Researching for Historical Fiction
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Jessica: Thanks, how are you, Amy? I’m doing well.
Amy: I’m good, so let’s dive right in, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and about your books.
Jessica: Okay, well, let’s see–I’m a mom of four kids, the oldest is six and then I have a five-year-old, a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old and I have my Master’s in Social Work so I used to work as a psychotherapist like at a psychiatric hospital, and I’m a licensed clinical social worker, that’s how I practiced that, and now I’m a full-time mom and writer. So, my young adult debut is coming out this year in April, it’s Beyond a Darkened Shore, and it is set in medieval Ireland during the time when the Vikings were raiding, and–but before that I have two adult books, they’re published by Skyhorse, and Beyond a Darkened Shore is coming out from HarperTeen, and the two other books are actually–they’re historical fantasy too, they’re just set in Edwardian era England. Yeah, so all of my books are historical fantasy for the most part.
Amy: That’s awesome. So this is a good segue, we’ll just start off: Why do you think research is so important in general, and then also why is it so important for fantasy, historical fantasy?
Jessica: Okay, well I would definitely say that it’s important for anything that you’re writing really, because it helps to create like solid world building, so you know, you can look up how things–even if you’re creating like a totally fantasy world, like let’s say you’re creating a fantasy world, you know, where it’s all winter all the time, so then it would be good to look at places like in a far northern climate like Russia or Canada or places like that where it’s always like really, really cold, and see how those people live: what did they eat, what did they wear, what kind of houses did they have, all those kinds of things, and that helps you know–even if your book is like complete fantasy, it helps you kind of be more realistic and believable in your fantasy. But I’ve seen you know really good examples of that even in like contemporary books too, where you know you just kind of like want to research I don’t know what teenagers are using you know for technology and you know today or whatever, so just about world building and making things more realistic I would say. Also it makes me think of sci-fi books like The Martian, I mean like that had to been hours and hours of research just to figure out like how life could be sustained on Mars you know so it adds something to every book I would say.
Amy: Okay so it’s just important to ground yourself no matter what you’re writing. So for research, let’s say you’re starting to research as something you know nothing about whether it’s in fantasy or contemporary or whatever. What are some good starting places or jumping-off points?
Jessica: Well I always–I just start with like a Google search you know, and then—but that always leads to like all these different tangents you know, you always hear us like talking about like going down the rabbit hole of research, it’s because like you know you’ll be researching one thing like food in the medieval period or whatever and then all these other things will pop up and you know you’ll research that. And so I start there, but then depending on what it is, like for example with Beyond a Darkened Shore, you know I started just researching about medieval Ireland but then I wanted to know more specific questions about like what life was like in the 11th century in Dublin, Ireland. So for that I found a book that talked a lot about it and went into a lot of detail about it, so more specific questions, experts in the field are going to help you more, especially if they’ve written really comprehensive books like that. … And then with Beyond a Darkened Shore too, it has Celtic mythology, so then you know I researched a lot about Celtic mythology, and just creatures of lore, and the gods and the goddesses before the country converted to Christianity, and then that led me to wonder if there was a lingering belief in–even though they had converted to Christianity–a lingering belief in that you know in the old gods and that kind of thing so all of that… Beyond a Darkened Shore was really full of research because then it has–it’s got Norse mythology too, so researched that, researched Vikings, even like what it was like you know we always picture Vikings–or we used to picture Vikings–with like the horns and stuff on their helmet you know like what it was really like, what did they really wear in battle, and what did they really fight with you know…
Amy: So how do you make your research kind of fun or interactive and kind of on that same note, how do you keep track of all the information that you’ve learned or that you’ve collected?
Jessica: Oh yeah … what I really like to do–one way that if it’s at all possible, I would say … travel to Ireland, travel to Norway, I haven’t been able to do that but I would love to do that. Another way though that everyone can make it more interactive is find documentaries, find shows to watch even if they’re not like completely reliable you know like I watched Vikings–the History Channel showed Vikings–non-stop you know so probably not everything in it is like absolutely historically accurate, but like enough to give you an idea of what life was like you know. Oh and how do I keep track–yeah just … I’m not as organized as I should be. What I really recommend to people is to use Scrivener but I’ve just like never gotten the hang of it … I always worry that I’m not using it to its fullest capabilities because it’s such a cool program, but I would say that, because then you can like save all– you can save picture–I’ve done it before and it is like a really great program but I end up like you know saving bookmarks and it’s disorganized; don’t do what I do.
