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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

Research & Writing

"Sure is a lot of stuff out there on the internets."

Because I write in a vein of historical fiction, I sometimes get asked about research. Usually, the question is along the line of how deep do you have to delve into historical research when you write a novel in this genre.


For me, the honest answer is "enough not to look dumb." 


There are a lot of historical fiction writers who could probably pass themselves off as historians. They comb through original sources, translate documents, do all the things real historians do. And sometimes that comes off great--Patrick O'Brian, for example, was absolutely fastidious when it came to the mechanics of navigating and fighting naval ships in the Age of Sail. But he was also a heck of a story-teller. Being the latter, to my mind, is more important than the former. Because I've also read a fair amount of historical fiction and fantasy where it's obvious the author relished his or her research a bit too much and felt compelled to machinate each and every granular detail of what they uncovered into their story. Those can be tedious books to read.


So for me, when I come to a plot point or a setting that relies on history, I Google around a bit to get the lay of the land. Then I try to find one or two credible authorities to provide the foundation for the background that I need. Those might be books. Sometimes they're academic papers (for Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock, I read through a UMass graduate student's thesis that, for some reason, was published online, to gain some understanding of African-American society in 1800 Massachusetts). Often times, these jaunts of research will yield an idea that I end up using (in the Lost Lock, I happened across a piece about the undeclared French War in the late 18th Century, which ended up getting a prominent feature in the book). But because I have a limited amount of time to invest between research and writing, I try to limit these forays. Again, I only want to get to the point where I can confidently say, "I don't think I'll look dumb if I write this." 


The Yonder & Far manuscript I just finished, tentatively entitled The Tarot Tale, has two areas that required me to hit the books. The first was the presidential election of 1800. For those who don't recall their high school history class, that was the one that was (mostly) between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And if you think recent U.S. elections were heated, do a little dive into what went on in 1800! Now, this is a topic of incredible complexity (in particular because at the time, each of the States had different methods of choosing their presidential electors). There was no way I was ever going to master it--but I'm not writing a book of history. I'm writing a historical fantasy that has the election of 1800 as a background feature. So, in order not to luck dumb, I hit a couple of books: the late, great David McCullough's biography on John Adams and A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson. Between the two books, I gleaned enough to fill out a suitable setting for my characters to get into all sorts of adventures. 


The second area I needed to gain some insight into was Tarot reading. As the name of the title implies, Tarot features heavily in this story. Now, here was a topic I knew nothing about. And so I ended up taking a little bit of historical license with it. But for a good reason. Historically speaking, people have been using cards for divination for hundreds of years. But what most people recognize as Tarot reading really didn't have a significant following until after around 1910 with the publication of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck of cards (of which, the 10 of Wands is pictured above). There is a metric ton of information available online and in books on these "modern" cards--it didn't take me long to feel like I knew enough for my fortune-telling character to provide insightful readings. But there wasn't nearly as much out there on the older decks that were in use in 1800 (plus, to be honest, the cards weren't nearly so vibrant and dynamic as the Waite-Smith deck). In order to resonate more with readers, my story relies upon the Waite-Smith deck even though the events are set in 1800. But by taking a little time to learn this new topic, I hopefully will make up for that little license.


The balance between in depth historical research and story-telling is a balance different historical fiction writers strike in different places. What are your favorite areas of historical fiction and how do your favorite writers tackle history?

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