Saturday, May 29, 2010

On Researching Historical Fiction

Research is a stage of writing historical fiction which places a particular burden upon an author, and with which I have something of a love/hate relationship. I love history, and I love to read. Consequently, I sometimes find it difficult to finish up the research phase. There's always something more to read, and these days it seems one could (and many scholars do) spend their entire lifetime studying the intricacies of any given time or place, or for that matter, one specific work or author (just look at the Shakespeare section in any college library for evidence).

The history of the early Teutonic race is fraught with particular difficulties, in that actual evidence is scant and opinions many and varied. Given that the Nordic culture were in a pre-literate phase during the era in question, even the earliest historical documents concerning them are already steeped in myth and lore. Atila the Hun is, for example, said by Snorri Sturluson to be the brother of Brynhild the Valkyrie. But these things must be taken as legendary fiction, and used as elements of plot and story. After all, we're not writing an academic treatise here. And if you think about it, "historical fiction" is a contradiction anyway, which gives an author a lot of leeway. Some veer more toward truth and others more to make-believe, which I suppose is one way to determine how much research must be done.

But then there is the matter of adaptations of historical works, such as those that I've been working on. Aside from any socio-historical or geo-political considerations one must give thorough consideration to the source material. Here is where the main brunt of my research lies, for with regard to such classic works as Beowulf and Wagner's Ring, a great deal has been said on these subjects, at least a portion of which must be taken into account. Again, this is not intended to be an academic dissertation, but beware the author who proceeds in ignorance where more intelligent men have tread. This, I fear, is one reason many authors avoid historical settings altogether, not to mention the sheer amount of work involved. It's far easier to write about the modern world in which one lives than one you've never seen. And that's why I do lots of research.

Just to give you an idea of what's involved, here's a partial list of what I've read in preparation for this project so far:

Anonymous, The Edda of Sæmund the Learned (c.1250; translated by Thorpe, 1866)
Anonymous, The Elder Edda (c.1250; translated by Bellows, 1936)
Anonymous, The Poetic Edda (c.1250; translated by Hollander, 1962)
Anonymous, The Völsunga Saga (late 13th C.; Magnusson & Morris translation, 1870)
Anonymous, The Nibelungenlied (c.1200; Needler verse translation, 1904)
Anonymous, The Nibelungenlied (c.1200; Shumway prose translation, 1909)
Anonymous, The Fall of the Nibelungs (Atwood prose translation, 1897)
Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, Book I (c.1208; Oliver Elton translation, 1894)
Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda (c.1220; translated by Anthony Faulkes, 1987)
Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga (c.1235; translated by A.H. Smith, 1990)


Richard Wagner, The Nibelung Myth as Sketch for a Drama (1848)
Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelung (1876; translated by Frederick Jameson, 1900)
Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelung (1876; translated by Stewart Robb, 1960)

Gertrude Hall Brownell, The Wagnerian Romances (1907)
Derryk Cooke, I Saw the World End (1979) [reading currently in progress]
George Theodore Dippold, Richard Wagner's Poem ... Explained(1888)
Jane Ennis, Sources in Medieval Literature of Wagner’s “Ring” & Morris’s “Sigurd” (1995)
David Irvine, Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung & the Conditions of Ideal Manhood (1897)
Gustav Kobbé, How to Understand Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung(1895)
M. Owen Lee, Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, An Introduction… (1990/1998)
Mary Elizabeth Lewis, The Ethics of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung(1906)
Bryan Magee, Aspects of Wagner (1968)
Bryan Magee, Wagner & Philosophy (2001)
Ernst Newman, Wagner Nights (1949)
William Ward, A Study of the Inner Significance of Wagner's Music-Drama (1904)


Friedrich Hebbel, The Nibelungs, A Tragedy in Three Parts (1862; 1900 Edition)
William Morris, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Nibelungs (1876)
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún (circa 1920-1930, published 2009)


George Bernard Shaw, The Perfect Wagnerite (1916)
Stewart Spencer, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion (1993)
Annina Periam, Hebbel's Nibelungen, Its Sources, Method, and Style(1906)
In addition to these there are a myriad of essays and articles, internet research, and a whole host of studies on the background Norse mythology underlying the Volsung Ring cycle matter, dating back several decades since I first became enamored of the subject in my youth. Much of the above material I will need to re-read, or at least closely reference, during the construction of my outline; and I generally tend to refer back and continue to read additional material all the way through the writing process, not only to add new snippets of information, but to keep me steeped in the general sense of period and place.

I find that what I read often effects the way my writing sounds and how it flows, so I'm careful to avoid reading too much rubbish if I can help it - not that that always works: sometimes what I write comes out as rubbish anyway. More often than not I delete at least half of what I come up with, hoping that what's left is good enough to be worth keeping. But then, that's what editing is for.