So you want to write a Classical Greek historical novel

Merry asked how I go about doing my book research, especially finding the details of everyday life. So with my vast qualifications firmly in mind, here is the core of how I approach it. I'll do other posts about specific bits later.

I'm going to stick to book research for Classical Greece, because that's what I know, though I imagine the general principles apply to any period.

To start with, a decent knowledge of the histories written by Herodotus and Thucydides is mandatory. They're the Big Two, and if you don't know them then you are doomed. As I write this my copies are within arm's reach, on the shelf above my head.

Herodotus is a fine old chatterbox and reads more like a Boys' Own Adventure than the founding document of history and anthropology. Thucydides is full of geopolitics and is better than any modern thriller.

Both can be mined mercilessly for material. There's a novel on every page. For example you may have heard of a movie called 300. It comes from Herodotus, seriously mangled.

There are two modes of research: trawling and targeted search. Trawling means just wandering about reading stuff, with my radar open for anything I might be able to use.

Targeted search means what it says. The dog breed post was targeted search, but the post about Xanthippus' dog was me remembering something I'd read years ago on a trawl.

Even when doing targeted research it's important to keep your radar open for anything that might be useful. Here's an example I haven't used yet: the people of that time had steam baths using heated stones. I knew that long ago from a trawl. So I decided in my second book, Nico goes for a steam bath in Ephesus. Now I needed minute details of how a Classical Greek steam bath worked. That's targeted search. As I picked up details, I noticed Herodotus idly mentions in passing that the northern barbarian Scythians liked to throw hemp seeds on the hot stones of their baths. Ding! Ding! Ding!

If I ever get Nico up north to Scythia, you know he's going to be having a bath, don't you?

Targeted search often starts with Google but never ends there. Information on the web is, for the most part, highly unreliable. There are wonderful exceptions though. The Perseus database and NS Gill can both be assumed correct. Michael Lahanas is very reliable and a good source of references. But for the most part anything you read needs to be backed by a primary source, which means something written at the time or close thereto, or else by archaeological evidence.

It's surprising how much information about daily life comes from archaeology and not written history. For example, what if your character is putting out the garbage? (In which case the character is certainly a slave.) People at the time never thought to write down where they dumped their rubbish. Archaeologists find the middens so we know most people kept a dump out back. We get house plans, cooking utensils, boat design, weaponry, clothing pins, bronze mirrors, hair combs, assorted pottery, voting tokens, clothing styles, musical instruments, and all sorts of other stuff from archaeology. The Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum and the National Archaeology Museum of Athens are your friends.

Besides the Big Two, there're a host of other contemporary writers with useful things to say. Who you read depends on what you're after, and you just have to know who's who. For anything to do with manly pursuits, Xenophon's your guy. For civic administration, you probably want Aristotle. Besides being hilarious, the comedies of Aristophanes are packed with details of everyday life, especially life's little irritations. For anything to do with the life of Socrates, you definitely want Plato.

Plato's a good example of how to read these sources. He wrote reams of profound thoughts about philosophy. It's all totally useless, to me at least. But he made his philosophy interesting by writing it as dialogues, and in the dialogues the historically real characters make off the cuff comments that are absolute gems to me. When I read Plato, I ignore the signal and read the side-channels.

In a book by Plato called Laches, a character called Lysimachus mentions to Socrates he was a friend of Socrates' father. For Plato, it was a mere opening ploy. But we know the real Lysimachus came from a political family which was closely associated with Pericles. Ding! Ding! Ding! I just found a for-real link between the family of Nico and the family of Pericles. When I discovered this, I wrote an imaginary character out of the book and wrote in the for-real Lysimachus, to give me an historically accurate personal connection.

And that's fundamentally it. The basic rule is: read, keep your radar on, and connect.

I certainly haven't hit every useful text in this post. I'd be interested to know if anyone has other suggestions?


Bill Kirton said...

As enjoyable as ever, Gary. Now, since you know how lazy I am, if you could just find the equivalent sources for factual and anecdotal material connected with Aberdeen in the 1840s, I'd be grateful.

Also, another aspect of research which you don't mention is that involving personal experience. For my forthcoming historical novel, I joined a woodcarving class to find out what it was like to carve a figurehead and I sailed as a crew member on the beautiful square rigger Christian Radich from Oslo to Leith. Both experiences were wonderful and gave me hints of the authenticity of what my characters went through.

Oh, and I've nominated you for a Kreativ Blogger Award. You'll find details on my latest posting.

Carrie said...

Still working on my Roman, thank goodness more evidence remains of their civilization. I really appreciate all of your blog posts. Thanks.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Well done, Gary!

