To Be Or Not To Be…That Is The Research

My last post was all about how writing about historical characters can actually improve your writing, just by their being real. This time, I’m considering how research can help flesh them out so that they’re not only realistic, but realistic for their own time. 

Stanwick Fortifications - it's not the best picture, but it was evening, raining, and my good camera wasn't charged. :)

Stanwick Fortifications – it’s not the best picture, but it was evening, raining, and my good camera wasn’t charged. 🙂 (© Miranda Stork 2015)

A few of you might know that I’m not only writing at the moment, but also doing a History/Classics degree. We’re currently doing the Odyssey, (which is an amazing epic poem, by the way) and part of what we’re doing with it is looking at how Homer may have put the ideas and culture of his own time (known as the Greek ‘Dark Age’, roughly 1200 – 800 BCE) into the poem, which is set in the Greek Bronze Age, quite a long time past when the epic was written! But it’s not an uncommon thing, to put your own ideas about things into the past. It’s the reason we get so angry when we read about injustices of the past, even though it was commonplace at the time, or get surprised when we hear about something we didn’t expect. And in five-hundred years or so, people will make assumptions about us, too, as well as generalisations. I don’t like to think about the negative things that will be remembered over the good things, but hopefully some of our culture will be preserved in ways they didn’t have even a century ago.

But getting back to the point…it’s something I know I have to watch out for in Daughters of Brigitania. Reading back over what I’ve done so far, considering I’ve still got a third or so to write, and it’s unedited, I can already see problems – mostly with speech. No, I haven’t got them saying things like ‘See you ’round’, I’m not that daft! Haha. But in some places, it feels a little too ‘modern’, and in others, they sound Shakespearean – which is closer, but it’s still not right. I can do research to find out how the ancient Britons looked, where they lived, what events they took part in…but how do I find out how they spoke? It’s made doubly hard by the fact that we don’t even know what language they spoke, even though there are modern descendants of it such as Welsh. Lucky for me, the period I’m writing about at least includes the Romans.

The amazing Vindolanda museum from the air. (© The Vindolanda Trust, 2014)

And there is a few ways to see how the Romans spoke. A few months back I went to the awesome Vindolanda museum, not far from where I live. (If you like in the UK, or you’re going to visit, and you love anything Roman, GO. It is a fabulous museum, and they have a live archaeological dig all year ’round). One of their biggest exhibits are the so-called ‘Vindolanda Tablets‘. These are a series of documents written down by Romans on thin wooden slices with ink, and cover a multitude of subjects, from shopping lists and writing exercises, to military documents and letters home to mum – there’s even an invitation to a birthday party. Seriously, take a look at them, they’re fascinating. But as a writer, aside from the excitement of seeing early writing, they are a look at how Romans spoke. When we write, we essentially put down the words we’re thinking in our heads, in the pattern of how we speak.

Look at them! I get very History-Geek Girl about these little bits of writing.

Look at them! I get very History-Geek Girl about these little bits of writing. (© The Vindolanda Trust, 2014)

As part of my degree, I recently learnt a bit of Welsh, too, and that helped with the pattern of how that language works – as well as a little ‘Cumbraek‘, another dead language from the same family that was spoken in my part of the country. By combining this with the Latin spoken by the Roman invaders/visitors, I can start to compile something which gives a hint not only of the patterns in which people spoke, but also any slang they may have used, contractions, and that sort of thing. It gives me a basis to work from, a framework of a language that will (hopefully!) give a flavour of actually being there with the ancient Britons. Having said this, there’s always going to be a little of my own impressions put in there, and I can’t avoid that totally, as it is being written in English.

So maybe I get a little bit of what Homer what aiming for with the Odyssey. A flavour of the old world, with some understanding from the present. But hopefully, I’ll get somewhere closer to the past to really transport people there – I’ll post up a teaser soon so you guys can judge for yourselves!


What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s possible to completely detract from modern ideas and culture in a historical novel, or is it inevitable that it will happen anyway? As always, leave your comment below, I’d love to know your thoughts! 🙂


Historical Characters in Fiction: To Exist or Not To Exist?


Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes - print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes – print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

At the moment, somewhere inbetween using Nanowrimo to finish my paranormal novel and knitting small white and red stocking decorations for Christmas, I’m also writing my first historical novel, Daughters of Brigitania, that will (eventually!) be under the pen-name ‘Miranda Christon’. It’s going well, but I’ve found that, compared to the paranormal novels I put out, it’s going really well.

