Saturday, February 20, 2010

Building a Foundation for Like Mayflies in a Stream

In my last post on February 6, I explained how reading nonfiction can improve a writer’s fiction and promised to tell you about my background reading for my 2009 novel, Like Mayflies in a Stream.

Since then, Kaz Augustin posted about the boggling array of scientific topics she needed to research for her current science fiction romance novel. (See her post here.)

I'm not sure I ranged as far afield as Kaz, but I did need to research a wide variety of topics. Like Mayflies in a Stream is a historical novel set in ancient Iraq in the world’s first city, Uruk, during the time when Gilgamesh was its king. In contrast to most historical novels, for which writers can use contemporaneous records, in Gilgamesh’s time, writing was still in its early stages and was primarily used for record keeping. Historians and archaeologists have to rely on archaeology, later texts, and lots of deduction to reconstruct this time.

When researching, I referred to books and articles for children, laypeople, students, and professional archaeologists in English, French, and German. The sources I used to make Like Mayflies in a Stream as historically accurate as possible and to bring it to life for the reader included:
• Two online dictionaries of Sumerian
• A book about 3rd millennium B.C.E. Sumerian and Akkadian personal names
• A book about cylinder seals
• Historical and modern atlases
• Online photographs of items in the collections of the Baghdad Museum, the British Museum, and several American museums
• A book about cooking in ancient Mesopotamia
• Several books on Mesopotamian religion
• Several books on Mesopotamian history
• Several books on daily life in ancient Mesopotamia
• Maps of the temple complexes at Uruk in different historical periods
• Online and printed resources on geography, deserts, desert animals, palm trees and other natural resources of Iraq, growing seasons for various crops, Sumerian proverbs, clothing, Marsh Arabs, magnetic prospecting in archaeology, beer making, growth hormone disorders, city planning, history of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” and the history of Uruk
• A videocourse about the ancient Near East

Thank goodness I did this research; it kept me from making many embarrassing factual mistakes in my book. But was it enough? No. I still had questions that I could not find answers to. I extrapolated from other societies or time periods or wrote around the problem. Some things in history will always remain a mystery.

What odd things have you had to research for your novels?

I’m glad you stopped by today. I’ll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on March 8.

—Shauna Roberts


Lynn Emery said...

For a romantic suspense novel that had a 50 year old missing person as a subplot, I consulted a forensic anthropologist on whether a body would stay at the bottom of a bayou for 50 years. Didn't work for me, then we discussed the type of soil that would leave the evidence behind I needed for the plot.

Shauna Roberts said...

LYNN, that's interesting. I would guess that the soil in Louisiana would mimic the bayou in acidity and chemicals, except perhaps in the Vieux Carré.

Liane Spicer said...

Shauna, we writers of contemporary fiction get off easily by comparison, in some ways.

One of my works-in-planning contains flashbacks to another historical period and I've been researching everything I can find about the Maroon societies in South Florida and the Caribbean as a result. Fascinating stuff - of which I'll probably use 0.001 percent in the actual story.

Shauna Roberts said...

Liane, I think in some ways you have the harder job. In historical fiction, there's so much speculation and interpretation involved that even basic facts are often in question. Not so for contemporary fiction. If the writer of a novel set in New Orleans misspells a restaurant's name or puts it on the wrong corner of the intersection, I notice and get annoyed.

I think one has to over-research when writing. Some information shows up in every book on a topic; other information only appears in a few obscure sources, and sometimes that's the information you really need. Ninety-nine percent of the research may have been wasted, but one doesn't know until one finishes which sources fall in the 99%.