Gary Corby - Guest Post
The first instalment in Gary's new mystery series is coming out early next year. It will be published by Minotaur:
Nicolaos, the ambitious son of a minor sculptor, walks the mean streets of Classical Athens as an agent for the promising young politician Pericles. Murder and mayhem don't bother Nico; what's really on his mind is how to get closer (much closer) to Diotima, the intelligent and annoyingly virgin priestess of Artemis, and how to shake off his irritating 12 year old brother Socrates.
The Pain of Leaving Stuff Out
Sha'el asked if I'd care to do a post on the challenges of historical research for a writer of fiction. I'd love to, because anyone thinking about writing an historical should be warned.
Of all the tough research problems a writer faces, the worst of all is leaving stuff out. You'd think it'd be the other way round, but it isn't so. Finding stuff to put in is easy. I've had any number of people ask me how I knew some obscure detail or other. I've even had a professional archaeologist ask how I came across the details of a Scythian bow.
You've probably guessed the first part of the research answer is Google. Google any subject, no matter how obscure, and there's a fair chance someone, somewhere, has written about it. Some of the experts on the web are an astonishing gold mine of information. Want to know the minimum voting age in Classical Athens? Or the crew assignments on a trireme? Or how to make ancient fish sauce? I've found experts on all those.
But that's not the end of the answer. Just because someone's written about something doesn't make them an expert. Wikipedia is a good example. Any Wikipedia article on a subject that's even slightly off the beaten track is quite likely to be wrong in some significant way. I've reached the point from bitter experience where I automatically assume if Wikipedia says it, then it's wrong. The good news is, Wikipedia insists on references. Sometimes the references are high quality (and sometimes they're not). The references can prove Wikipedia is right after all (or not, as the case may be).
The high quality references are frequently real books - in fact, they almost need to be - and the real books are frequently to be found on Google Books, which makes doing brief searches easy. If the book can't be searched, or if it's so full of information I want to read the lot, then I'm off to the university library. The most comprehensive where I live is the stacks of Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. If you're doing book research, the nearest university library is your friend. If you want to try and stalk me at Fisher, by the way, go ahead, but you'll have to be patient, because I usually save up trips and do big visits with long gaps between, because once I'm in there, it's hard to get me out. It's so easy to browse the day away.
That's how I find the research. I have reams and reams of fascinating stuff about the life and times of Classical Athens. So now I write all of it into the books and people will be fascinated, right?
I could write a couple of pages on the drainage system of Athens in 460BC, but somehow I have a feeling you're not going to read it. No one wants to read technical description. They want to read story, and plot, and characters. Technical description is called exposition, and the rule for writers is, Research = Exposition, and Exposition = Death. What you can do, though, is write about the consequences of your research. For example, I know in Classical Athens sewerage pooled in gutters running down the middle of the street. When my hero Nicolaos is dragged off by a couple of thugs, something squishy which doesn't bear thinking about gets caught between his sandal and his foot, and he has to hop on the other foot while shaking the first to get it clear. A whole day's research on drainage has devolved into two lines of book text about a messy foot. That's good, because a foot with poo on it is story and character, a treatise on drainage is not.
That's the right way to do it. The wrong way is what I frequently catch myself doing, or else my beta readers catch me. For example, in every book I've written a few paragraphs of explanation about the difference between a chiton, a chitoniskos, and an exomis. And every book, I take those paragraphs out, because the explanation is exposition, and Exposition = Death. (If you're wondering, they're all different styles of clothing worn by Classical Greeks. I could tell you more, but that would be exposition.)
So a warning to any beginning historical writers who might be reading this: the temptation to include your hard-won research is almost overpowering. DON'T DO IT. Not because your knowledge isn't interesting or useful, but because it doesn't move the story forward. When you've finished your first draft, go through your ms and remove the exposition. There's probably pages and pages of it. There certainly is if you're me. Remove it all. Then sit back and see what's the minimum exposition necessary to keep the story moving. You're allowed to weep, scream and tear your hair as pull out your research, but out it must come. What's left will be a great book.
You can find Gary on his blog. In my opinion his blog is one of the best out there:
And Gary's Agent Superlative (and my friend) is here: