Susan here. We've had flu in our house, so we require lots of hot tea, soup, quilts, and endless tissues, as well as comfort reads and doses of TV in between naps. Despite my fluey state, there’s research and writing to do, though I haven't had much energy for it. So I'm going to my own bookshelves, my own library (bookcases all over the house), to further the current project to browse and do some wool-gathering among old books. The older the better suits the project I’m working on. Contrary to a more modern approach, which needs the most up-to-date research to support the goal and prove a point, research for historical fiction benefits from outdated sources, especially those in keeping with the time period. The older the source the better; and if the historian is opinionated, perhaps even fanciful, that's okay. There are lots of ideas in there along with information.
I spent years in academia studying medieval art and history, where old sources are as valued as new ones, with careful footnoting, context, and caveats, though an old unreliable source is to be avoided. But when writing fiction, a gossipy Victorian history, for example, can be a gold mine. I’ve found more juicy tidbits of facts and ideas between tattered covers than in shiny new books with the newest information.
Over the years I've collected a good number of antique and vintage books. I love these old books—the feel and smell of them, the gentle signs of wear and tear, the thought of those who have held them before me. I love the look of them on my shelves, too – embossed, gilded, threadbare, faded and foxed, gone golden over the years. What wonderful stuff is in those old pages!
When I’m writing about 19th-century characters, what better resource than a book the characters might have had on their own shelves–Austen for close and authentic insights into daily life and attitudes, or Sir Walter Scott for juicy bits of historical trivia. His library at Abbotsford is one of my favorite places on earth—I’ve been there more than once, and had to be literally dragged out of there by friends.
I love the gossipy, sentimental, dramatic Victorians, Andrew Lang and W. F. Skene, whose histories are part fact and part fancy. Going further back, there's the intriguing biases and fictitious details of late medieval historical chroniclers like Froissart and Holinshed. Their slants, prejudices and flat-out fibs are just the thing for understanding history from a historical perspective rather than a modern one. Historical fiction does not always require absolute accuracy – authenticity is more crucial to writing a readable, enjoyable novel. And researching quaint, sometimes downright wacky old histories to find nuggets is pretty enjoyable.
One of my novels (Waking the Princess) focused on 19th c. archaeology and the search for Arthur. In the research, I skipped quickly through current archaeological sources to go straight for Skene, that old intellectual lion and armchair Indiana Jones, whose work on ancient Wales, the Matter of Britain, and the Celts is still rock-solid today, and still has radical aspects. His fascination and immersion with ancient British cultures reflected the interests of his own society in the hidden, the mysterious, the deliciously mystical and enchanted, and his work was a possible inspiration for Tolkein's academic and literary "story soup."
I’ve been researching fairy lore and Celtic myths again, something I often draw on for my stories. With the plethora of sources about fairy lore available, it’s hard to know where to begin. Going back to the oldest studies I can find makes sense, find the origins and the core versions of the magical stories my own fictional characters might have heard.
I’ve found some great antique fairy tale books too, tattered old bookshop discoveries or in lovely reprint versions—Thomas Keightly’s Fairy Mythology, Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. B. Yeats’ fascination with fairies and Celtic lore; stories, myths, and superstitions collected by Lady Gregory and Lady Wilde; and Andrew Lang, a respected Victorian academic whose red, blue, green, orange, purple, pink fairy tale collections rank right up there with the Brothers Grimm.
When I’ve got real research to do and want to understand an area of history, the oldest books are the best. What great, unique sources for a fiction writer looking for authentic, delicious sources and inspirations for new stories.
Do you also have an obsession for old books, the older the better? Are your bookshelves sagging with beloved, tattered, faded and unique volumes? What is the pull of these beautiful, venerable old volumes?