How I Suffer for my Art: Historical Research

Dressing up, getting drunk, shooting arrows, hawking and playing games. I love my job.

Research is one of the best things about writing historical fiction. As a former history teacher, I know all about primary and secondary sources and how to use them for best effect. Reading is essential, but not always reliable. The Dark Ages is my chosen period and herein lies the problem.

The primary sources are so old it’s a huge task just trying to decipher the language and then another job deciding what exactly the writers mean by these strange words. I can read Anglo-Saxon – or Old English –  but it is quite a long winded process and, guess what, I nearly always agree with the online translators.

So, I am armed with the facts from the period, I’m ready to write my story. Only, I’m not. How can I know what it feels like to wear a metal helmet in battle? Or to shoot arrows? This means more research. Reading about people who have experienced it, using my imagination. No, not enough.

I need hands-on research.

It is the twenty-first century and so I can never really know what it was like for those poor folk in the Dark Ages. But I have tried on the strange clothes and attended battle re-enactments just to hear the sounds and smell the scents. I think I actually have feared death on occasion, too. I have trained in archery (won a medal, let me tell you!) even though I have opted for the very modern recurve bow as the longbow is just too difficult. Other games, like chess and knucklebones, are a piece of cake.

Falconry was necessary for Teon, (available to buy now) as a golden eagle is a major part of the story. You can see the wonderful bird of prey on the cover. I loved the experience of handling the birds and getting close to them, looking into those beautiful eyes and being afraid of them. Yes, I was. Hunting in the National Forest in the Midlands, UK, is illegal so that’s as far as that went. But it was a vital start.

The easiest bit of research is eating and drinking. I find the odd recipe now and again and try it out for myself. Usually my cooking turns out quite well. Next is mead. Essential research. Gulfyrian, one of my major characters in Gulfyrian and Teon, collected honey and made mead. I haven’t gone as far as making it (yet) but drinking it…sweet and heady…that’s another story.

Yes, I love my job. Have I already said that? Well, I’ll say it again.

© 2016 A.J. Sefton

This post originally appeared on Creativity @ Work on 12 March 2016


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