I spent years in academia, where the oldest sources are revered alongside the newest, but when every statement needs to be backed up by proof, not to mention exhaustively footnoted, the oldest sources aren't always the best. A gossipy old Victorian history can be an unreliable and risky source for an academic, but for a fiction writer, that same overblown tome could be a gold mine. I've found more juicy tidbits of facts and ideas between tattered covers than shiny new covers among historical sources.
Over the years I've collected quite a number of antique and old books for historical research, especially of the Scottish and medieval persuasion. I love these books -- the feel and smell of them, the wear and tear and imagined history of others who have held them, the look of them on the shelves, While I will delve into everything and anything when I'm in a voracious research mode, it's often the oldest books, rather than the newest, on the subject at hand that yield the most interesting and useful information and inspiration.
The house is full of books and bookcases, but none more dear to me than the bookshelves crammed with old and antique books -- rows and rows of lovely tattered copies with embossed, gilded, threadbare or faded spines. Some of the pages are so delicate, foxed and gone golden over the years, that the pages must be treated with care. But oh what wonderful stuff is in those old pages.
When I’m researching a new topic for a novel, I go to three types of sources – children’s books (the best and fastest way to glean an overview, especially on a topic new to me); the latest and most up-to-date work on a subject such as medieval pilgrim routes, for example; and the oldest, most crumbled, obscure, outdated books I can find. Whether on my own bookshelves or in the dustiest sections of a university library, those books are the closest it gets, sometimes, to the historical source.
If I’m writing about 19th century characters, what better resource than a book the characters might have had on their own shelves – Sir Walter Scott, with his sometimes wildly inaccurate history, is a direct Regency source, and his juicy taste for historical trivia was unparalleled (if untrustworthy). His library at Abbotsford (shown here) is paradise (I know, because I've been dragged out of there more than once by friends).
I love the gossipy, sentimental, dramatic Victorians, too, like Lang and Skene and others, whose histories are part fact and part fancy. Going further back, there's the yummy biases of late medieval historical chroniclers like Froissart, Holinshed, and even earlier. 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 what's more enjoyable than researching quaint and sometimes downright wacky old histories?
If I’m writing about Victorians who are interested in archaeology and old myths, why go to current archaeological and mythology sources? Head straight for W. F. Skene, that old Victorian intellectual lion, that armchair Indiana Jones, whose work on ancient Wales, the Matter of Britain and of course the Celts is still rock solid today, and still radical in 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 likely inspiration for Tolkein's academic and literary "story soup."
Just now I’m looking into fairy lore and Celtic myths again, something I often draw on for my stories. Try researching fairy lore these days – now there’s a glutted and overwhelming research field. With such a plethora of fairy sources now available, where does one even begin, let alone figure out what’s reliable core mythology and what’s been invented since (and therefore not to be touched with a ten-foot wand by another fiction writer)? Going back to the oldest studies I can find, ah, then things make much more sense. Here are the beginnings, the origins, the best core versions of the wonderful, lyrical, magical stories that my own fictional characters might have known.
And what a great list of antique fairy sources there are – either as tattered old bookshop finds on my own shelves, or in reprint form (and many of them are available dirt cheap and even free in e-book, a handy source unless you are addicted to turning old pages, as I am). There’s Thomas Keightly’s Fairy Mythology, Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. B. Yeats’ own fascination with fairies and Celtic ; 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 Grimms.
So when I’ve got real research to do, and a genuine understanding to develop of some area of history, I go for the oldest books I can find – the books in the worst shape, the most outdated writers with often questionable intentions, unreliable accuracy, personal agendas or endearing academic naivete – what great, unique sources for a fiction writer looking for authentic, delicious sources and inspirations for a new story.
Do you also have an obsession for old books, the older the better? Are your bookshelves sagging with beloved, tattered, faded and unique volumes? Do you favor a modern fairy book, an antique fairy book, a free e-book fairy book (or no fairy book at all!)?
If you'd like a copy of the Wenches' latest, our anthology Mischief and Mistletoe, leave a comment and we'll toss your name in the hat!
p.s. Speaking of old books - ahem - the e-book releases of my backlist continue to grow. Currently Laird of the Wind (now a bestseller on Amazon!) and Angel Knight are available for .99 cents! Grab them before the price goes up...and happy reading!