1. chaser57
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    chaser57 New Member

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    how do you research a historical setting?

    Discussion in 'Research' started by chaser57, Apr 29, 2011.

    I wonder if someone can help me out here…

    I’m writing a novel based in the Portuguese “goldern era” (appx. 1495 to 1550). I’ve scoured many a history book but can’t seem to find detailed historical information. There’s plenty on nobility, trade, economics, conditions and navel conquests, but I’m looking for the details of their lives. What did they eat and drink? What did they do for leisure? What were the trends and customs? If someone picked up a history book about the last decade there would be quite a bit about terrorism, google, and subprime mortgages, but not a whole lot about playstation or dental floss.

    My question is: when writing a story in a specific time period how do you look over the significant and find the mundane? Any particular techniques anyone uses? Particular places I can find this type of information? It doesn’t even have to be about my specific choice of time, just writing about daily lives in historical pieces in general. To clarify, I’m using completely fictional characters in essentially fictional places. I have historical figures that I will probably reference from time to time but that would be the extent of it. I don’t want it to be about historical figures of this era, only use this period as a setting for my own characters.

    As always, any help is much appreciated
     
  2. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    There are probably actual books and articles on the subject, but they might simply be hard to find. Try looking for scholarly articles and books (and not just random books you find in the bookstore), like the kind a college graduate might look for while writing a thesis or something.

    You might also simply want to read up on the general culture of the region at the time, which might be easier to find - for instance, a book on late medieval culture, or a book on Western European culture and norms of the Renaissance, and so forth.
     
  3. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    For researching I try to locate diaries, journals, legal documents, newspapers, and sometimes medical books (primary sources). I think you are starting in the right direction as far as collecting books on the time period, but in the end digging online is probably the quickest way to find material. For my book, I'm writing fictional characters in 18th century America, and I mention historical characters from time to time like you do. Probably the greatest resource for everyday life are diaries and journals. I don't know how much you'll be able to find available considering your period is the 15th and 16th centuries, but google books is somewhere you can start. I know it's not much of a pointer, but you'll find more books and then citations that will lead to other books. :)
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There are people who spend years researching individual historical events, and it is still a very inexact study. These historians examine period literature, official records, and even personal letters to build up a picture of what life was really like.

    Now maybe you can find one of these experts and speak with him or her. But even that will be far from trivial unless they have authored books or articles on their findings.

    No matter how you apporach it, don't expect it to be easy.

    On the other hand, you can find what you can about the time, and make your own extrapolations. They may not be historically accurate, insofar as historical accuracy is even attainable. But you will be able to proceed with your actual story, and probably there will be very few readers who will gainsay you if you have been reasonably diligent.
     
  5. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    I wholeheartedly agree with this. For creative writing, sometimes, you can only take historical accuracy so far, especially if it's concerning a time period or a region with few records and so forth. For instance, how'd you know what to do if you wrote a novel about Ancient Egypt in 3500 BCE? There's few records, and the archaeology can only tell so much.

    Ultimately, sometimes, you'll just have to handwave some things and make changes for the story. THe story is what is most important. People don't read historical novels to only learn about history - they read history books for that. They're still reading for a story.

    And sometimes things have to be changed too, anyways, to meet the audience's expectations. Maybe certain cultural or historical practices have to be toned down in order not to offend the audience (or maybe they are emphasized precisely for that!). Or maybe some things have to be removed because it interrupts the flow of the story or the plot, or because it's something the audience - relying on their pop culture version of history - won't believe. For instance, I heard that for the HBO series Rome, one thing they were originally thinking of doing was having something like billboard advertisements; the historical Rome actually had something similar to these advertisements, but the producers eventually decided not to include it, because they reasoned that the audience would not believe that the Ancient Romans would have billboard ads.
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you're primarily focusing on books about Portugal in the correct period, you might instead want to try focusing on books that are about social history, anthropology, and perhaps specialized topics in those areas, across a variety of locations and time periods. I realize that this could take forever to find specific nuggets about your period, but it might at least make you feel more grounded about day-to-day life in various historical periods.

    For example, _The Rituals of Dinner_ won't give you a table setting for the right period, but it will suggest that diners won't have individual forks, that women would be unlikely to use knives at the table, that food would be eaten lukewarm (since it was generally eaten with the fingers), and so on.

    ChickenFreak
     
  7. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Try emailing professors of medieval history. Lots of universities put a list of faculty up on their website with a description of what they do, and email addresses. Email enough, (and politely enough) and one will be friendly enough to send you a book list or even some tips. Just pretend you're interested in taking their class. :p

    Edit: heck, check the course lists and see if they contain book lists.
     
  8. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Melzaar's edit was what I was going to suggest.

    Also, you may be able to find some additional details on neighboring Spain, about which more history may be available. There is a book out on Columbus' fourth voyage that gives some background on his life and times. You might find that useful.
     
  9. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Wasn't Columbus Portugese? I can't remember. :p Never studied him.
     
