How I Research Part II: Interviews and Experience

Draken Harald Harfagr figurehead

In Part I, I talked about how I approach researching a historical novel through reading. Reading does make up the bulk of my research, but I like to do other kinds of research as well.

Online Courses and Podcasts

The Great Courses have particularly good coverage of European and Near East history, though they do cover some other areas of the world. I’ve also listened to some of their courses on the literature and philosophy of eras of interest. Podcasts covering various aspects of history can also be a good resource.


Interviews are especially helpful if you can find experts in your area of history, or people with experience of various aspects of that history. I hate bugging people, though, and their time is precious, so I try to read as much as I can first, and ask questions that I can’t find the answer to any other way.

But an interview with an expert can be a way to get started in a new area of research. For a novel I worked on while I was at NYU about various 12th century church conflicts, I talked to a medieval history professor who helped give me an idea of where to begin my research, and how to focus it a bit differently than I had planned.

Many writers talk to far more people than I do–I should do this more!


There’s no substitute for visiting in the place you’re trying to describe in a novel. In researching The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, I’ve traveled to Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands. I feel very lucky to have been able to see all of those places.

In Norway I kayaked Geiranger Fjord, where some of the action in The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen takes place. In the Faroe Islands I tasted fulmar, which is a sea-bird and tastes like fish. In Skagen, Denmark, I saw where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea, and was almost blown away by a winter gale. Pictures can help, but it’s nothing to the feel of being there.


Seeing the actual artifacts that your characters would have carried and used in every day life is a wonderful way to connect with them.


I love fiber arts (knitting, crochet, weaving, etc.) and during the writing of The Half-Drowned King, I learned to spin with a spindle and a spinning wheel. I also learned Nalbinding, which is a kind of needle-weaving done in Viking Age Norway. I liked spinning and kept at it. I did not particularly like Nalbinding, and I haven’t continued.

I am also into strength sports (lifting heavy things), and so I got into Strongman competition, which is practiced all over the world, but some events have their roots in Iceland–the Husafjell stone is an Icelandic stone that only the strongest men could lift. Now Husafjell stones are manufactured of steel and used in Strongman competition.

I helped crew a viking-style boat at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde Denmark.

I don’t know if I would have done the first two if I didn’t already lover fiber arts and strength sports, but they certainly contributed to giving the books more verisimilitude.

On the other hand, I didn’t learn card-weaving, which is another viking craft. I didn’t learn sword-fighting. I don’t know how to make cheese, except in the abstract. I’ve sat on a horse exactly once. So it’s good to have the experiences you can, but a little experience and a lot of imagination are probably a better combination than the other way around.

These types of research are best for getting a feel for the era (rather than learning specific facts), to create it in your mind so you can better re-create it in your readers’ minds.

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How I Research Part I: Reading

No murdered potatoes this time! Only the beautiful flying buttress of Notre Dame Cathedral.

An Approach to Research

I love research. I research so I can write, but I also write so I have an excuse to do research, and to focus my research. I think all novels need some research, but some do need more than others, and historical fiction needs a lot.

When writing historical fiction, it’s important for me to feel very comfortable in the period I’m writing about, to be able to visit it in my mind at will. I do think my lifelong obsession with earlier historical eras is helpful here–when I was in elementary school I was obsessed with the Little House books and tried to live as much like Laura Ingalls Wilder as possible. Hopefully if you are interested in writing historical fiction you also spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to live in a different era. It’s helpful practice, and it makes the research process that much more enjoyable. One of the amazing things about visiting Notre Dame in Paris for the first time was not just seeing it, but imagining a medieval French peasant seeing it for the first time, going from a rough one room house that they probably shared with their livestock to seeing a church that is still impressive to modern eyes.

Still, imagination can only take us so far. So, while I was writing The Half-Drowned King, I was also always reading a book about Viking Age Scandinavia, or Dark Ages Archaeology, or an Icelandic Saga, or something that would let me understand more about the era. While I want to get details right, I also want to get the feel of the era right, and this research helps me get my head into the era when I’m writing about it.

The nice thing about writing historical fiction instead of a history book is that I’m interested in what is plausible, not what is provable. I want to get as much right as possible, but I do not expect an academic specialist in my time period to be fully satisfied. If they have spent their lifetime studying it, they certainly know more about it than I will even from years of research. And even if it were possible for me to know as much as they do, they have spent so long thinking about it, they probably have a very clear idea of how they picture the era and the people in it–which may be no more or less correct than mine, but is solid enough that whatever I write has a good chance of ringing false.

Where to Begin

A reader asked me on twitter about how I research. He is specifically researching early christian communities. Since that’s an era I find fascinating, although I don’t have any plans to write a novel set then, I’ll use it as an example. If it were me, starting from scratch, I would literally begin by Googling “Early Christianity”.

