Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Imagine that you are writing a novel about an infantryman in World War II. What could you use for resources to help you to make your story as vivid and authentic as possible?
You might locate some soldiers’ diaries—although keeping such diaries was forbidden by US Army regulations, so they are not available in large numbers.
You might read collections of letters sent home, saved by loved ones, although these may have been heavily censored (a job which company officers often had to do—and mostly hated).
Beyond that, you could try to talk to veterans themselves, now a difficult task as so few are left and those surviving are very elderly.
And, beyond that, there would be newspapers and magazines
and lots of images—photos and movie film, some of it even in color,
as well as audio recordings of speeches and popular radio programs, to give you the feel of the period.
(This is a popular comedy group of the period, “Spike Jones and His City Slickers”, known for complete wackiness.)
You could also draw upon official accounts
and, in time, the books published by veterans themselves, as well as by scholars of the period.
Go back a century and imagine that your protagonist fought in the US Civil War.
No one told soldiers that they couldn’t keep a diary,
and there are thousands of surviving letters from the period.
Unfortunately, the last veterans had died by the early 1950s, although, had you been able to travel back in time, even only a century, you could have interviewed hundreds of veterans both North and South who had formed veterans’ associations after the war and came to reunions into the 20th century to relive the past with friends—and even former enemies.
(This is at Gettysburg in 1938—the last big reunion of the two sides.)
There were certainly newspapers and illustrated magazines, although their illustrations were woodcuts, not photographs,
since the technology available at the time was too clumsy for the battlefield and any motion became blur.
(A photo of one element of the parade of the victorious Union armies through Washington, DC, May 23-24, 1865)
There were also plenty of books written by veterans beginning soon after the war and into the 20th century
(This is one of my favorites, by Union veteran, Josh Billings and illustrated by Charles Reed, another veteran—you can read it for yourself here: https://archive.org/details/hardtackcoffee00bill/page/n5/mode/2up If you’d like a view from the other side, here’s Sam Watkins’ classic: https://archive.org/details/coaytch00watk/page/n5/mode/2up
I’m not going to add a warning here: people in the 19th century who published books about their experiences were just that: people of the 19th century, with all the prejudices of people in those times. We live in a different and, generally, more tolerant world, but, if we want to know about the past, we have to be willing to understand that people in that past could be unlike us, sometimes in ways with which we would disagree or even find just plain wrong.)
And, by the end of the century, there were official records to consult.
And since the war, there have been thousands of books published on every aspect of it.
(This is one of my favorites. Stephen Sears has authored a number of books on the subject, all well-researched and engagingly written and worth reading—more than once.)
Things begin to change rather quickly as we go farther back, however. If you wanted to create a character from the American Revolution, there are few diaries,
and, because there was no regular postal service, although letters do survive, often from people at the top, like George Washington,
(who, to my mind, was a very good letter-writer, revealing, underneath that cool exterior, a very passionate man), ordinary people have left much less of a trace, although some veterans wrote memoirs, like Henry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee.
There were almost no magazines
and virtually no newspapers,
and images, both of people and events, were scarce, most portraits being only of people who could afford such an extravagance, and, for period illustrations, the best one could do would be post-war pictures, often grand and more full of drama than detailed accuracy.
(Trumbull’s “Bunker Hill”, painted in 1786.)
And, of course, the farther back one goes, the fewer the sources: if you wanted to create a hoplite who fought at Marathon in 490BC, for example,
the only period account we have is that of Herodotus, a near-contemporary.
Suppose, instead , that you decide to chronicle one or more veterans of an imaginary war, in another time and (possibly) another place, what might you employ for resources—besides your vivid imagination, of course?
To begin, because you’re not a professional novelist, but a medievalist, you pick a time and place which are medieval, so no electronic possibilities, as well as no newspapers or magazines. You don’t really like the contemporary world much any way and you also really enjoy modern stories set in medieval or even Dark Ages worlds,
so they will be an influence, whether you want them to or not
Literacy in our own medieval world was a specialized skill, which, if you model your world on this one, will at least cut down on things like letters (although medieval letters survive, the most famous in English being those written by and to members of the Paston family mainly in the 15th century).
As well, diaries are very rare, perhaps the best-known being the so-called “Journal of a Bourgeois of Paris”, written in the period 1405-1445. (There doesn’t appear to be a complete English translation of this, but here’s Alexandre Tuetey’s 1881 French edition: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/54182/54182-h/54182-h.htm )
As for illustrations, from our medieval world, there are thousands of wonderful images, in manuscripts
(This is from Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis, written 1332-1350 and depicts the fighting around the castle of Gisors in Normandy in 1198.)
and on tombs,
(This is the tomb of the Black Prince, post-1376.)
and in churches, among other places.
(So far, I’ve been unable to identify this one—but I’m glad not to be in his position!)
Although, as you’re an enthusiast for modern versions of the past, perhaps you’d be drawn to things like this—
(from Howard Pyle’s 1903 The Story of King Arthur and His Knights—here’s a LINK to your copy: https://ia802705.us.archive.org/30/items/storyofkingarthu00pylerich/storyofkingarthu00pylerich.pdf )
Few letters or diaries, then, in which your protagonist/s, can write down their thoughts and happenings, but there was, in our world, a written model which might be useful: complicated medieval manuscripts with titles like The Yellow Book of Lecan, composed about 1400,
and The Black Book of Carmarthen, written pre-1250.
Unlike modern works, these are actually compendia, containing everything from poetry to epic to historical chronicles to practical things like finding the right date for Easter. Perhaps your protagonist/s could use one of these to set down the events which would, in turn, form the plot of your novel?
Above, I suggested that, if you wrote about WW2 or even the Civil War, there were lots of accounts by veterans of their experiences, and even a few autobiographies from the American Revolutionary period. By employing these, if you wrote about actual historical periods, you could add a level of convincing detail. As well, they could help you to flesh out your protagonist/s’ viewpoint, providing other experiences to make the story not only fuller, but also to give it greater depth.
For your imaginary war, then, you might give your imaginary heroes comrades during the struggle, who then would be able to provide your heroes with insights about places and people and events they themselves might not experience.
So what would all of this look like, put together? Perhaps something like this:
LORD OF THE RINGS
RETURN OF THE KING
(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise)
Together with extracts from Books of Lore translated by Bilbo in Rivendell.”
Imagine it at the beginning of “a big book with plain red leather covers; its tall pages…now almost filled.”
Now you only have to wait for Sam to fill in those last pages.
Thanks for reading, as ever,
Orcs are believed to hate sunlight—but watch out for those with a white hand on their shields,
And know that there’s always
This, Posting Number 416, ends Year Eight and, with this PS, I want to express my gratitude to those who follow and those who pop in for an occasional read. Next week, we’ll launch into Year Nine, where we’ll have a look at a work by an author who actually did influence JRRT, as you’ll see…