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Researching The Historical Novel, Part I

May 25, 2008
As I have intimated in previous offerings, the research that goes into writing a historical novel can be almost minimal, or can entail weeks and months of endeavor. If one wishes to write about something as remote as the caravans carrying silk in the ancient days over the Silk Road through China, Tibet and associated areas, the work required could be substantial. One of the best novels set in similar surroundings was Thomas Costain's The Black Rose that sold over six hundred thousand copies in its first printing. Costain had a long and varied career as an editor and for several years as director of 20th Century Fox's story development department. He retired at 57 years of age to devote his time to writing, and his fiction was notable for its reliance on historical facts, but always pertinent to his story.

My first novel, El Tigre, at times could be considered pretty much at the other end of the continuum. It is the saga of the growth and maturation of a young Prussian aristocrat from school days through his ensuing world-wide travels. The early material of Johann's school days was easy to write because my grandfather was a graduate of the Kriegsakademie, or government military school, and fought in the Franko-Prussian war. Listening at length to stories he would tell provided me with much basic information with respect to both the civilian and military customs of the times. Research on the political situation in Europe, and more especially Spain, preceding and during the 1st Carlist War, was another matter.

A number of factors were heavily influential in the particular period of Spanish history surrounding Carlos pretension to the throne. Napoleon and his brother had made numerous political as well as military moves affecting Spanish rule. There was the on-again, off- again ascendance to power by the Spanish monarch, and there was the Influence of England and Portugal lurking in the background. Offering additional overriding problems, were the King's personality traits.

The researcher must read all of this material, but he must then carefully select the most pertinent facts and weave them, and only them, into the story. The manner of including them also must be done in a manner that keeps intact the history, and yet, does not overpower the reader. The selection process is the toughest part. You will find so much of the material to be fascinating that it is most difficult to decide what to, and not to, include. As an interesting aside, in an area further along in the book, I was dealing with Santa Anna. I discovered he was the man who introduced chewing gum to the United States. Fascinating, but certainly the fact had nothing to do with the plot so it was, with reluctance, discarded.

In a manner similar to the problems of selection of material for the Carlist period, was an examination of the factors leading to Texas' fight for independence. The factors involved in this matter are so convoluted as to almost make Europe's problems simple. It is so involved that before researching El Tigre, I had read much about it, but never understood the roots of the confrontation. After several days of reading copious material, I finally understood the complexity of the situation. However, the next, and most important, step was to attempt to reduce it to a readable form that could retain the basic facts and still be included in the body of a novel without slowing down the pace of the story for the reader. Here, I can only say that you must write and rewrite, and constantly keep in mind what is pertinent to the plot and what is not. If you like history, and if you do not, I am not sure why you are writing historical fiction, there is so much material you feel important, that the decisions you must make may be some of the toughest you ever have to make.

So actually, there is no easy way to research a historical novel. If you are fortunate enough to have a grandfather, other relative, or a friend from the period, at least part of the job will be easy. The rest is plain hard work of finding the material. Fortunately, thanks to the web, this endeavor is a much easier task than in the days I still remember well. However, once you have gathered the material and assimilated it, the really difficult part of your job begins. You must then make the horrendous decisions as to what you can keep and what must be discarded. And you must remember above all else in these decisions, if you keep it, it must be pertinent to the plot.
About the Author
John H. Manhold is a retired professor and scientific journal editor. He is an author of several textbooks, a lexicon in four languages and now novels that often require extensive research. He provides coaching on various types and phases of writing. Please see John Manhold for more information, and an address.
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