As part of the Walnut Springs Press Month, Walnut Springs Press will be giving away 4 fantastic novels by Walnut Springs authors including Joyce's latest release, Dangerous Favor.
All you have to do to enter this giveaway is leave a comment on this post or any of the event posts. (See the event page for the full event schedule.) The more posts you comment on, the more entries you have into the contest!
Now, keep reading to find out more about Walnut Springs' resident medieval expert, Joyce DiPastena and her take on historical research.
About Joyce DiPastena
Taking the Fear Out of Historical Research
by Joyce DiPastena
I know many writers who would like to write a historical novel…romance, mystery, YA…but they’re afraid to even try. Why? Because the research simply seems too overwhelming. “How do I find all that information? Even if I find it, how do I remember it all?”
Well, here’s a simple truth. You don’t have to know every single bit of necessary research before you begin your story! Some people, of course, love to work that way, to have all the pieces in place, plot, characters, research, every detail before they start typing away at the keyboard. That’s what works best for them, that’s how they love to do it, that’s how their minds are organized, and that’s the way they roll. But there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat (don’t let my cats hear me say that!), and there is more than one way to write a historical novel.
I know myself well enough to know that if I tried to research every historical detail of my novel ahead of time, I’d never remember what I researched. No matter how well I organized my notes, when I needed them, I wouldn’t remember where I’d put them. That’s just the way my mind works. Plus, the more I research a topic, the more I start itching to jump in and start the story. If I wait too long doing research, I lose interest in the story before I even begin.
So here’s the way I do it, and you can research this way, too. Do a little general reading on the time period you’ve chosen to get a feel for it, but don’t worry about taking extensive notes just yet. If you want to jot some notes in the margins of a book (“hunting,” “farming,” “dining,” “games,” “clothing,” etc), go ahead. You can keep them general at this point. If you’re researching online, you can keep a Word or Excel document with similar “tags” and just insert a web link where you found the information. It’s more important to know where to find the information at this point, than it is to remember everything you read on a topic.
Okay, you have a general feel for the time period. Now you can start writing while beginning to insert your research piece by piece, kind of like a puzzle.
Let’s take, for example, the short medieval Christmas romance I’ve been working on, called Caroles on the Green. What research did I need to write this story? Well, obviously, medieval Christmas traditions. Also, how they dressed, what they ate, in the case of this story, how they danced. But did I need to have all this information memorized before I started? No.
Caroles on the Green begins with a dining scene. This is when I pulled out my books on medieval cooking. (You can also research online, of course.) I looked up a few medieval dishes, I analyzed what was in them so I could have my characters react to the flavors, textures, aromas, etc, and then I wove that information into the dialogue that set the story in motion. (Note: Specifics are always better than generalities. Don’t just have your characters eating “delicious food.” Let one of them eat a mushroom pasty and savor the cheese filling on her tongue.
The next scene moves to a dancing scene. How did they dance in the Middle Ages? I didn’t need to know all the specifics of dancing before I wrote the dining scene. But now that it’s time for my characters to dance, I can pause and go off on the hunt of researching dancing details. What I discovered was that no one really knows how people danced in the 12th century, when my story is set, because no one bothered to write down a description of how they did it at the time. So to some extent, I found I was free to invent some dance steps. (I figured I was relatively safe as long as they didn’t dance a waltz, a foxtrot, or the jitterbug. The Charleston probably wouldn’t have worked, either.) What historians do know about medieval dancing is that circle dances were popular, and that one such popular circle dance was known as a “carole.” Yes, it is where our term “carol”, as in “Christmas carols” comes from. Originally, the carole/carol was a dance, not a song. People danced in a circle holding hands, while one person sang what we would call the “verse” to a song, then everyone else in the circle would join in singing the “refrain.” These caroles were danced, not just at Christmastime, but all year long. There were spring caroles, as well as Christmas caroles. Eventually people stopped dancing while they sang and only sang the songs at Christmas, and they turned into our modern-day Christmas carols.
But I didn’t know all this before I began my short story. I waited until I needed a dance for my characters to dance, then did my research. I could have chosen from several different dances, for names of dances were recorded, even if the dance steps weren’t. In fact, originally my characters were going to dance a “ronde.” But the more I read and the more I thought, the more the “carole” concept fit into my story, and that’s the dance I finally used.
Here’s another example. In my medieval romance, Dangerous Favor, published last January with Walnut Springs Press, my hero fought in a tournament. But true to my research methods, I waited until the tournament scene actually needed to be written before I stopped and researched medieval tournaments. That’s when I discovered that the one-on-one “joust” that we’re so familiar with from movies and TV was not part of the tournament in the 12th Century. This meant I had to adapt my original intentions for the scene, but it actually turned for the best, as the mêlée (where the knights fought in group “teams”, like opposing sides in a mock war) drove the scene forward in a more dramatic way than a one-on-one joust would have done. What can I say? My research may be disorganized, but somehow it still works.
I could go on and on with examples, but I won’t. This is already plenty long for a blog post! But the point is, you don’t have to know everything before you even start. If you want to write a historical novel, it’s perfectly okay to research as you go. Now that doesn’t sound so scary, does it?
Walnut Springs Books
by Joyce DiPastena