In the first five links, I find:

  • A Wikipedia article about Early Christianity:
  • A Wikipedia article about the History of Early Christianity: (why two? I don’t know)
  • A PBS page about the diversity of Early Christianity:

I would read the Wikipedia pages and follow all of the citations.

The PBS page has various professors listed–I would look for other books written by those professors. At this stage I would only be trying to get more context, to develop a familiarity with the era.

How to Broaden the Research

If you’re coming to research with a specific novel idea that opens up more ideas for research, particulars about the characters and problems you are tackling. In general, for learning about a place and an era, I would try to make sure I covered:

  • Daily life in the era
  • Life for women (hopefully but not always covered in daily life sources)
  • Are there any primary sources, i.e. sources written at the actual time and place? These are so important for understanding people’s way of thinking
  • The time’s social mores, laws, religions, politics, and conflicts
  • Local factions. Early Christianity had many splinter groups, and Judaism, paganism, and various other religions competed with it. Not only that, but almost no place is entirely homogeneous–what different ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc. are present in my time and place?
  • What is the history of my time and place? Every era is informed by what came before it, so understanding the backgrounds of newly minted Christians would be helpful

I find these resources by reading books and following citations. It’s incredibly helpful to have access to a good library. In New York City, I have both the New York Public Library system and I pay to have access to NYU’s library. I definitely recommend looking into ways to access university collections. So many books are digitized these days you can even use a university’s collection if you’re not local.

Researching and the Writing Process

There is writing advice out there that says, “Do as little research as you can get away with”. And I agree with that, but with the emphasis on “as you can get away with”–the main point being, don’t let research get in the way of writing, and don’t use research as a procrastination tool, but don’t get big things wrong, and try not to get little things wrong either. (Ask me if I’m still bitter about the Viking novel I read that had characters consuming maple syrup and tea. Spoiler: I am.) I like to begin writing as soon as I can, and continue researching while I write. As I’m writing, if I run into something minor that I’d like to research, I leave a note to myself in the draft and come back to it later. Things that I can research later if I need something specific:

  • What flora and fauna is present in my era
  • What foods are available
  • Very specific dates
  • Place names, historical figure names

I do like to get those things right, but I don’t always need to get them right in the moment of writing my rough draft.

A Note on Notes

I record all of the books I read because I like to be able to cite them in articles and in my Author’s Note, but I don’t take very detailed notes. I read the books I want to read, and jot down things that might help with plotting, characterization, setting–anything that sparks an idea for my novel–but mostly I read to create the milieu in my mind so it is ready and there without too much conscious thought while I’m writing. I know a lot of writers don’t work that way, but that’s what works for me.

I keep notes from books in Evernote, and make lists of things I want to research in the future. I have an idea for a novel or trilogy set in medieval England, and I have long lists of individuals, social movements, religious movements, wars, and literature that I need to research for it. At the beginning of this process, every bit of research leads to more.

Next week I will talk about research through means other than reading.

Please let me know if you have questions!

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So you’ve found a Viking warrior’s grave…

Reconstruction of what the grave may have looked like to begin with. Credit: Uppsala University

Recent evidence has come out that a Viking-Age grave in Uppsala Sweden contained a woman buried with arms, armor, horses, and a tactical board game.

Looking at the evidence as a lay person, I feel like that’s all you can really say about it that cannot be disputed. However, combined with literary sources that mention women warriors and commanders, it seems likely that she was a woman warrior. Widows of wealthy and powerful men in Viking-Age Scandinavia were sometimes known to command their dead husband’s warriors. While in the lists of virtues in the Eddas, young men and women had very different aspirations–bravery and good housekeeping, respectively–the virtues that older men and women could aspire to were the same: wisdom, fair dealing, strategic thinking.

There seems to be a bit of circular reasoning in much archaeology, as it purports to tell us how people lived: a grave found with weapons in it must be a man’s, therefore only men were warriors. Similarly, a grave with household goods in it is necessarily a woman’s grave, therefore women mostly tended the household. This circular reasoning is more likely than most to uphold our current social biases. It is good to have DNA evidence that gives evidence of more possibilities.

Still, we have good evidence that this woman would have been unusual. (If she truly was a warrior; of course, I love to think that she was! But we also have literary evidence that women were given swords to hold in trust for their sons, so a woman might be buried with weapons for symbolic reasons, not necessarily martial ones.) Most of the literary evidence does point to a sharp division between the sexes, especially allowing for the fact that literary sources are more likely to highlight unusual and dramatic circumstances than prosaic ones.

Articles like this make me more glad than ever that I’m in the business of writing fiction, not history. I like to think about the breadth of what is possible–to me it’s always seemed likely that there were some Viking warrior women–without worrying about whether there is verifiable evidence of every possibility I’ve imagined.

For more on the roles of women in Viking literary sources, check out this essay I wrote for LitHub: “To Live Like the Women of Viking Literature”.

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