Seven of My Favorite Research Books
Like all writers of historical fantasy, I know that every book I write stands on a teetering tower of other books. Each book has its own particular (and sometimes incredibly specialized) stack of research material, and I am so grateful for libraries, librarians, and everyone who has helped make books and articles available online. I’m also grateful to the academics and the other writers of non-fiction whose work informs every story I write.
In my little writing room, I have books on military tactics, clothing, folklore, food, gender, machines, politics… plus, of course, the standard reference books, from dictionaries to bird guides. There are all the primary sources: my copy of the Malleus Maleficarum is particularly well used, as I write about witchcraft a fair bit.
But there are some less obvious books on my groaning shelves that I find myself consulting over and over. I thought I’d give you a short tour of a few of these from my shelves.
These are just a few of my personal favorites, and this is emphatically not a balanced, curated guide or definitive list for other writers. They skew European and North American, for one thing. But they’ve been useful or inspiring to me, and they demonstrate how the research for historical fantasy often ranges beyond a specific setting, era or set of characters.
1. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr. Swearing can be tricky in historical fiction. Readers tend to trip on “bad” words, assuming they’re more recent than they generally are. Most swear words in English (and this book does focus on English) have been around for a very long time. That said, they didn’t necessarily carry the same heft that they do today, while other words (generally blasphemous ones) were more serious than they are now. Conveying the emotional and social significance of a bit of dialogue to a modern reader, while keeping true to the period, is a feat. Mohr’s book has been a great guide to those choppy waters.
2. A Dictionary of Chivalry by Grant Uden. I’ll be honest; the main reason I love this book is because I love this particular copy. It belonged to my late grandfather. And I adore how tricksy it is: The binding is a library discard of glaring plain orange, but inside, it’s full of gorgeous illustrations by Pauline Baynes. These days, I’m probably more likely to consult Google if I want to know what a “ricasso” is or what happened at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, so the dictionary tends to be a flipping-through, inspirational book rather than a pure reference guide.
3. Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, by Chelsea Vowel. My main settings so far have tended to be northern Europe (where my family’s from) and North America (where I was born and raised.) Intrinsic to the histories of both those regions is the colonization of Indigenous people. Vowel’s book is a wealth of information and analysis on matters that will (or should) pre-occupy writers of historical fantasy, from cultural appropriation to respectful terminology.
4. Herbs for the Medieval Household for Cooking, Healing and Divers Uses by Margaret B. Freeman. This is another gorgeously illustrated book; it was, in fact, printed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I do use this book for reference — if I want a poison or potion, for example — as it is full of references to primary sources. But it, too, is mainly for inspiration. The woodcuts that illustrate each entry are from 15th century sources themselves.
5. The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People: A Compendium of International Fairy Folklore by Thomas Keightley. This one was originally published in 1828 as Fairy Mythology. Despite the title, I don’t really use this as a guide to the folklore itself, but rather as one window onto how that folklore evolved and spread, and how it informed the fantastic in the 19th century. (Keightley was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s family.)
6. The Art of Blacksmithing by Alex W. Bealer. Smiths tend to turn up in whatever I write, or their work does. (For example, a water-powered forge hammer plays a role in my novel Armed in Her Fashion.) Metal is very important to both the history and folklore of Europe, and this illustrated guide has helped me with everything from nails and horseshoes to swords.
7. Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox by Jonathan B. Tucker. This one might seem an odd choice, but smallpox has loomed in a few of my books (especially the ones that haven’t come out yet, which are set in 18th century Europe.) It’s hard to overstate the effect that smallpox has had on the history of the world. Beyond that, the history of smallpox is a microcosm of the history of disease and of immunization in general, and the more recent history of how humanity has tried, failed, and occasionally succeeded to work together for a common goal.
Kate Heartfield’s first novel was Armed in Her Fashion (CZP 2018). She is the author of two time-travel novellas coming soon from Tor.com Publishing, beginning with Alice Payne Arrives in November 2018. Her interactive novel The Road to Canterbury was published by Choice of Games in 2018. Kate is a former journalist in Ottawa, Canada. Her website is kateheartfield.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.