I write fantasy fiction and history. My history articles appear in magazines such as The Journal From the Radical Reformation (Atlanta Bible College) that specialize in the types of religious experience I research. The first of a series of four history books comes out shortly. I am a historian and novelist. What Gary said is what is.

Historical research is really the pursuit of questions asked in more and more detail. It’s the examination of possibilities, probabilities and perceptions. The answers rest in the original sources. Even original sources can mislead you. The world is full of liars, false witnesses all, and most people simply do not see what they think they see. So a historian carries a hidden set of scales on which to weigh testimony. Think of an historian as a kind of Anubis weighing the hearts of the dead.

When confronted with conflicting testimony, we’re left with some choices. You can decide which you think true, based not on preference but on the weight of probability. You can find harmonies between the conflicting evidence and present the conflicts as unresolved. Or you can throw up your hands and make something up. The last is unethical, but done more often than you may think.

The heart of good research is inventiveness. “Where else can I look?” is a key question. Good history is really the art of associating ideas and actions in more and more detail until a cogent and accurate story can be told.

The best resources out there include the two major digital libraries. Of the two, Google Books is best because it’s searchable. Our biography of Nelson Horatio Barbour took almost three and a half years to write. I believe we would have consumed another two years without Google Books.

I also relied on digitalized newspaper databases. There are several. Newspapers are notoriously inaccurate, but they do take you to events and persons who have become obscure. For instance, we found a reference to a two-day conference held in Allegheny in 1886. All the speakers were listed by last name only. Most of them I could identify from pervious research, but one I could not. A man named Tavender was presented as a significant person within the movement.

The magazine in which we found the article is digitalized both online and on a CD. A search did not provide a first name, but it did provide other material including the area in which he lived. There is a massive online database of New York newspapers. A patient search yielded his full name, an obituary and a photo. With a full name, I then turned to Google Books and gathered additional material. Then a casual search of ebay took me to a “store card” from his business. I bought the card, we’ll use it in book two as an illustration.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Mr. Kirton,

A guided search of Google Books, limiting the search to books and magazines published between 1820-1860 turned up nearly 600 references; some are duplicats.

There is a volume of the Aberdeen Censor you can read. It was a periodical. Fun stuff in that one.

I found a detailed description of sailing out of Aberdeen Harbour. There is also a volume of Edinburgh Review with an excellent article on Aberdeen with a fairly detailed description of the harbour and its constructions ...

Go look. Email me if you need assistance. You can contact me through my blog too. My email is Wardancingpixie @ verizon . net.

Mimzy said...

How do you deal with religion? Just about everyone's grown up with Edith Hamilton's 'Mythology' to tell us the basic stories of the Greek Gods, but how do you deal with a people who actually believe in them?

Are characters fairly regularly going to sacrifice animals to the god they want to help them? (For the record, I am SO glad that animal sacrifice has died out of modern religions.) What about the Eleusinian Mysteries where we don't know much about what happened during the festivities? It sounds like there was a lot of drinking, sex, and drugs (and rock n'roll) involved, but no hard facts.

Eh, I don't think I'm entirely making sense. It's too early. I need coffee.

T. Anne said...

I read the Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers and the first book A voice in the wind was so well researched and the religion was handled appropriately. That really started my love of historical fiction.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Pixie Warrior has religious elements in it. They are casually mentioned and not developed at length. Unless religion is an important part of your story, you won’t need to include many details. What detail is required should be accurate, unless you write fantasy fiction. Then it can be what ever you wish.

The historian behind this Pixie writes religious history. Some of the beliefs I document are strange and even unhappy. Most of the groups I research were or are prophetic movements. They believed that the judgment day has a discernable time, and they set their collective mind to discovering it. The results were often tragic, sometimes funny, and always embarrassing.

I’ve gotten to know the men and women involved in these movements by reading their letters, diaries, articles and newspaper accounts. They were people of faith, even if misguided. The best way to handle religious matters is kindly but truthfully, even if you think the beliefs were misguided and the practices regrettable. There are religious figures who were corrupt, venial, perverted and violent. Kindness only travels so far.

In fiction you have the right to create villains. You want villains. A book with only good guys is usually boring. You can make a villain out of anyone by how you describe them.

Religion is complex even when belief systems are simple. Human feelings are tied up in irrational beliefs. Religions are also power structures, even when they are not meant to be. Belief systems tend to create hierarchies. Christianity transitioned from a 1st Century synagogue-like system of older men and assistants to a system of Bishops and underlings in about two centuries. Systems that have tried to restore that primitive era do not maintain it for long.

It is possible for people to believe anything and to find symbolism in anything. Christianity found the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law symbolic of Christ. Other religions find symbolisms in creation, in flowers, birds, even umm goo.

I’ve wandered from my original point, haven’t I? In fiction religious elements should be limited to what furthers your story. If it doesn’t tell your story, there is no need for detail. If it does tell your story, give the details. At this point fantasy and historical fiction part ways. I get to make up my belief systems. If you write historical fiction, you will have readers who will see flaws if you are not accurate.

Charles David Eyer said...

I am finishing a novel set in the Roman Empire and I appreciate all thats being said about historical research. Between the books I own and those checked out from a nearby university library, I have done most of my research the old fashioned way but I love learning about Roman society. I hope to be published someday and share my vision with others.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks for the award Bill! Looks like Sha'el has sorted you out good and proper on the Aberdeen research. I assume this is not for one of your Carston novels?

Thanks for point out about personal experience. You're dead right. I seem to recall Patrick O'Brien writing he'd done similar with his Aubrey-Maturin books.

Gary Corby said...

Mimzy, when I hire Robert to do all my research, I'm hiring you at the same time to ask all the good questions. I've been planning a post on religion for some time; I've now queued one on animal sacrifice. It's probably not as bad as you might think.

You're right Carrie, Rome is better documented. But then there are disadvantages to that too. You have to be even more careful about checking the details.

I like those books too, Anne. I do think it's possible to write ancient religions in a realistic way. At least, I hope it is, or I'm in trouble...

Welcome Charles, and keep writing! You're in good company with most of the people I'm lucky enough to have drop in.

Merry Monteleone said...

Thanks, Gary!!!

This further emphasizes why I haven't tackled historical fiction myself yet. I love it. It's a natural fit because I love to read and enjoy history. But writing it - I'm afraid I'll miss something and there's nothing worse than a great novel that proves innaccurate and knocks the reader right out of the story.

There is one idea that I've been toying with for years, and read on the time period quite a bit. So I won't say I'll never try it, but I think I'll need a little more confidence in my knowledge first... and mine's not even ancient history!

Oh, and I don't trust anything on the internet as a primary source... okay, that's not entirely true, I've sent people to grammar sites that are part of University English Departments... those are usually pretty accurate... but otherwise, online searches for anything are my preliminary.

Great post, Gary. Thanks for sharing.

Gary Corby said...

It's my pleasure Merry. Thanks for the idea.

If you're worried about making a mistake in an historical, well, you wouldn't be the only one. Perhaps you could try a short and see what happens?

Bill Kirton said...

Sha'el (I hope that's not too informal a greeting for a princess), you're an example to us all. I do manage to overcome my laziness sufficiently now and then to actually go to the library and the Maritime Museum to check my materials, but I'm always grateful for any indicators that provide short cuts to sources. Thank you.

I agree entirely with you that the best type of material is that which links directly with the people involved in the experiences, movements, events of the period in question. Reading actual logs and diaries chronicling the hardships (and pleasures) of voyages to the Americas recreates the intensity and reality of the experience way beyond 'facts' and statistics.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Dear Bill,

Other than making babies, I seem to have no real vices ... except for reading other people's mail and diaries and personal papers. What saves me from jail is that these people are long dead. ...

Your guest post is up on my blog. Thank so much for writing something for me. Take a look:

MattDel said...


The process you described is exactly what I go through for my fantasy cultures (all of which are blended copies of various ones on Earth). A sampling of my historical research includes 1500s Italy, 1200s England, Imperial China well prior to the 1700s, Islam before the Crusades, and some Russian history thrown in there too. (I love me some research)

A question for you, and anyone else who might have an opinion ... what's your stance on including other languages in the story? In your case, say it's someone speaking Aramaic or Egyptian. Would you have a note saying they were talking in the language or try to include some words?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Matt,

That's a great question. My answer's long enough to be worth a separate post, so stay tuned...

Dave in Columbus said...

I knew about Perseus, but BIG thanks for the other two links. Good point about the original sources. Aristaphanes is a gold mine. Hesiod is a bit early to be a classical Greek reference, but he shows rural life, which was persistent. The (Palantine)Greek Anthology has some great details mixed in (children's toys, dog skin purse, barber shops etc.), but a quicker source for such things is any book with "Daily Life..." in the title, or similar books, such as "Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day." I'm always on the lookout for such books, and recently found "Greece and the Greeks" by Walter Miller, 1941, in a used book store--chock full of details I had not found elsewhere, and the best explanation of ancient Greek clothing I have seen.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Dave,

At this point I am very impressed, and guessing you are highly knowledgable about Ancient and Classical Greece.

So purely because I am insatiably curious, is this a hobby or do you have plans for all this interesting knowledge?