  10. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^ I think he was working for the Queen of Spain, Isabella I. But technically, Columbus was an Italian.
     
  11. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    I never really do a whole lot of research until the story is done. I might check out the basics online or if I need some inspiration, but what's the point of doing a whole lot of work if you're not even gonna finish.
     
  12. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends. If you were writing something set in, say, Victorian times, most people have a pretty good stereotypical idea of what went on then. There's less chance you'll accidentally write a plot around something that couldn't even happen. But the further back you go the more and more complexly different the societies people lived in. So the Middle Ages you'd need to know everything about how the Catholic church affected people's lives, and unless you still live in a Catholic country you really won't know much about it without study. Then there are the laws and customs. There were so many things which bound people one way or the other, you don't want to write a whole novel dependant on, say, the King firing his bishop, only to find out that, actually, only the Pope is allowed to do it, or something. Or to write it assuming some custom which is modern or from a later historical period that you've accidentally applied back to it. Like, no one was cremated in olde Catholicism - the only times dead bodies and fire came together was in the burning of heretics, and that was meant to be a good thing for them.

    Point is, if you write without research, plot holes are just waiting for you. And inside the research, waits so many ideas.
     
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  13. Leonardo Pisano
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    Leonardo Pisano Active Member

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    I think the old paintings reveal much of daily life in the time the paintings were made. I suggest to start with Wikipedia to find painters of the period concerned, and dig deeper from there.
    HTH.
     
  14. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is exactly what I've discovered in my research! You took the words right out of my mouth, Mel. :) It is so fascinating to learn and immerse myself in another time period.
     
  15. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    And that's why I took History classes at university even though I actually suck at writing history essays :D I scraped by just enough points to get onto the class and once I was there as long as I didn't fail I had a ticket to learn as much random crap as I liked about the past. :D Have so many cool new story ideas thanks to doing it. :) It's sort of pre-research... No story in mind, but learning as much as I can in case I do want to write one. I could probably pull off a novel in settings between 1100-1900 with a reasonable degree of confidence and no one guessing I don't know what I'm talking about now. :p
     
  16. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    Most scholars say he's Italian - Genoese, specifically, although a very small few say he's something else (I've heard people say he's Spanish, or Portuguese, or Polish, or Greek/Byzantine, or French, or Scandinavian). However, he sailed and learned the tools of the trade on Portuguese ships - taking part in exploration and slaving expeditions on the West African coast - for several decades before he went to work for the Spanish.


    I think this is probably the best for most historical novels. The thing is, 99% of the readers AREN'T going to scream at you because people in 18th century Armenia didn't use forks or that 11th century Chinese bureaucrats wore black clothes instead of red clothes. Just try to give a believable, not necessarily realistic, sense of what happened - that's the most important - and get the damn story done first; then you can go back and fix it with whatever historical knowledge you research afterwards, after you have the story done. It's a lot easier then.
     
  17. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    That was probably what I was thinking of then. :D
     
  18. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    haha, not every uni student who's taken history could say that. :D And what's so cool is that you have common enough knowledge about a period that you know where to look if you wanted to research a bit more. I love learning about random history periods, and from the periods that I've taken an interest in, I've decided that I'll write books about them someday, both fiction and nonfiction.
     
  19. chaser57
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    chaser57 New Member

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    thanks to everyone who replied. These are definitely good suggestions.

    One thing I didn't think of is that everyone seems to agree that it is only necessary to carry historical accuracy so far, and that most people are reading for the story not for the history. It seems straightforward but I got so caught up with trying to make sure i didn't miss a single shred of historical accuracy that I nearly forgot I was writing fiction.

    I did consider the necessity of researching in the first place though. I fear plot holes due to historical flaws more than the wrath of god himself.

    I have checked through scholarly materials, essays and articles at the local university (every year I take a single course at my old university so I'm considered a part-time student and have access to all the faculties). Most of them are much less useful in gaining knowledge about everyday period life. They tend to be extremely focused in political, social, or economic issues, such as economic analysis of specific trade policies (particularly between the Portuguese and the British) and specific political issues between different nobility. I hadn't thought about journals or diaries though so I'll definitely go back and check for some of those.
     
  20. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Often social history is harder to find if you're not in the place where it happened. I could easily find social history books about British History right through the ages, but locating Portuguese ones would involve greater effort. You don't give a location, so I can't tell if you're Portuguese or just interested in Portugal, but I'd bet you could find out more in a single week of a research trip to Portugal than months of faffing around in libraries.
     
  21. chaser57
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    chaser57 New Member

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    Oh i absolutely agree. I'm actually Canadian, but my family is German. They explained to me a little of what they thought of the middle ages in Germany, but that's the German middle ages from a modern German perspective. I would love to go on trip for research, but any trip is just not in my budget right now. It definitely would make this sort of research alot easier though. Not to mention who doesnt want a vacation? :)
     
  22. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    I almost signed up for a biology course simply because it involved a year abroad in Portugal, actually. :p
     

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