Amy: I think we would all like to be more organized. When you were writing your books and when other people are writing, do you recommend doing all your research before you write a single word or do you just start writing and research as you go?
Jessica: Well I kind of do both, so like when I’m deciding on like–for Beyond a Darkened Shore for example, I knew I wanted to write about Ireland, because I love Ireland so I was like researching different time periods in Ireland and seeing what was going on at the time because it’s always good to write about a time full of conflict and strife you know. I came across in my research that in the 11th century, the Vikings were all over Ireland; they were raiding Ireland, they were–they took over Dublin, they were intermarrying the people so it was like just full of conflict you know so I was like Irish and Viking, yes. So you know kind of both–I picked that time period and then I started to write as the words flow and then did more research along the way as the plot developed you know just going back to stuff we talked about before like what life was like at the time, and Celtic mythology and Norse mythology and all those types of things too, to really flesh out that world, that I was creating.
Amy: Right … Vikings in Ireland, it sounds like a topic where there may or may not be a ton of research, if … someone is … writing about a period in history where there’s not a lot of information, how do you make sure you’re staying true to what little information there is available?
Jessica: Yes, so this actually happened to me–my next book is coming out in 2019 and it’s set in 11th century Russia, like not a well-known period of time, so there’s some stuff out there, but what really helped is, the more I research the more I found out that like the comprehensive book on that particular period in Russia was this one like obscure book written in like 1948, and so I tracked it down like I found it, and I bought it, and it really is a great book, it’s like a tome that has just everything you could want to know about 11th century Russia. I would say that if you’re wanting to write something about a little-known period of time, to try and track down as much—you know like expert research as you can, and then you know I mean you could research areas of time around there and then kind of make your own deductions from there. Because you are writing–assuming you’re writing fiction, you do have some creative license, you can guess how it’d be you know around that time period. So that’s what I had to do is get that–get the book and read that book.
Amy: I imagine that it was a pretty large book. How did you decide when you were reading that, if there’s so much information, how do you decide what to put in and what just may be too much information, too much research…
Jessica: It’s always like a balancing act especially when–you’re right like when you’re reading like tons and tons of stuff and you know you just want to like put it all in there but you kind of like you have to kind of pull yourself back because the more you write about like one particular thing, the more a reader is gonna think it’s significant. Like, say you wrote three paragraphs on like one meal, you know like so–they’re gonna think that’s a significant meal right they’re gonna think like this meal is like poison or there’s something like really important about this meal and maybe you’re you know just like going off on all your research that you … on food at the time you know. So it’s good to like kind of sprinkle things about that world that bring it to life–it’s tricky, it’s a balancing act. Some things that I’ve found though that typically really bring a world to life are things like the food, we all relate to that, what food people eat, what they wear, but then that’s you know like my example [of] the three paragraphs on one meal or you know you don’t want to spend paragraphs and paragraphs describing like one outfit you know you just want to give like little clues about what they’re wearing and what–you know like the example I gave before of like an all-winter fantasy land or something, you know maybe you would talk about fur that they wore, or heavy boots that they wore, whatever so yeah it is tricky when you want to like show everything you’ve researched but you got to pull back a little bit.
Amy: It’s got to be a fine balance. … On the same topic, how do you balance–kind of how do you draw the line between keeping things accurate and then allowing yourself to use creative license and telling a good story.
Jessica: Yes, well as far as it works with my plot, I keep it. Or if it’s like messing up my plot, like say that one of my influences for a book was I don’t know a prince who lived like 200 years before I’m writing, you know but I wanted to borrow aspects of his life then I’ll do it you know but … if it doesn’t work with my timeline then you know I’ll just kind of tweak things until it does and then that’s what the author’s note at the end is for. I’m sorry, I made this up. Yeah but I have been really lucky … and one of the things I can’t–one of my really good examples I can’t tell you because it’s a spoiler for Beyond a Darkened Shore, there’s something that happens there that really did happen in real life. And of course I’ve like kind of tweaked some stuff about it to make it work for my story and what was going on, but the main events really did happen, so things like that are really fun because it’s like, ‘oh this actually works for my book,’ you know it’s like history is working with my plot here.
