I’ve had Adam Haviaras on the site before and I always jump at the chance to have him visit. Adam is a historian and a writer of historical fantasy. This week, he’s releasing a new book in his Roman Empire series, Eagles and Dragons. Please have a look at the series if you are interested in Roman history or tales of politics, prophesy and adventure. (Look here for the Kobo version) The new book will be called Killing the Hydra and I’ll have a link as soon as it is published. Today, he talks about the research and travel when writing historical fiction.
Get thee to a Castle (if you can)! – Historical Fiction and Site Visits
One of the things I love about historical fiction is that it transports you to another time, place, and way of life. All from the safety of a cozy arm chair.
However, the challenge for the writer of historical fiction is to make the story as realistic and accurate as possible. This involves a lot of research, and hey, if you love history, that part is fun!
I’ve lost count of all the hours I’ve spent in libraries or my own stacks of books at home, sifting through primary and secondary sources. I’ve done the slow museum walk until my back ached and all I wanted was a glass of wine in a sun-drenched café. I’ve been all over the internet until my eyes bled from looking at photos, maps, Google Earth and Street View.
And those things are extremely useful, but not so much as one thing in particular: site visits.
I love to travel, but for my fiction, it isn’t just for fun, it’s essential. I’ve found that I’m in the writing ‘zone’ when I’m describing a place I’ve actually been to. It isn’t just about what you see in a place, it’s about what you smell, and feel with your hands and feet. When you visit the actual place where your story is set, you get the sensation of the wind on your face and what it sounds like blowing through the trees and over the rocks.
You can’t get that from the internet. Not yet, anyway. Not until someone to creates a real holodeck.
I was once told by an author of historical fiction that when researching his novel on the Templars, he visited sites in the Holy Land and “licked” the stones to get a sense of their texture, shape and taste. He said this helped him a lot, though the locals looked at him strangely.
I don’t recommend licking stones, but touching them with your hands definitely helps.
In the past months, Roberto (our gracious host and slayer of spiders) has shared many pictures from his own travels to sites that figure largely in The Scourge. I’m curious what he has to say about his site visits…
Roberto? Did your site visits add a lot to your understanding of the world of The Scourge?
(Roberto: Absolutely Adam. I was reading your first few paragraphs nodding my head madly. You gain so many intangibles when you visit a place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a site visit is worth a hundred-thousand pictures. I find my best scenes are the ones that take place in the sites I have been to the most.)
Those were great photos by the way. They really help to root the story in reality, even in the face of a zombie plague.
In my own research for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, one of the most important things I did was go to the Sahara and walk barefoot over the dunes. The desert itself is a character in the books and being able to feel the sand underfoot, to pick it up and let it fall through my fingers, was fantastic; it was smooth, like sifted flour.
The archaeological sites I was able to roam through allowed me to map my story out, street by street. In Thugga (in central Tunisia), I walked with my character to the Capitol to make an offering, then to the forum where we purchased provisions, and then to the brothel where, well… you get the picture.
Actually, those site visits were worth eighty thousand words, easily!
Of course, travel to a site is not always possible. Parts of my novels take place in what are now Libya and Algeria. Not really holiday destinations.
Apart from the fact that many ancient sites now lie in war-torn countries, the cost of getting to places is often inaccessible to most writers’ meager budgets. Sadly, travel isn’t cheap.
When I lived in Britain, it was much easier to fly to Italy from Bristol, than it is from Toronto. How about a £60 return special to Venice for the weekend? Fantastico! But now that I live on the other side of the Atlantic, those prices are not available to me.
As writers we must always find a way to put ourselves in the places we are writing about, be it in person, via the internet, books, documentaries, or by speaking with others who have been there.
If you are writing an historical fiction series, it’s definitely worth your while to save and make at least one trip to the place where your story is set. If you ever get the chance to go, do it. You won’t regret it and the sites and sensations you experience will carry you and your writing for a long time afterward.
The good news is that there has never been a better, more exciting time to write historical fiction than now, when so much information is at our fingertips.
Until you can get on a plane, however, keep on researching and writing, and allow your longing to get to a faraway place to fire your imagination and enrich your story.
Adam Alexander Haviaras is an author of historical fiction/fantasy set in the ancient world. He has studied history and archaeology in Canada and the United Kingdom and his both his Eagles and Dragons and Carpathian Interlude series are available from Amazon and Kobo. Adam blogs weekly on his website, Writing the Past, about ancient and medieval history and historical fiction. You can Tweet him at @AdamHaviaras or find him on Google+. He loves to hear from readers, writers, and fellow history-lovers, so don’t be shy. Contact him!