Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gary Corby - Guest Post

A bit of not so ancient Greece: Captains of the Host, 1908

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:


  1. Gary Inbinder12:25 PM

    Fine article with great advice for historical fiction writers. I'll mention just one relevant issue that came up when writing my first historical novel, Confessions of the Creature.

    A key scene featured a performance of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (the novel is set during the Napoleonic Wars). I did a little research to confirm that the Sonata had been published at the the time of the scene. As I expected, it was published, but it didn't acquire the name "Moonlight" until some years later.

    My problem was this: Almost all my readers would be familiar with the Moonlight Sonata and I wanted them to "hear" the piece as they read my lines. However, if I was to be an absolute stickler for historical detail I would have to name the piece by its Opus Number and key, and most readers wouldn't have had a clue. So, perfect historical accuracy would have cost me an evocative reference in a key scene.

    The story won out and it remained The Moonlight Sonata.



  2. Wow--fantastic, FANTASTIC advice for historical writers. I am definitely forwarding this post!

  3. Thanks for the compliment Jo. Coming from you, that means a lot!

    I apologise in advance for the exposition you find in book 2.

    I know what you mean, Gary. Sometimes the story does demand you warp things a little. At least you'll know you've done a good job if someone writes to you to complain about the name.

    And thank you Sha'el for the opportunity to write on your blog!

  4. Gary,

    I'm the one from whom thanks are due. Your post is excellent. I've loved your writing from the first. (Read your submission, right?)

    You're welcome back anytime.

    Good history rests in attention to detail. Good fiction isn't much different, except with fiction you can play with the truth.

    There are bunches of "true facts" in Pixie Warrior. The photos on my blog testify to that. However, I'm fairly certain no one in Westwood other them me ever saw the pixies that live there.

  5. Anonymous7:48 PM

    Great advice post! And hey, I'm intrigued by the concept of your book. I like me some historical mystery! :)

  6. Anonymous6:29 AM

    Good post.

    For recent-historical fiction (I'm working on something set in the fifties so this is much on my mind), I think movies are a much underrated resource--not so much for hard data, but for the way people looked, dressed, carried themselves (that insight actually came from George MacDonald Fraser--no relation--in his book on historical movies, The Hollywood History of the World).

  7. Gary Inbinder10:00 AM

    George MacDonald Fraser really knew his stuff! His "Flashman" series was darkly humorous, witty and very well-written. Moreover, his understanding of the Victorian era and attention to historical detail was first rate.

    Like Fraser, I give a lot of credit to historical films that take great pains to portray their period accurately, as you can see from my guest blog review of "Daisy Miller".


  8. Hi Anna,

    I'm glad you like the series concept! If you can hang out for a while longer, you'll have a book to read.

    Strange as it may sound, I too am really looking forward to finding out what happens to my heroes Nicolaos & Diotima. I may be ahead of the rest of you on the story curve, but even so I'm working at the edge, where they do things to surprise me.