What this? you ask. I’m writing fantasy. It’s a made-up world with magic, so I can do anything I want, right? I don’t need to know historical details.
Yes, it’s your world, and you don’t have to have exact historically accurate details—far from it! You do, however, need to make your details consistent. For example, the existence of a railroad in a Viking-like society means you have a lot of splain’ to do.
Additionally, having concrete details makes your world rich and believable. Saying “she wore a blue gown” means about as much as “she wore a blue shirt.”
What kind of shirt? T-shirt, button-down, Henley, sweater?
Short-sleeved, long-sleeved, cap-sleeved, three-quarter sleeved? Form-fitting or loose? Stretchy, clingy?
What shade of blue? Navy, aqua, sky…?
What kind of fabric, and how does that fabric make her feel? Wool, silk, cotton, polyester? Hot, cold, scratchy, soft and comfy? Is it appropriate for the weather? (The fabric details can be used to convey what the weather is like without having to describe the weather. Double duty details!)
For that matter, how does she feel about the shirt? Is it a well-worn favorite, an impulse buy that she regrets, a shirt that’s uncomfortably revealing or one that makes her feel sexy and powerful? (More double duty details—character!)
The Middle Ages spanned about a thousand years. Fashion changed throughout. Fashion was different in Scotland than in France than in Constantinople, and everything from fabric and color to cut and style meant something.
So apply what I said about a blue shirt above to a blue gown.
Okay, so how do I go about this? Where do I find resources? (aka History is booooooring!)
Dry dates and names are boring, yes. So here’s what I recommend:
Start with TV shows or movies set in the time period you’re interested in. Remember that many of the details will be a bunch of hooey. Your goal here isn’t necessarily to get complete accuracy—it’s to learn about the time period.
Then go to print fiction in that period (historic fiction, not historic romance). Finally, when you’ve got a better grasp on things, you can tackle nonfiction, because now you have a mental image of who the people were, what was going on at the time, and so forth.
There are also so many amazing documentaries and websites and YouTube videos available now. From TV about modern people living and working in an accurate earlier time to videos showing a woman getting dressed in different time periods to blogs about people of color in Europe throughout history.
Be careful, because researching isn’t writing, and you don’t want to fall down too many rabbit holes. This is why I don’t recommend going to primary sources (historic documents such as letters and wills). If you enjoy that, go for it, but don’t use it as an excuse not to write!
If you live in Europe, you also have access to so many wonderful museums of both history and art, living history centers, etc. (In the US, we do have some of that, but not covering as many centuries—and most high fantasy tends to be European-inspired anyway.) Have fun!
You always have the option of talking to re-enactors/recreationists, but if you do, be polite, don’t take up too much of their time, and offer them brownies or something as thanks.
In my book Researching History for Fantasy Writers, I list all types of media and resources about a variety of time periods (and note what’s good and bad about them). I also go into much more detail about everything from setting up camp to why thievery could mean the difference between life and death.
Questions? Feel free to contact me at Dayle@DayleDermatis.com.
Dayle A. Dermatis is the author or coauthor of many novels (including snarky urban fantasy Ghosted and YA lesbian romance Beautiful Beast) and more than a hundred short stories in multiple genres, appearing in such venues as Fiction River, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and DAW Books.
Called the mastermind behind the Uncollected Anthology project, she also edits anthologies, and her own short fiction has been lauded in many year’s best anthologies in erotica, mystery, and horror.
She lives in a historic English-style cottage with a tangled and fae back garden, in the wild greenscapes of the Pacific Northwest. In her spare time she follows Styx around the country and travels the world, which inspires her writing. She’d love to have you over for a virtual cup of tea or glass of wine at DayleDermatis.com, where you can also sign up for her newsletter and support her on Patreon.