Friday, October 9, 2009

Researching Ancient Times

Several people have asked me how in the world I researched Like Mayflies in a Stream, which is set in 2750 BCE in Sumer (what is now southern Iraq). So today I thought I’d briefly talk about the various types of sources I consulted to learn about such a distant time and place.

Mayflies was inspired by the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” so the first place I started was with a translation of the epic, as well as the footnotes and commentary, which were more useful than the epic itself.

One of my first purchases was Mesopotamia from Eyewitness Books. The Eyewitness series consists of brief books for kids with several high-quality photos or drawings on every page. They’re invaluable for writers because they cover hundreds of topics from NASCAR to Judaism to epidemics. If your novel requires you to learn about something, Eyewitness Books probably has a book about it.

I also consulted several “everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia” books aimed at adults. There are “everyday life” books for many historical periods. They can be more useful for a writer than history books, because they focus on subjects such as food, types of jobs, housing, religion, clothing and other details you will certainly need in your book, whereas histories tend to focus primarily on political change and warfare.

A vast literature is available on ancient Mesopotamia. If I had had two years to research and a $100,000 advance, I would have read as much of the literature, particularly scholarly papers, as I could. But with a short time frame and no six-figure advance, I depended heavily on books that summarized various aspects of ancient Mesopotamia. I did read a history to get the overall picture of major events in Sumer and a historical atlas of Mesopotamia to understand the shifting geography and physical layout of Sumer. Otherwise, I focused on specific areas: cooking, works of literature, art, language.

If you do have the time and money to delve deeply into the scholarly literature, there are several ways to find useful articles. Google will bring up pertinent articles—along with 8,103,339 irrelevant ones. More useful is to start with bibliographies in the books you read and the live links to articles at the end of Wikipedia articles and then “leapfrog”—use the bibliographies of each round of articles you find to hop to another round of articles. You can also search Google for academic articles by starting at this page:

To read the articles you locate, visit a nearby university library or look for them on the Web. Some journals will charge you to view an article; other journals will allow you to access articles for free. Some professors provide links in their online C.V. (academic résumé) to copies of the articles. As a last resort to get an important report, contact the professor who wrote the article and politely inquire whether you could get a PDF of it.

Google, despite casting such a broad net, still was a great resource for me. I often used to answer questions such as "What does an oasis in Iraq look like?" "What does early cuneiform look like?" and "What do Iraqi reed houses look like?"

Although sometimes I forget that search engines other than Google exist, there are plenty of others, including scholarly ones. A list of scholarly search engines can be found at

I hope my experiences help you research historical details for your own stories. Thanks for dropping by. I’ll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on October 23.

—Shauna Roberts


Liane Spicer said...

Thank you for the tips, Shauna. Have added them to my resource links.

Anonymous said...

Most of the open-access ancient world ejournals listed by AWOL...

... can be searched at JURN (