The joys & pitfalls of historical research: A guest blog by Richard Blackburn

Today’s guest blogger, author Richard Blackburn, writes about the difficulties and pleasures of researching the historical settings for his books. He also includes some fascinating tidbits about medieval life!

The joys & pitfalls of writing a story with an historical setting
A guest blog from Richard Blackburn

I must admit, first up, that I hate being wrong. Many readers of fiction are quite happy if the setting is vague or some things obviously incorrect – such as showing Henry VIII throwing half-gnawed chicken bones over his shoulder or Vikings wearing helmets with horns sticking out of them. These are commonly-held myths but I couldn’t stand having them in my work.

Trying to get things right isn’t always easy. My three books often feature peasants living in the years 1347–1356. There are lots of paintings, books and biographies about lords and ladies, Kings and Queens – but not much about peasants.

I believe some of the traces that do exist are misinterpreted. One historian discussing Brugel’s paintings stated that they must have represented a time of unrest – the men all had sheathed knives on their belts. At the time knives weren’t laid out at the table in poor people’s homes. Everyone used their own at meal time. These knives would be used every day by peasants as they worked the land. They’d cut honeysuckle vine to make string or rope, if fences needed mending and so on. So knives were a part of their everyday dress.

Russell advised his readers: don’t blow your nose on the table cloth … Don’t spit too far away … but WHEN you DO spit, place your hand to the side of your mouth and spit neatly to the side of your chair.

I’ve found some good sources – at high school I studied Chaucer in the vernacular as well as Shakespeare. These are worth reading for some understanding of the lives of the lower classes. There are also a thousand letters from or about members of the Pastern family who lived in the early 1400s. They wrote about their day-to-day existence as middle class, and somewhat privileged, citizens but they also include a lot of interesting facts about the unrest of the time.

One fascinating short piece was written by John Russell, a servant in the middle 1400s. His words were printed in the late 1500s by Wynkyn de Worde in a booklet called The Boke of Keruynge (The Book of Carving). As well as showing things such as how the three table cloths were arranged on each table, he gives us good advice on manners. He tells his readers not to spit over the table cloth or onto it. He says definitely don’t blow your nose on the table cloth. And when the water is brought around to wash your hands, you shouldn’t spit into that. Don’t spit too far away, he says, but WHEN you DO spit, place your hand to the side of your mouth and spit neatly to the side of your chair. With at least fifty people eating at the castle where he worked, I wouldn’t have liked cleaning the floor after a meal!

I’ve also read a translation of Froissart’s Chronicles. This is a French nobleman’s account of the early part of the 100 Years War. That brings me to another important point: histories are the writings of people who see history from their own country’s perspective. The enemy’s treacherous and murderous assaults would be our brilliant, innovative campaigns. So be very wary of the internet and cross reference everything, but also read extensively around even our most respected historians. Treat nothing as absolute.

Histories are the writings of people who see history from their own country’s perspective.

There are very useful sources of information from the writings of the times I write about. I can also gain an idea of how people spoke in those times from these texts. Of course, I couldn’t have the peasants in my books speaking in Medieval English. That would be too hard to read. But I also mustn’t include phrases or concepts they wouldn’t use.

In 1347 I couldn’t have a peasant say something went off ‘half cocked’ or that someone was ‘a flash in the pan’. These sayings come from the use of gunpowder in muskets which was a long time later. Before 1496 the word ‘lynch’ wouldn’t have been used for stringing some luckless person up by the neck. On that year an Irish mayor, John Lynch, hanged his son without a trial and the word was born with his son’s death.

The word ‘posh’ comes from Port Out, Starboard Home when well-heeled English families sailed to India in the coolest cabins. Talking about India, the word ‘thug’ came from a brutal Indian religious group discovered in the late 1700s. And my characters couldn’t ‘fall asleep’. This saying came from stagecoach days, when the poorer passengers, sitting on the roof, would doze off and actually fall off. So the cry would go up, ‘he’s fallen, asleep’. The same for ‘dropped off’.

As well as sayings becoming dated, the food people ate reflects the times. At the table where John Russell was serving, only the highest level of society would eat manchet bread, the white bread made from fine flour sifted through boulting cloth. They wouldn’t have eaten potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, chillies or corn. These came to Europe from South America in 1536. Pumpkins came from North America. But in the Pastern Letters, Margaret Paston asks her husband to send her rice, saffron and galangal. So rich people did eat some very exotic food.

By reading works written in the time of my stories, looking at pictures from those times, and examining the period for anything that would stand out as different from life today, I hope to make my work interesting and informative … as well as fun to read.

About Richard Blackburn
Richard’s three books are published in Australia by Zeus Publications. They are The Gatekeeper, Rudigor’s Revenge and The Regiment; die Kompanie. All have now been accepted for the New South Wales Premier’s Reading Challenge. The first book has also been published as The Guardian of the Gate by Lachesis Publishing. It’s available in paperback format in USA and Canada and also in eBook format by all major eBook outlets.

Click here to visit Richard’s website and find out more about Richard and his books.

6 thoughts on “The joys & pitfalls of historical research: A guest blog by Richard Blackburn

  1. Thanks, Richard. Your post was most timely as I’ve only this week dipped my toe into historical research. In the past, I’ve avoided it like the plague as it seemed far too daunting. Good luck with your writing and thanks for the tips.


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  3. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do, Marianne. And part of it is tax deductable. I’ve been over to the UK twice, for ten weeks each time, for research. It’s hard work, too. No, really. I thought I’d have to have knee replacements after climbing all those spiral staircases!

    My next research is into sailing in a fully-rigged sailing vessel. My new book starts with naval action at the start of the Second Dutch War, 1665. I’ve sailed hobycats but that doesn’t go far to give me the feeling of grandure of those magnificent ships. I also had a week with my wife pottering about the English canals on a narrow boat, which was also not quite what I need. So I’ll have to sign on as crew and experience the real thing.

    Another area of research is Time Team on TV. It’s not on now in Queensland but when I needed it, by a great stroke of luck, it was there. The team not only digs up the past but explain how life was in the area and at the time they are investigating. An artist often gives an impression of what life was like, which I find very useful.

    Best wishes


  4. My research is into peacekeeping forces in various war zones around the world – I suspect there won’t be any field trips for me! Perhaps I should set my next book in Tuscany 🙂


  5. Richard, I’m curious about the practical matter of tax deductable research – what parts of your research trip were tax deductable? Entry fees to historical sites and museums or more significant expenses such as plane fares?

    I’m working on a novel set in 1790s Austria and really should go over there for research. So I’m wondering if I can attempt to claim any of the trip expenses on my tax return.

    Thanks, Cathryn

    PS, Don’t worry, I won’t treat your advice as professional counsel!

  6. That’s right, Cathryn.
    I kept a diary of spefically business events and places I visited and the direct cost for these things. I also kept a record of the total cost of the trip, less purely pleasure expenses. This included airfares, accommodation, car hire, petrol, meals etc. Then I worked out what percentage of the trip was for business purposes and applied it to the total cosr of the trip. I set it all out plainly in ledger format and gave it to my accountant when I saw her and she accepted it as deductable. That was 2005. I’m going to do the same for my recent trip because you never know if there have been changes and I don’t want to get into trouble. But I do want to claim all the deductions I’m entitled to.

    So, best of luck with your trip.



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