Writing a historical novel, in my opinion, requires a more tedious kind of research than any genre. I am writing a novel based on Spain during the middle ages where three great religions lived together in communities across the Iberian Peninsula. I am grateful for having the world wide web with all the tools I need for my research — Google provides almost everything from maps on Google Earth, research platform on Google Scholar, translations on Google Translate, etc. — and there are MOOCs!
I have taken MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses since 2012 and have finished about a dozen or more courses mostly in Humanities with Coursera, EdX, Udacity, FutureLearn and Saylor. I must say MOOCs are addictive — life-long learning has never been this great — it’s convenient, it’s exciting, it’s free!
About a couple of months ago, Coursera offered a new course entitled Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain with University of Colorado Professors Kathryn Andrus and Roger Louis Martinez-Davila. The course info said: “In this course students will explore the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in late medieval, fifteenth century Spain. Serving as citizen-scholars, students will learn about the positive and negative elements of inter-religious co-existence in Plasencia, Spain, and more importantly, contribute to an international scholarly effort by helping transcribe manuscripts … Serving as citizen-scholars, students will learn about the positive and negative elements of inter-religious co-existence in Plasencia, Spain, and more importantly, contribute to an international scholarly effort known as the Revealing Cooperation and Conflict Project.” Aside from benefiting from the course, I shall be contributing to a scholarly project as well — awesome! I almost fell of my seat when I saw this and enrolled right away.
Now on its third week, I have already amassed a plethora of invaluable information from the region’s medieval political upheavals to the recipes of authentic Byzantine cuisine from al Andalus. Aside from the very informative and well-prepared lecture presentations of Prof. Martinez, I learn a lot from the online forums within the course. Students from all over the world support and motivate each other. Even if the Course Instructors can’t possibly respond to most forum queries, Community Teaching Assistants are always around to cover this limitation. Although forum discussions are often interesting and insightful, there are also times when it becomes too heated that I had to take a break and focus on other tasks. Religion is a touchy subject — and we are not talking of just one but three major world religions — touchy indeed!
Perhaps research is the most tedious part of writing historical fiction but for me, it’s an enjoyable task. I don’t want my medieval characters wearing underpants that wasn’t even part of their wardrobe during that period. I want my novel to be historically accurate, one reason I delve so deeply into research. As Susanne Alleyn points out in her book, Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths:
There’s an old wisecrack that goes: “Never assume something, because when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”
This is especially true of writing and researching historical fiction.
Never assume anything about the details of historical events or daily life in the past!
Look it up!