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! 🙂