As I did this work, I had to be wary of two things: 1) reading all the stuff NOW because it sounds so interesting and 2) going to deep or to far. By the second one, I mean I’m such a history buff that though I’ve given myself three centuries already, I’m also drawn to the Anglo-Saxon time in England, and have to keep myself from pick up lots of books on that. Then too, while looking at suggested books on one site for clothing, I got reeled in a bit too close as I read reviews of books by people who do re-enactment. The same thing could’ve easily happened with books on medieval art and medieval cookery...the very fact that such experts exists makes me almost want to become an expert too.
Studying those two habits of mine, I’ve come to a bit of a conclusion: the historical fiction novelist has an interesting balance to keep. One, we must become experts. Two, we can’t become experts.
Let me explain. There are clothing experts, cooking experts, art experts, music experts, politics experts, church experts, architecture experts...the list goes on for miles. It is, to put it simply, quite impossible for one person to become an expert in all of these fields. People spend their whole lives on just one...something novelists can’t do. For one thing, we’re already a bit committed to be writing experts. So, we have to be knowledgeable in many fields at the same time, not going too deep into any for fear of jilting the others. Jack of all trades, master of none.
While the experts on medieval history get to submerge themselves in a particular field, novelists have to go knee-deep in many. We have to know what we’re talking about so we can stick to that ever-important “historically accurate” and so we can communicate with a readers in a way that brings a period fully to life. It’s a tricky and interesting balance to keep among the many facets of life in historical times--but maybe, by so doing, we actually get a bigger picture of life as a whole in that period...and really, isn’t that what we want? People in that time period didn’t walk around studying each other’s clothes and say “yep, it’s definitely the time when dresses get tighter fits, now!” They understood their own clothes, the workings of the church, the laws, manors and cities. They didn’t necessarily see their time period in comparison with a dozen others.
They lived and dreamed. And it’s the job of the historical fiction writer to recreate that, knowledgeably and respectfully.