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Constructing a story from history

my research process decoded

Every historical fiction writer tackles research in their own way. As I research my new series, I’ve been keeping track of how I do it. Here are some of the ways I find inspiration and create a story rooted in the past.

First, a research trip in Spain and France over the summer gave me inspiration for a general story idea and a general main character idea. Next, I came up with locations that would make good settings—all of them also inspired by travel. I decided the series would have four novels and a prequel novella. There would be an overarching plot connecting every book in the series, and there would be stories within that broader story for each book.

Genre, character, setting

Pinpointing the genre was next. I prefer writing thrillers to writing mysteries. I love reading Henning Mankell’s crime fiction, police procedurals with thriller-like pacing. I don’t enjoy reading “cozy mysteries” or Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries as much (although I do find Louise Penny’s books absorbing). One series I absolutely love which handles genre and pacing in an interesting way is the Ariana Franklin “Mistress of the Art of Death” series. Each of the four books can be read as a standalone, but there is definitely a story arc to the entire series, and it combines thriller and classic whodunnit elements.

Based on my travels and my interests, I decided the heroine would be born on the Greek island of Rhodes at the end of the medieval era and beginning of the Renaissance era. If you’ve ever heard of the Colossus of Rhodes, this is the place where that enormous statue supposedly stood, straddling the harbor’s seawalls. Because the island (which is visible from Turkey) was ruled by the European Knights Hospitaller in the fifteenth century, I focused a lot of my preliminary research on that organization and on the conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the area. I also knew my heroine would be sailing around to various port cities of Europe, so I looked for maritime lore and information about merchants, shipping, and piracy.

Research: best practices

While I found lots of research materials through Interlibrary Loan, I also paid the modest fee to join Academia.edu, which allows me access to thousands of scholarly papers. I pay attention to footnotes, which can point me to even more useful resources. I am always looking for specifics about real people in these papers that I can use as inspiration for my own characters.

For example, I read about a female slave named Maria who lived on the island of Cyprus. Originally from Abyssinia, she was freed by her master in the mid-1400s so she could marry a man named Peter. Her master gave her 60 ducats for a dowry. I used this example as background for a slave character in my prequel novella who has a similar experience with “manumission”—when a slave is formally freed without conditions.

Another example is Michael of Rhodes. He was born on Rhodes and traveled to Venice, signing on as a lowly oarsman on a Venetian galley in 1401 and working his way up to be a commanding officer on military and merchant fleets throughout Europe. He was fascinated by astrology and math. Though he was super smart and a talented mariner, his status as a foreign born non-noble kept him from ascending to the highest ranks of naval leadership in Venice. I have a copy of his illustrated journals (that’s his drawing below), which were lost to history for hundreds of years, then hidden in a private library, and have only recently come to light.

One issue I have while doing research is retention of information. I take notes as I read and I photocopy essential findings from library books. But if I don’t write a scene immediately with key findings in mind, they slip away like steam from a kettle. I remember this from writing draft 1 of The Girl from Oto. My solution was to write dozens of “vignettes” or scenes immediately after research sessions. I don’t know if this is the best way to do it, but it’s the only way I can avoid endless rereading of material. So I’m doing it again with this series.

I generally won’t let myself write about something unless there is an example in history that allows me to create a fabricated version of it for my story. For example, when I learned that three women in the eastern Greek islands circa 1450 were tavern owners who bought bulk quantities of wine from merchants, I knew that I could populate my story with women tavern owners.

Speaking of women (and my fiction features women in history, specifically women artists), it can get discouraging doing research and seeing barely a trace of female presence in the past. If a woman wasn’t wealthy or noble, it was very likely she would never leave a paper trail or warrant a mention in any written document. I learned while researching the Miramonde Series that women can pop up in municipal records and notaries’ register books, but access to those records can be tricky. Sometimes speaking to an expert can help unravel mysteries or open doors to restricted information.

Research can get overwhelming. While I love making connections and finding colorful anecdotes about real people in the past, I also get bogged down in the quest for historical accuracy. It’s tough to be accurate when you’re writing about a time period 500 years in the past, when there was little documentation about people and events. So a few weeks ago, when I found myself losing my joy and getting mired in details, I forced myself to just start writing.

Write now, worry later

First, I wrote out a basic plot for the entire series, then I fleshed out the plot points for book 1 (knowing there will be inevitable changes as I continue to do research). My goal is to write a first draft of the entire series before taking it to an editor, instead of the way I did it with the Miramonde Series (write a book, get it edited, publish, repeat).

I like to read page-turners and I prefer writing that way. I like ending each chapter with a hook that keeps you wanting to read to the next chapter. To that end, I keep my chapters around 1,500-2,000 words in length. This is about ten pages maximum. I learned this technique from StoryGrid creator Shawn Coyne.

Writing the first few scenes of the first book, I started thinking about what went on in the past that made my characters who they are now. What formed them? What wounded them? What inspired them? D’oh! I realized I had to take a detour to the prequel novella. It sets the stage for the drama that begins in book 1, and it happens about twenty years before the action in book 1. Currently I’m about 5,000 words into it.

I love writing dialogue and it feels natural and easy to me. I often start a first draft of a scene with dialogue. Later I’ll flesh it out with exposition, setting, and the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings. I’ll write my fictional world from my characters’ perspectives, using all five senses.

But at this point, in the first draft stage, I don’t worry so much about those details. As my characters emerge, I remember why I love doing this. And I know the sights, scents, sounds, and setting will come. Even if I can’t transport myself centuries into the past, I can create a believable world that leaps to life on the page.

That’s the beauty of historical fiction. History and creative inspiration—it’s an exhilarating combination.

This article contains affiliate links, which means if you purchase something after clicking on a link, I may earn a few cents.

 

4 Comments

  1. Julie says:

    You are a brainiac…AND a rockstar!

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Why thank you…I approve this message! 😉

  2. Debby says:

    This is fascinating article. I like the way that it shows the hard work that the author puts in for her books. I also like the way the author intends to use actual history within her books. I have always loved history and I agree, details of day to day living are sparse. Well done Amy for putting so much effort in. 👌

    1. Amy Maroney says:

      Thanks so much for visiting my blog and for your kind words, Debby.

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