Are you familiar with the bit of writing advice that states, "write what you know"? It makes perfect sense, but not all of us can visit every place we'd like to write about for perfect geographical and cultural immersion.
Today, we meet historical fiction author Daniella Levy, who talks about researching and writing her novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, and sets an example of a meticulous research process done on a very low budget and without any traveling.
When I first came up with the concept for my novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, I felt completely overwhelmed. I'd never written historical fiction before, and I was daunted by the task of researching it. So daunted, in fact, that I put away the idea for six years before pulling it out again and finally writing the book.
The story flips back and forth between the 21st century and the 15th, and the former, obviously, was much easier to write. But it turned out that even the 21st-century part required no small amount of research. The book is about a pair of college students--one Jewish, one Christian--who travel to Madrid together to research their family histories, and the story they discover that occurred in 15th century Spain. I've never studied in that kind of academic setting and I've never set foot in a historical archive. I'd never even visited many of the real-life places my characters were visiting--and I didn't have the budget or the time to travel there. How could I recreate these places in the minds of the readers when I'd never experienced them myself?
Fortunately for me and for other inert, introverted writers, technology and the Internet have developed in our favor. I actually managed to research quite extensively without ever setting foot outside my home.
Here's what I learned.
Write What Interests You
This is a no-brainer, but I'll say it anyway: you need to be interested in the time period/locations/topics you're writing about. You're going to be spending an inordinate amount of time reading, watching videos, talking, thinking, and daydreaming about them. Some of the material will be excruciatingly dull. Only a keen interest will pull you through it!
When Researching Historical Fiction, Look for Primary Sources, or Secondary Sources That Describe and Analyze Them
Primary sources such as letters and diaries are a great place to find details about life in the historical period you're writing about. You can also learn a lot from legal and religious documents, business contracts, recipes, etc. Fortunately, historical archives all over the world have been digitizing their collections, and it's becoming possible to access more and more of these documents through the Internet.
Secondary sources, such as academic history books describing or analyzing those documents, can also be helpful, especially if you don't have access to the archives or don't understand the language in which they were written.
I did have the privilege of working with some primary documents from 15th century Spain (thanks to the Deciphering Secrets courses--more details below), but what I found most helpful were the secondary sources that pulled those details together for me--papers written by the archaeologists who have been studying the findings in the Jewish quarter of Lorca, for example. There were also 3-D computer-generated images and animations produced to illustrate those findings, and those really helped me dive in to the world I was writing about. (I made a playlist of those videos here.)
I was able to find most of the information I needed thanks to Google Books samples, Academia.edu, and other online resources.
Email Academics Who Specialize In Your Field
When I first tried doing this, I was terrified that the professors I was approaching would find me a nuisance and would think I was wasting their time with my silly made-up story. What I didn't realize was that most academics are absolutely thrilled when somebody--anybody--takes an interest in their obscure field of knowledge, especially a writer of fiction who will hopefully bring (accurate!) information to the masses in a far more palatable form than their publications.
Some professors never responded, but most of them wrote back right away with detailed answers, resources, and lots of enthusiasm.
Find People to Interrogate--Uh, I Mean, Interview
I don't have any friends from southern or central Spain, but I do have one from Catalonia who has traveled widely in "Spain proper", and I appointed him my official Consultant on All Things Spain. You'll need to find someone who won't mind answering bizarre questions like, "What spreads do you generally put on your sandwiches?" and "If your father were deceased, what would likely be inscribed on his gravestone?" Whatsapped to him at odd hours. He might also find himself Googling images of coffee percolators to send you and defending the inordinately complicated nature of the naming customs in his culture against your exasperated whining. Warn him ahead of time.
If you don't have any friends familiar with the culture and/or locale in question, you might be able to find someone through mutual friends or on social media. (Facebook groups for travel or language learning, maybe?)
