"Write about what you know." How often has that advice been given to new writers? I prefer to rearrange the words to "Know about what you write".
For me, the journey of discovery that is historical research is one filled with interest, fascination and frequently unbridled excitement when an obscure piece of information is finally unearthed. Those highs of discovery are all too frequently outweighed by the despair of finding out that crucial information has been irretrievably lost.
My greatest disappointment, to date - there are certain to be others - occured during archival research for THE FINAL DREAMING. I was thrilled to locate the judge's notebook for the day Joe Flick was brought to trial. His was the last hearing of the day. Full details of every other case of petty crime were recorded in the notebook. When I reached Joe Flick's trial I read, "Depositions in the trial of Joe Flick are being taken on loose sheets of foolscap" ARRGGGH!!!! So near, yet so far. Who knows what happened to those sheets of foolscap. I was never able to find out.
During the research and writing of THE FINAL DREAMING, my husband and I drove extensively throughout Queensland and the Northern Territory, to check out locations. When I began to write the four book Australian saga, I visited Burra in South Australia, Ballarat in Victoria, Echuca on the Murray River, plus various minor locations and sections of the Murray River. I take a lot of photographs for later reference. I also buy relevant history books, particulary those which are well illustrated.
Newspapers are also a great source of information, though one must not assume every report to be completely accurate. There were two significant instances in the story of Alfred Wavell and Joe Flick where the news reports were totally incorrect. When one becomes deeply absorbed in one's research, one tends to develop a gut feeling about events. Because those two reports 'felt' wrong I dug deeply into primary resource material to unearth the true account of events.
For historical accuracy, primary source material should be accessed wherever possible. Primary source can be defined as original documentation, eye-witness reports, etc. Secondary source information is that which is contained in books or second-hand reports. As with newspaper reports these are not always accurate. I encountered an instance where a tour guide was claiming Joe Flick to have been that town's most famous prisoner, whereas Joe Flick had never come any closer to that particular town than several hundred kilometres west of it. Someone got hold of a couple of pieces of unrelated information, put them together and came up with a fallacy.
One also becomes something of a detective. The town of Clermont, which features early in THE FINAL DREAMING was completely destroyed by flood in 1893. The town was rebuilt farther up the hill. By referencing newspaper advertisements which I compared with old photographs, I was able to produce a map of the town, with placement of buildings, as close as possible to what it was in 1872.
With the greater part of the story moving back and forth across the Gulf Country in north Queensland, I created chronological charts of police appointments. One such chart was for the town of Normanton. For every month, between the years of 1882 and 1889, my chart gave me the names of every police officer then stationed in Normanton. During the writing, the walls of my study were covered with charts, maps, floor plans of various police stations, plus sundry other items of reference.
Pure fiction, as in the Australian Saga, does not require such indepth historical research. However my new undertaking will.
If there were challenges to be faced in researching events in Australia 140 years ago, there are certain to be many more as I progress with my research into Egyptian history 750 years ago.
Fascinated by the Mamluks, by the romanticism of slave warriors becoming sultans, I began with the notion of writing a novel set in medieval Egypt of the Mamluks. The first step was to completely immerse myself in the architecture of the period. Following a casual conversation my interest was turned from a fiction story set near the end of the mamluk period, to the writing of an historically factual novel that dealt with the end of the Ayyubid regime and the beginning of Mamluk rule.
Please read my 'upcoming work' page for more details.
My research is being conducted in various libraries in Cairo. Unfortunately I am only able to read English language books. As I identify gaps in my research an Egyptian associate will search Arabic texts for me. The greater part of this history took place outside of Cairo, and of Egypt. I hope I will be able, during the course of writing, to visit the majority of historic locations in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.