I began writing my first historical novel when I was fifteen years old. I had fallen for a knight on a BBC television programme titled Desert Crusader - dubbed from the original French where the series was known as Thibaud ou les Croisades. (you can find it at Youtube under that heading. For example Thibaud ou les croisades) It's available on DVD from Amazon France and I have my own copies now for posterity!
I began writing my own form of fan fiction which quickly developed a life and story line of its own that departed far from the TV original.
My story involved a European settler family in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The hero had a Greek mother and an Angevin father and was a knight in the service of King Fulke of Jerusalem and often employed on James Bond style undercover operations. He fell in love with the daughter of a visiting pilgrim family and long story short, returned to Europe with them when his father's brother died and he was the only living male relative. That first teenage novel turned into a four book series - all unpublished but a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining learning curve for the writer!
When I began writing, I knew very little about the period and the life and times. My inspiration was generally hormonal linked to a natural delight in romantic tales of adventure and derring do, and I didn't have much idea of the historical background. However, I wanted my tale to feel as real as possible and that meant I needed to embark on the research. For my Christmas present when I was 15 I asked for Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades volume 1. Although that work is now outdated and considered dubious in places, It still gave a marvellous overview to a 15-year-old and helped me to structure the novel by showing me the adventure in the political events.
However, it wasn't just the political history that I needed. I had to know what sort of clothes people wore and whether the clothes differed when it came to social rank. What colours did they wear? What were the dyestuffs? What was the difference in fashions between Europe and the Middle East? What did they eat? When did they eat? How did they eat? What were their beliefs about the food they ate?(the table of humors for example where if you were elderly it was viewed as not a good thing to eat pears or lampreys because they were so cold and moist on the table of food properties that they might put out your fire!) What were their social attitudes? How did they address each other? What was their attitude to marriage? To sex? To childbirth? What was their attitude to hygiene? How often did they realistically bathe? Did they immerse themselves? How tall were they? What sort of money did they use? How was it made and transported? Did they have pockets? What were their horses like? Their dogs? What sort of names did they give those dogs and horses? What sort of names did they give themselves? What were their swear words? And so on and so forth.
One of the first books I read to get me clued up on my hero's weaponry was the fabulous Archaeology of Weapons by Ewart Oakeshott. This is where I learned that a sword of the mid to early 12th century wasn't some great heavy weapon as I'd imagined from reading other novels and watching film and TV, but actually a balanced thing of beauty weighing no more than between two and three pounds. I discovered also that my hero's horse wasn't some magnificent beast standing 17 hands high, but far more likely to resemble a modern small, strong Andalusian horse or a Welsh cob. At every turn As I delved into the research material I was having my preconceptions knocked off their pedestals. Yes people bathed. No people did not use spices to disguise the taste of rotten meat - which makes complete sense when you think of how expensive spices were. The only people putting spices on their foods would be the well off, and no well off person was going to eat rotten meat. Yes, people drank water. Yes they wore colours beyond brown and grey.
It was one of the things I loved - having my preconceptions and the things I had been told at school or in popular history, challenged and either debunked or fleshed out with entire new vistas of information. The more I read and studied, the more I discovered and the more interested I became, and the more I wanted to write about my chosen period.
Historical novelists by the very nature of what they do Must have a wide ranging background knowledge of the period about which they write. The more that is known and understood, the closer to one's characters one becomes. The aim is to become a native speaker rather than a tourist passing through. Script writing guru Robert McKee says in one of his lectures on script writing that the author must know his or her imaginary world as well as they know the one in which they live and this is so true for historical novelists. It doesn't mean that an author should dump all the information they garner into a novel, but it does mean that their background knowledge will inform the choices made when writing the novel. The more an author knows about their characters - what they are likely to have thought and felt based on wide-ranging background research into their lives and times, the closer they will come to them and the more the readers will feel that connection. Awareness will flow organically to become a seamless part of the writing.
Rather than being specialists in certain areas ( although of course we may have those specialisations), we have to be Jacks and Jills of all trades and know a lot across a very broad spectrum.
I thought I would finish by posting 10 books from my research shelf of thousands collected down that years, that address some of the questions I posed in paragraph 3. You can never have too many books - although I could certainly do with more bookshelves!
Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the U.K.'s bestselling writers of historical fiction. Her latest work is a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine.