Digging up history for a historical novel

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

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One Response to “Digging up history for a historical novel”

  1. setinthepast Says:

    That sounds fascinating.

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