Amy: That’s great. You touched on this before, but just to kind of jump back, when you’re doing your research, how much do you use, besides the book that you mentioned and kind of experts in the field … people use experts to build their world.
Jessica: Okay yeah I actually did reach out–it was for one of my books published … by Skyhorse, the one set in the Edwardian era, and it actually takes place in Bath, England, so–or part of it does–so and this one is The Order of the Eternal Sun, and I actually reached out to people in England, in Bath, they were like part of the tourism for Bath, and like I felt like people involved in tourism like they will answer your question. But I definitely think it’s good to reach out to experts if you’ve got some kind of weird obscure question you know like I can’t remember exactly what I wanted to know but for example like if you wanted to know, could they in Edwardian era England go to … the Roman baths houses in Bath at night or were they closed at night or whatever you know just like something that’s kind of difficult to Google because it’s so specific, you know that’s when I would research–reach out to experts in the field.
Amy: So when you need to know really specific things. Would you ever recommend–for example when you were working on your books, did you ever have an expert read the book, or you just would use them kind of on a need-to-know basis.
Jessica: I haven’t done that yet, but I had just reached out to them through email and just like kind of explained what I was writing at the time and you know could they help me with this like random question I had. But I think that’s great too like if you’re writing you know if you’ve got—like if you’re writing a Russian book, like if I had a Russian friend, you know I’d be all over that, you know read it and see if I’m using my Russian words correctly and that kind of thing. So utilize like the people that you know for sure.
Amy: Right, absolutely. Kind of a segue from there, when you’re writing historical fiction, how do you approach keeping the voice–the character voices–real without settling too kind of old-fashioned and maybe losing or alienating your younger readers who just want to read something that’s in a slightly more modern voice–how do you do that?
Jessica: That’s a good question too, it is tricky because you want to be like accurate, but then obviously–so like for example in 11th century Ireland they’re probably using like … “ye olde,” so I’m not gonna do that. I just try and make it a little more formal than you know normal, everyday speech, but not to the point where–and I don’t like when people–when you’re reading stuff that is clearly medieval you know like in research and stuff–where you cannot understand what they’re talking about at all, so of course I wouldn’t want to alienate readers like you said that way for the sake of complete historical accuracy you know. So avoid using “ye-olde.”
Amy: … So, kind of speaking on that, what books do you like to read like what are some of your favorite historical fiction works or some books that you read and you’re like “Oh my goodness I need to get into this field.”
Jessica: Yeah, well I actually like–I guess it’s telling my age a little bit–like when I was growing up and as a teenager like they didn’t really have a whole lot of YA, certainly not like it is now, so I basically grew up reading like historical romance you know set in Regency era London and all that kind of stuff so that really–I mean those romance authors did some serious research you know, so that was kind of my start of interest in it and then just like I love the Infernal Devices series and–I wrote down a few, I knew I’d forget, I’m really bad at remembering all the books I like–the Infernal Devices though I love that and Code Name Verity, yeah, A Great and Terrible Beauty, a lot of the ones by Libba Bray are like really good, or even books based on a real place like Shadow and Bone, I love the Shadow and Bone series, so yeah but those are … my top favorites, yeah.
Amy: Awesome. What do you think when you’re writing–what are some of the hardest thing about writing historical fiction?
Jessica: … As much as I love to research, like the research, you know. Trying to like find, and then trying to answer like really obscure questions to things like, ‘what would the road be like in the time,’ you know that can be really difficult. What I mentioned before about organization. I need to step up my organization game. I need to get into Scrivener more. Research can be really fun but it can get overwhelming and another thing too is like when you’re writing–and I do this and I know I shouldn’t because it breaks the flow of writing–is to stop and look something up instead of like just making a note to yourself like yeah–like research this later and then coming back to it you know after you’ve finished your thought process, and I don’t, and I need to. … Don’t do what I do, don’t break your flow of writing.
Amy: That makes sense. So you talked a little bit about the research you did for Beyond a Darkened Shore but tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now–you mentioned your book coming out in 2019, what kind of research are you doing or how’s it going? Yes, so this one is Through the White Wood and it’s set in 11th century Russia, so that’s what I was talking about before where it’s like this obscure time period, and I had to get that giant book on it and try and figure out what life was like at the time and…
Jessica: I have to know, how did you choose 11th century Russia?
