academic assessment of the food of land of Israel (going to show it really wasn’t flowing with milk or honey).

This is how I see my task:

Known facts Unknowns
Can I invent details? Cannot invent details if they contradict known facts Justified, in context, after researching well
Can I ignore details? Ignore irrelevant data which doesn’t move the story along

I have to do my research well (and there’s no excuse when you live near Cambridge).

The other extreme of course is to riddle a story with unnecessary archaeological facts, just to prove I did my homework. I’ve seen this done in various books and it looks weak. ‘Aha,’ cries Main Character to Antagonist, ‘I see you have modified the profile of your clay pots; are you in cahoots with the local slightly-more-advanced tribe now, or are you just feeling especially creative?’

It’s not just Facts. I am deeply interested in Words. You can’t, of course, use a modern idea or term like ‘cahoots’ in a piece of imagined ancient dialogue unless your creativity is particularly free and your readers either forgiving or ignorant. I’ve set myself the task of wanting to communicate well about the way ancient people lived, including the kinds of things that they would naturally have been talking about and the range of vocabulary they would have used. Modern ways of thinking don’t belong in an ancient mindset, so I am immersing myself in the details I do have. As well as re-reading the Old Testament for clues (Leviticus suddenly shows itself useful regarding fabrics and rituals, for example), I am working through a list I compiled of all the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament (actually lemmas, to be precise). It is not as long as you might think – only a few thousand different word roots, and many of them interesting in their connections or their clues about ancient living.

So: words and facts. Much to read, think over, write about. To write as a fictitious story, because I believe fiction tells truth so much better than any other genre. Story works.

But how many lies, to tell the truth? There are also things it is reasonable to extrapolate, and things it is unreasonable to extrapolate. The human body works in certain ways and that hasn’t changed in that time. Seasons and geography are reasonably similar thousands of years on, though crops have changed. The way we think certainly has changed; we are impacted and influenced today by generations of Enlightenment, Modernism, Post-Modernism, international travel, historical understanding, instant communication. We are still as greedy and self-righteous as our ancient counterparts were recorded as being in the Bible. We also still see life through the lens of our own experiences. Is it fair to extrapolate back? Can one make assumptions, or do books about the past necessarily end up reflecting the writer’s time period or personal attitudes more than they do the real era in question?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this. I want a readable and genuinely interesting story. I also need to use my imagination a fair deal, in as informed a way as I possibly can.

If my book is aiming to be an Historical Fiction my research needs to be meticulous. Even the best historical fictions have limits and anachronisms. Writers disagree on how much creative licence they should have, but readers aren’t stupid. Perhaps it will be better suited as Literary Fiction in an historical setting; equally as demanding to write, but better suited to introspection, characters and style. I don’t want it to be categorised as Biblical Historical Fiction even though it is informed by, and ought to be able to inform, biblical reading. Genre does matter, and I have some thoughts on where it is heading, but for now I still have quite a fair bit of reading to do.

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One thought on “Research Threads

  1. I so well identify with your efforts to capture life in a totally different period, Lucy. Thank you for taking the trouble and for sharing your struggles so vividly.
    I agree that ‘a lot of readers of historical fiction want to know details about those who never got recorded’. And that’s what i’m also attempting…

    Like

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