By Tosca Lee
I get asked (a lot!) how I research my historical novels, which always surprises me because it seems like a) kind of a boring thing to talk about and b) a personal process based on a person’s goals and interests and penchant for chasing rabbit trails. That said, having had to pack a dissertation’s worth of research into books like Iscariot and The Legend of Sheba, I have a favorite few tricks:
1) Start pedestrian. Do what everyone else does: Google. Wikipedia. YouTube. See what’s available on Amazon. Read and watch widely.
2) Acquire primary references for your library. These are period (often eye-witness) source materials. I.e., the historian Josephus. Find and study your primary sources.
3) Mine specialty outlets. This is where I divert to the History Channel. National Geographic. The Discovery Channel. Coursera. Two of my power tools: The Great Courses and the (in my opinion) less-utilized and under-appreciated iTunes U. These last two, in particular, are rich sources of highly-organized, consumable information by leading experts and ivy-league academics. True, the Great Courses are not cheap. If scrimping, look for the course on eBay, or order only the transcripts. iTunes U. is free.
4) Identify your experts–the writers of authoritative books and commentaries, leading academics, theologians or historians teaching the lectures or featured in the documentaries. These may also be area experts or locals living in your setting (travel guides, bloggers and other book authors are excellent for this) or doing what your characters do.
5) Recruit. I never write a historical novel without at least a small group of experts in my pocket to either point me in the direction of information I need or to directly and expediently answer a question as I’m working. Don’t be afraid to write and introduce yourself and how you came to find them. Curators of specialized information are eager to help someone who shares their enthusiasm. Offer them the gift of some of your previously published work and a consulting fee if you have the resources. If you find yourself relying on their help at regular intervals, be gracious with a token of appreciation. And of course remember them in your acknowledgments and with a finished copy of the project.
My library for Iscariot consisted of more than 100 books, documentaries, commentaries and transcripts. There’s an inherent risk in so much information and it is this: the temptation to put every tasty morsel of obscure but fascinating information into your prose.
Don’t do it.
Readers don’t turn to fiction to be educated first, but entertained (or else they would be reading the same research material as you). Take the time to read and absorb everything pertinent. Sort your information in a way that you can find what you need when you need it.
Having absorbed everything I’ve read, listened to, and watched for months, I push it all away when I sit down to write. I let loose, keeping maps or immediate references nearby if necessary, and add historical details in small doses later–mostly to the first part of the novel, where I am buying credibility with the reader.
Save yourself the trouble of hashing through a barrage of information (and slicing out thousands of words) by cutting to the heart of your story from the get-go. Ultimately, the facet of your story that will most impact your readers is not the understated impressiveness of your research… but their emotional connection with a character’s hopes, dreams, failures and fears–the things that bind us all, regardless of time and place.
Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Iscariot; The Legend Of Sheba; Demon: A Memoir; Havah: The Story of Eve; and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker. Her highly-anticipated new thriller, The Progeny, releases May, 2016.