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Researching The Historical Novel, Part II

Jun 1, 2008
I have mentioned previously that the Romance genre is almost a sure bet, and that mystery stories are a pretty close second. I also included adventure in the popular list, but particularly dwell on the historical novel because it not only has remained popular through the years, but recently has experienced somewhat of a growth period, as has the formerly almost dormant western.

I also have intimated that in no other genre, is research the most dominant requirement. A historical novel, above all else, must be accurate in its historical details. In my previous discussion, I covered some of the problems encountered in researching the historical novel.

There are a number of others, with which one must contend. If one selects a period in antiquity, such as Costain's previously mentioned The Black Rose, one will find a great deal of confusion and overlapping descriptions of both terrain and the people living there. A prime example, is offered by wandering groups of marauding nomads who invaded China's northwestern borders in the waning B.C. years. Reportedly, their depredations were so annoying as to cause erection of the first part of the Great Wall in Gansu. These Xiongnu were described and often called "Huns," by early eighteenth century writers. The grave confusion occurs because the Chinese destroyed the Xiongnu in the second century A.D., and no evidence ever has surfaced that there had ever been any westward migration of the Xiongnu. Attila, the Hun, and his hoards, did not appear and begin their devastating raids in Europe until some two hundred years later.

This is just one of the myriad problems one can experience in attempting to set a story in such a out-of-the-way time and place. The research must be thorough, because if it is not, someone is going to spot it. Before starting a novel in this era, I might suggest perusal of Frances Wood's, The Silk Road, as an excellent place to begin. It is well researched and beautifully written. Also, a novel by Sam Barone, entitled Dawn of Empire, is a well-written example of a fairly recently published novel set in a similar early era.

Another factor that I mentioned briefly in an earlier discussion, is that of geography. I recalled the tremendous change that had taken place in the seashore area just outside of Marbella, Spain in just a few short years. These changes are not unique. All of Europe has, and is, changed quite drastically. Certain, mostly desert parts, of Morocco and Algiers have changed little except for the eternal movement of the sands. The rest provides horrendous mixes of the new with the old. Parts of Ireland remain pretty much as they were, but even the once remote Ring of Kerry has encountered much change.

If one is to write about the United States, one must remember the tremendous changes that have taken place here, as well. One has only to remember, for a graphic example, some of the recent motion pictures depicting New York City at the turn of the century. Other changes that are more difficult to remember, and perhaps picture, are the 'Great American Desert' that once covered much of the southwestern part of the country, and the once untenanted Llano Estacado that now is heavily populated and even contains whole cities.

Characterization is a third major factor that one must consider in the historical genre. Individual personalities, perhaps have changed little. Anger, jealousy, pettiness, fear, magnanimity, have all existed for eons of time. However, the mores of the various societies in which these personalities live, have undergone a tremendous revolution. Those of the ancients contrast sharply with those of the Renaissance, the Elizabethan, and every other marked period of history, as they do from nationality to nationality; viz, the duena system of courtship in Spanish society, or the Creole institution of placage in Old New Orleans.

So, if one wishes to write in the historical genre, each and every one of these factors must be carefully considered and researched. It is not an easy task if one does not enjoy spending countless hours perusing numerous sources. However, if you enjoy such pursuits, you will find many rewards well worth the time.
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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