Amy: Well I’ve always like been interested in like Russian folklore and everything and just like–kind of like what I did with Beyond a Darkened Shore–just like kind of researching different time periods to figure out you know a really interesting time period or one that’s little-known you know, but then it also worked with Beyond a Darkened Shore because the two main characters from Beyond a Darkened Shore, they make an appearance in this book. I wouldn’t say they’re like you know central characters or anything but they make an appearance and that was due to the fact that apparently Vikings had their hand in settling Russia, too. So like the very first prince of medieval Russia was a Viking so–I know! So it was another thing where it was like you know with all lining up but I just kind of like stumbled into that doing research, different time periods and what would work for kind of my idea.
Jessica: That’s wonderful. After you’re done with those two books, is there a historical period you have in mind that you’d love to work on or something in the future?
Amy: Well I have like a secret project that I’m working on now that’s entirely a fantasy but it’s probably like early civilization I would say so … and I can’t say more than that, but there’s like–I don’t know you know there’s so many different time periods that really interest me. I’ve done Edwardian era but in England, I’ve done you know 11th century, that’s kind of like a random time period but medieval time is [a] prime period–is really interesting, yeah there’s so many I don’t know.
Jessica: There’s too many to count. Another question for you it’s kind of–we touched on it before but–how do you know when to stop researching, I mean when do you just say you have enough? How do you avoid doing too little research or doing too much and kind of losing yourself in research? When do you know that you’ve done enough?
Amy: Yeah, when you’re like ‘that’s it, I’m done!’
Jessica: … I don’t know that it ever really stops you know like when you finally turn your book into your publisher from the final pass pages I’d say. Because like seriously with Beyond a Darkened Shore there were things like I continued to have to look up because you know my editor would get it and she’d say well what about this and then you have to research that, and then the copy editor gets it and then you have to look up their questions, and so it goes on and on so yeah, when you turn in your very final copy, you’re done.
Amy: We’re almost out of time but I just have to ask because I’m so curious. You mentioned that you used to be a psychotherapist. I’ve got to know, how does that influence the way you approach your writing and your character development? …
Jessica: Yeah, it has been really helpful for the psychology of characters, you know we all want to bring characters to life, we all want to do you know some serious character development and characterization, so it definitely helps with that, just going back and really thinking you know if this were a client sitting in front of me who had had this happen to her, how would she react you know what is the most likely scenario for how she would react or what would help her get through that or–so it does help me being a psychotherapist in my past to think about the effect on–well characters, I was gonna say clients–but how it impacts them psychologically.
Amy: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Do you have any final pieces of advice or tips and tricks for someone who wants to start writing historical fiction or fantasy? Anything you would…
Jessica: I would say just really make sure it’s a time period that you’re really, really fascinated by, that you are willing to spend hours reading about and you know going down the rabbit holes for, because that’s what makes the most interesting work too, is something that you can tell that the writer was really enthusiastic about and knew a lot about because then the reader feels more confident you know; isn’t like, ‘I don’t know that they would be wearing that’ or whatever you know like, so it does help to be really enthusiastic about what you’re researching.
Amy: Yeah okay well that’s awesome. To end it off, tell us a little bit–when does Beyond a Darkened Shore come out and when…
Jessica: It comes out April 10th of this year, it’s finally 2018, so it’s coming out soon. … My Russian story, Through the White Wood, it’ll come out in winter of 2019. But what HarperCollins calls winter is like, it could be spring in April so they haven’t set an exact date yet so I’m not sure about the exact day that it comes out but winter 2019.
Amy: All right perfect, well we have run out of time unfortunately but everyone, make sure to look for Beyond a Darkened Shore in April of this year and winter 2019. Thank you so much for joining us, and I hope you have a great day.
Jessica: Thanks, you too. Okay, bye-bye.
Jessica Leake is the author of the adult novels Arcana and The Order of the Eternal Sun, both with Skyhorse. She worked for years as a psychotherapist, but even though she loved her clients, she couldn’t stop writing. She lives in South Carolina with her husband, four young children, lots of chickens, and two dogs who keep everyone in line. Beyond a Darkened Shore is her YA debut. Visit her at www.jessicaleake.com.