I began Dark Lady of Doona in 2005. To prepare, I read two biographies about Granía O’Malley and a couple of books about medieval Irish history. After writing the first five chapters or so, I realized something was missing. The story was too simplistic. With heavy heart, I put the novel aside and moved on to another work of historical fiction. But the voice of Granía O’Malley haunted me. It had the potential to be a strong story, but it took me a while to figure out what needed to be done. After I shared the early chapters with my writers’ group, I made a beeline for the library across the street from the café where we met to collect the missing pieces: more history books.
When I began putting a more complete portrait together of global events of the time, the novel sprang to life in a new way. It was essential to study history from various perspectives: how the Tudor administration operated, the impact of Spain’s war with England in 1588, and the effects on the European economy once several countries got into the business of exploring the New World. The more I read, the more connections I discovered—the nobles who vied for power, the vast network of spies and plots to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, and so on. Therein lies the challenge of historical fiction: the tendency to become obsessed with avoiding anachronism and developing an addiction to doing research.
When writing historical fiction, the amount of research often outweighs the page count of the actual novel. True, it’s time consuming, but the benefit is that as a writer, you can move comfortably within the topic. As the story develops and the characters go down roads you didn’t expect them to, surprising events occur and as a writer, it’s essential to learn to adapt to how the plot unfolds. With a solid collection of research and reliable resources to turn to, the infrastructure for creating good historical fiction is formed more easily. As insignificant as it may seem, knowing the everyday items people used, the kind of food they ate, the politics of the time, and even the myths that were part of whatever culture is being written about is important. It helps build a believable world in which the reader can be immersed.
It takes patience and perseverance. Discovering reliable resources online can be difficult. Over the years, I’ve found which universities offer comprehensive research tools for various subjects. One of my favorite eras to study is the Ancient Near East. The University of Pennsylvania hosts an online Sumerian dictionary. The University of London’s SOAS has a collection of audio recordings of people reading Sumerian hymns and epics, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. A collection of Sumerian literature can be found through the University of Oxford, and several universities and other related organizations participate in Etana, a massive archive of resources about the Ancient Near East. Whatever time period interests you, it’s best to find out which academic institutions specialize in that field, and see what they offer online. It can feel labyrinthine at times, but it is well worth the journey.