Researching historical fantasy

I had planned to do a classic movie review today, but I got so caught up in planning Book Two of my Elizabethan fantasy series yesterday, I didn’t get around to watching any. So instead I’m stealing a leaf out of Mark Chadbourn’s blog and talking about how I research my novels, since that’s a topic uppermost in my mind at the moment.

Non-fantasy readers tend to think that the genre has an “anything goes” attitude, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. All good fantasy writers set limitations on what’s possible in their made-up world. What can magic do, and what can’t it do? Which fantastical creatures (if any) are real, and what are their characteristics/powers? Without limits, anything is possible and thus tension and suspense are deflated.

Historical fantasy is even more constrained, in that we have to take the real events of history into account and decide how closely we are going to follow them. You can’t fudge the facts entirely, or your setting will come across as a cheap Hollywoodesque pastiche of the period. Indeed, a careful adherence to fact will set off your fantasy elements far better, by anchoring the strangeness in a reality as solid as our familiar 21st-century world. On the other hand, you could spend a lifetime researching a well-documented era, just as a creator of a secondary world could spend all their time world-building, and never get around to writing the book. So what do you do?

I approach research in layers. To begin with, I know an awful lot of basic information about sixteenth-century Europe, and Tudor/Elizabethan England in particular. We studied the period in primary school (aged about 11) and again in grammar school (aged about 14), and ever since then I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books on the subject, watched numerous films, TV series and documentaries, seen eight or nine of Shakespeare’s plays performed live, and visited a great many historic buildings, from Hever Castle in Kent to Plas Mawr in North Wales. None of this was research for a specific book, just a general interest in the period. And yet it all builds up into an almost instinctive feel for place and character that you can’t get by doing six months or even a year’s intensive research.

Still, you do need specific research on top of that base layer. There are bound to be real locations you want to use but are unfamiliar with; before revising my first novel, I hadn’t set foot in the Tower of London since I was ten years old, an omission that I was quick to remedy! I ended up doing an awful lot of additional reading in order to nail the details for that book, because I wanted it to feel real. The two pubs mentioned in the first scene of my book? Both real – and the one favoured by the actors was one of Edward Alleyn’s known haunts. Admittedly I had to make up the descriptions of each place, because the buildings no longer exist, but the writer’s aim should be to merge fact and fiction so that the reader is never aware of the seams.

A lot of writers seem to be unable to resist the temptation to put every last bit of their research on show. Look how hard I worked! their book shouts. I always remind myself that the story comes first. If a historical detail is relevant to the story, or helps to set a scene without bogging down the action, then fine. I needed names for the two pubs, and authentic ones are no more intrusive than made-up ones. But if one reader in a thousand really wants to know all the different types of wood that go into making a lute, they’re going to have to read about it somewhere else, because I’m not going to bore the other nine hundred and ninety-nine.

At the moment I’m embarking on a fresh draft of a novel set at least partially in Venice. I visited the city back in 2003, before I ever conceived of writing Elizabethan fantasy, and fell in love with the place, so I drew on those memories when planning the first draft, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007. At that time I also did some general research into Venetian history and politics, to get a feel for the kind of story that would be plausible in that setting. To me, a plot should grow out of the unique characteristics of a culture, not be imposed from outside. Otherwise, why bother to set it there in the first place?

For this next phase, I’m going to be doing some more reading and googling, but again, not so much that I put off writing the actual story. After the next draft, then it will be time for detailed research: accurate descriptions of buildings, fashions and artifacts, authentic names and titles. In other words, the set-dressing that will bring the city¬† to life. Of course this is a great excuse to visit Venice again (and claim the expense against taxes this time!), but until I have the story sketched out, I won’t know which places I really need to visit when I get there, so I won’t make efficient use of my limited time.

You’re probably thinking this is a heck of a lot of work – and expense – for a fantasy novel. Perhaps it is. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.