This isn’t me boasting, by the way. I’m just amazed at how much easier it flows. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the paranormal genre being something of a fluke/phase for me, and I’m supposed to be writing historical novels, but I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that the characters within the book (with some exceptions) actually existed. All other characters I’ve used in any book might hold traits of people I know, or actually be very similar to someone I’ve met, but they’re nowhere near real. Whereas with the historical characters, even if I have to use a bit of creative interpretation in their conversations and movements, there is also a solid basis to use for their character, their essence.

And sometimes it isn’t a lot to base them on, either. Take Cartimandua, one of my main characters. She was a client queen of Rome when they invaded Britain, and ruler of the Brigantes, the ancient British tribe who pretty much cornered the market on owning northern land in what is now England. All we know of her is literally summed up in two paragraphs, written by the Roman historian Tacitus, about 50 – 100 years after the events of her reign actually occurred. He’s pretty damning about her (as he is about Cleopatra, and I suspect, though I haven’t read his Annals and Histories cover to cover, about a few other women in charge as well. He didn’t seem to like the idea much). I’m also studying history at the moment, and the first thing we learn is that one source does not a conclusion make – in other words, he is putting his own spin on things. This makes the two paragraphs which are our only source for her life, pretty weak in terms of saying, “Yeah, this is how she was and when stuff happened. Fact.” But nevertheless, she did exist, she was a ruler of the Brigantes tribe, and she did exist in what is now the north of England.

As I’m writing, this does give me a certain basis to work from. By knowing what events occurred during her life, however accurate the times might be, I have a ready-made framework from which to pad out her story. I try to put myself in the mindset of an Iron Age ruler (because we’ve all been there, right? Ha, ha), and work out why those events happened. What other real-life events took place at that time? Who else was around her? What external events may have forced her hand in some situations? But then it also comes down to my own personal opinion, which I feel does have a bearing on how I’m going to portray her. I’m trying to be fair and balanced, but I’m wary of falling into the same trap as Tacitus did – for practically the opposite reasons – and creating a woman that I’m wholly sympathetic to without offering bias. But being able to refer back to the real-life events, historical knowledge from that time, and the little we know of how Roman writers thought, it’s possible to reconstruct something fair and balanced that helps with the writing. I’ve found this means there’s something gritty and permanent about the story once all of this is included, something that – in my humble opinion – doesn’t exist in a purely fictional novel. Because no matter how many people a fictional character is made up of, there’s nothing truly rooting that character down. And the ‘real, existing character’ doesn’t just apply to historical novels, of course.

So to go back to the original question – does writing about a historical person who actually existed make the writing easier? Yes, I believe it does. Because there’s a root for them, a template that writers can refer back to. We also have the indulgence of hindsight, and that allows us to look back over their decisions, and try to work out why they did such-and-such a thing. If it’s a fictional character, often this gets applied backwards. We want them to do a certain event, or make a certain situation happen, so we have to invent decisions for them that will fit. Real life doesn’t always include decisions that fit neatly, so this is – my hand firmly held in the air – something that can be worked into a purely fictional novel to create a story that is more realistic, I imagine. The reason I think this is that the method of working with hindsight for Cartimandua’s decisions is rubbing off on the characters I’ve invented around her, as well. (If I went with just those we know of, she would rule a tribe of three people, and that’s just silly). Because of her ‘real-life’ decisions, the invented characters suddenly also have a framework to work backwards from, like a vine gripping to a parent plant. When a situation happens that was unexpected, they have to change their plans. “Alrighty, then,” they say. “I guess we’ll put the pub crawl on ice, for now. The Romans are attacking. Drat.” Or something Iron Age-y.

So yes, having historical characters who actually existed doesn’t just make the writing better for them, it also applies to all the fictional characters around them. Mostly because a lot of the decisions made in real life throughout history would make a fictional book seem ‘implausible’, sometimes. So I’m going to try this with my paranormal stuff – I’ll make decisions for the characters, and they’re just going to have to work around it. Sod ’em.


Do you agree, or disagree with the idea of real-life characters having a better basis for writing? Can it be applied to purely fictional characters? Let me know what you think in the comments below, it’s always great to see what everyone thinks. 🙂