By Light of Hidden Candles also explores religion and interfaith dialogue, and I incorporated quite a bit of information and ideas I gathered from discussing these matters with people of various backgrounds and experiences. I posted open questions and invited people from all backgrounds to answer, and interviewed specific people about their experiences via email or Messenger.
Make Liberal Use of Google Maps, Google Street View, YouTube, Travel Blogs, and Virtual Tours
Google Street View is a truly amazing tool that lets you take a virtual walk down the streets of cities you've never visited. I used Google Maps to choose a childhood home, high school, and church for my character from Granada, and wandering around with Street View--combined with descriptions from travel blogs--helped me get a better feel for the scenes that might have been familiar to him from his childhood. I was also able to take an incredibly detailed virtual tour of the Alhambra using 360 degree panoramas available on this website.
In one scene, the characters take a bus from Madrid to Toledo, and I wondered what they might be seeing out the window along the drive. Incredibly, I was able to find dashcam recordings on YouTube that documented that exact drive. Tourist videos taken from the rooftops of tour buses helped me get a feel for Madrid. I scoured online brochures of the tourist sites my characters visited and photos posted on their TripAdvisor pages to piece together a mental image of places I couldn't explore with Google Street View.
Google Maps also helped me plan a 3-day trip to southern Spain for my characters including stops in Málaga, Granada, Lorca, and Cartagena; I was able to figure out train and bus schedules, where the various bus stops were located, etc. etc. etc.
Take Online Courses
This only works if you can find courses on relevant topics, of course. I was fortunate to find several that helped me immeasurably: the Deciphering Secrets courses(in which I learned a lot about researching and transcribing medieval Spanish documents, and virtually visited several archives and museums), a course on the Alhambra from the University of Granada, a course on the Inquisition and its relationship with the Jews from Rutgers University, and a course on the relationship between the Jews and the Church in Italy--not exactly the same place, but still provided relevant information.
I even managed to become literate in Spanish thanks to diligent use of the Duolingo app--which meant I was able to read Spanish brochures or academic papers that had no English translation.
All these resources were 100% free.
Don't Overdo It
Remember, there's a reason your reader will pick up your book instead of sitting around watching 20 minutes of footage from the top of a tour bus in Madrid: they're there for the story, not for the details. I've read a few historical novels that were more "historical" than "novels"; the writer was too busy showing off their extensive research to pay much attention to character and plot development. Don't fall into that trap. Details and accuracy are good, but at the end of the day, the story is what's important.
I know it's hard to let go. I still harbor a secret terror that someone, somewhere, will find some inaccurate detail that will lead them to the inevitable conclusion that I am a total idiot, and will expose my ignorance for all the world to see.
But guess what?
When By Light of Hidden Candles went out to early reviewers, I got this one review from a woman who was scandalized over the fact that a Jewish character in an Arabic-speaking country used an Arabic word, claiming that, "as a rabbi's wife, the author should know the non-Jewish origin of this word". Maggie Anton, author of the Rashi's Daughters series, kindly wrote a blurb for By Light of Hidden Candles, and she told me that she got lots of angry letters from people claiming that she was wrong about certain details when in fact, she had done her research and knew that she was right.
Furthermore, I started to notice mistakes and inaccuracies even in major bestsellers by well-known historical fiction writers. Far from holding it against them, it made me feel so much better to know that even a big-name author can make mistakes and 99.99% of the readers won't notice or care--and those who do will probably forgive them.
What else would you add to this list? What research methods have you found work for you? Tell us in the comments!
Daniella Levy is the author of By Light of Hidden Candles (Kasva Press, 2017) and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism (Guiding Light Press, 2016). Her short fiction, articles, and poetry--in English, Hebrew, and Spanish--have been published in numerous magazines, journals, anthologies, and media platforms, and she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She blogs about resilience in the face of rejection for writers and artists at RejectionSurvivalGuide.com, and about Judaism and life in Israel at LetterstoJosep.com. You can learn more about her and her work at daniella-levy.com. Connect with her on social media: