Tuesday 2 June 2015

Historical Sources for Historical Fiction - Gillian Polack

Last month I made a rash promise. I promised I’d talk about sources. Now that my mind is on other things, I’ll still talk about sources, but not in the way I originally intended. I’m writing a book on the relationship that fiction writers enjoy with history, and that’s colouring everything I do. It definitely colours this post.

Compared with modern history, there are so few sources for the Middle Ages. ‘Compared with modern history’ are tricky words, however. There are a lot of sources. A vast number and range. They’re not always obvious, however, nor are they easy to interpret. And the reason we look at them shapes how we interpret them. Some of this I talked about last month.

Last month I focussed on cosmetics. 

Our main sources for cosmetics right now are a very small number of key manuscripts. These manuscripts talk about what cosmetics women used, they prescribe how women should behave, and they that give recipes for them. We’re not talking about that many documents, in total, and they cover the whole of Western Europe. This means that, from them, we don’t know what cosmetics a given woman would use. Big statements like “All women wore lead paint” are based on a tiny number of sources. A pale face in a picture doesn't mean the woman in the picture is depicted as wearing lead paint. I found you an example of this:

There are also some rather wonderful archaeological remains. Combs are my personal favourite, but they aren’t the only archaeological survival, by any means. One of the big lessons I learned when I worked on The Middle Ages Unlocked, was that on some subjects Katrin (my archaeologist co-writer) knew many things that I did not. My archaeology was a mere two years at university and was a very long time ago. The knowledge differential between me and someone who works in a particular field and knows their stuff is vast and full of chasms. 

Even the stuff Katrin only half-knows is more than what I know in her field. I hope that the same applies to mine and that she was sufficiently awed by my historical understanding for the world to be balanced, but that’s somewhat irrelevant here. What’s relevant is that archaeology is constantly growing and changing and dipping into a popular work won’t give you nearly as much information as learning how to interpret reports of digs or analyses of types of finds. Those finds won’t tell you how someone wore make-up, but they will give you more information about the devices used to make oneself beautiful, and that information helps us flesh out those rare mentions in manuscripts.

The trick is, then, not just knowing what kind of sources are out there, but gaining access to them and putting them in their wider cultural perspective.

One of my favourite websites for small archaeological finds is finds.org. It’s an online database of the small things found by various people in the UK. Each find has a description, but you’ll not get detailed analysis of how it fits in with other finds. Whether this brooch is typical or this tool is normal for a time and place isn’t something you’ll find out without checking what the experts have to say. Sources speak, but they speak much better when they’re interpreted by those with vast amounts of knowledge and experience.

What I do, when I’m researching for a novel is use a mixture of primary sources and the studies of them by those who know more than me. In the happy (but small) areas where I’ve done my own research and I am the researcher, I can bask in the sunshine of actually knowing what I’m doing, but most of the time I argue with myself and try to expand my understanding of the place and time I’m writing about, so that I can use studies critically and not misinterpret the sources too badly.

How does this relate to historical sources for fiction? Intimately. A source is as only as good as the person who looks at it. If you look at a beautiful manuscript and have no idea of the language it’s in or that it’s in a script that predates your period by five hundred years or that it was written by the exact person you want to star in your amazing tale, then it’s a huge waste. 

Sources are only as good as the person using them and are always biased at our (the user’s) end and at the original (writer’s) end. Interpretations are only as good as the brain and thought and understanding of the person using them. And that person needs to remember (I write notes to myself, for it’s a continual reminder, not a once-off) that people in the past were real and had private lives and were grumpy in the morning or tired at night and had to go and milk the cows when they’d rather be writing and… Sometimes we get annotations or comments in the manuscripts that tell us these things, and those notes are writing gold. Most of the time we have to look very carefully at a list or a letter and work out who the writer was from what they didn’t say as much as from what they do say.

That’s why I decided against giving a list of sources in this post. I thought it might be more useful to talk about the most important factor in someone’s research: how they think and discover and interpret.

So many writers want to cut research corners. They ask me for digests of what I know. “Summarise twenty years of your work in three minutes, please, for that’s all the time I can spare this subject.” This is not a wise approach for a writer. The trick with sources is not accessing them: it’s understanding them.

My research (for the ‘I’m-not-a-fiction-writer’ side of me) is generally text-based. Medievally speaking, for me, this mostly means literature. There are bunches of non-literary Medieval written sources, hidden away in archives, staring us in the face as the charters for towns and the underpinning of various family histories. I tend not to work with these for my academic side, for I am addicted to stories.

What I do as a novelist, is read general works on the subject until I understand where current research is going, how it interprets that place and time and what spin it gives to sources. I collect primary sources and then read them myself wherever I can. All of this recent experience comes from me working on a period so alien to me that I’ve had to start from first principles – I can’t trust my common sense, because my common sense will be trumped by my preconceived assumptions at every point, and preconceived assumptions tend to make a rather predictable work of fiction. Also a shallow one.

So, I’ve read a bunch of works by historians and archaeologists and have a fair general knowledge about the setting for this novel I’m working on. I’ve started reading primary sources and taking notes about particular tidbits that’d be handy for the novel. This is my actual beginning. From here I’m working on turning my new adventure into understanding of a deep enough sort that it can inform my novel.

It’s the difference between looking at a source and looking into a source and understanding it. 

I keep using the word ‘understanding’ because that’s the way to get the sources to talk back, to reveal their information and to let them help you bring the novel to life. It’s the difference between giving a reader flat information about a place and a time and giving a reader a lively story where the time and place is integral to the story.


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating - but a little bit daunting!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Yes, yes yes! A superb post Gillian with some really useful soundbyte quotes for the historical fiction community. "The trick with sources is not accessing them: it’s understanding them." Or "It’s the difference between looking at a source and looking into a source and understanding it."
I find it incredibly frustrating when looking illustrations or objects when I know there's a meanings or a context in there, but I don't have enough knowledge to know what it is. Sometimes I can find out by digging and asking. Sometimes I just have to add it to the ongoing 'mystery pile.'

Desperate Housewife said...

I wonder what this article would have contained if you had sat down and wrote it as soon as idea came? I think understanding is a greater requirement than knowledge when researching history, and its harder to gain. For example looking at a ruined castle can be interesting, as is knowing who lived there and family history, but understanding how castle household was run, how food was stored and prepared and served, how rooms were used and furnished gives us a greater understanding of people's lives. Likewise finding and reading a manuscript is one level of understanding, but knowing why written, the personalities behind the names and their ambitions gives a greater understanding to the words. As you state finding a primary source does not necessarily equate to understanding its place in history.

Gillian Polack said...

Sue, it's work, but not a great deal more work than research without getting the understanding. And once you start thinking about things from this direction, it becomes natural and very straightforward.

Elizabeth, I now find myself squizzing my work, watching for soundbites. I'm so not someone who creates soundbites (according to me, myself, at least.)

Desperate Housewife, maybe I'll write that other article, one day.

Kate, magic is an entirely different post, although good writers do create magic of a different kind.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Gillian, I think that "Kate Mark" comment is spam, although a post on mediaeval spell casting might be interesting.

I think a historian's approach to research is in a lot more depth than the rest of us. I read as much as I can about a subject and absorb it, but I still make plenty of mistakes - you're right to say you need to understand your sources. And yes, it's wonderful when the human being on the other side of the historical manuscript comes through, isn't it?