Thursday, May 15, 2014

Shauna Roberts on Mesopotamia and Doing Lots (and Lots) of Research

During my inglorious days in Academia, I nearly went to graduate school in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Thus, I was especially excited when today's guest, Shauna Roberts, offered to discuss how she researched her novels about ancient Mesopotamia.

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Five Reasons I Over-research…
and Over-research…and Over-research
by Shauna Roberts

1. I love research! Although the “butt in chair, fingers on keyboard” part of writing a novel is fun, I prefer research. Whether the subject is ancient cosmetics, the aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle), or the climate of the Near East after the last Ice Age, research topics often turn into obsessions.

2. I usually take the less-traveled road. For example, my historical novel Like Mayflies in the Stream (Hadley Rille Books, 2009) and my forthcoming historical romance Claimed by the Enemy (Nicobar Press, June 2014) both have what some consider an obscure setting: ancient Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq and Syria). The two books take place in different cities and more than 400 years apart, so I had to do a lot of new research for the second book.

3. Sources often contain mistakes, overgeneralizations, and differences of opinion. Everyone knows by now not to use Wikipedia as a sole source. But it’s not unique in its problems. I worked as a medical and science writer and editor for twenty-five years, and one of the first things I learned was not to trust any source by itself, even when the source was the scientist or company I was writing about.

Writing with confidence about an ancient civilization requires the author to:
• read narrow, specific articles in scholarly journals and then extrapolate to other cities, other decades, other age groups, or the opposite sex
• read popular books and textbooks and then separate wild generalizations about, say, diet or religious practices from generalizations that did hold true for centuries or millennia
• look at art with as few preconceptions as possible and research what you think you see. For example, the equines pulling chariots in Mesopotamian art before 2000 B.C. look like horses, but aren’t. What are they? Scholars disagree.
• take the prejudices of the authors’ time into account. For example, the 1920s field reports of the excavations of the city of Ur describe the finds accurately. But the scholars’ interpretations are clearly influenced by, for example, their literal belief in the Biblical flood story (Mesopotamia actually suffered several extraordinary floods, not just one) and their assumption that women never ruled cities (wrong). 

4. Original sources are often in foreign languages. The scholarly literature on ancient Mesopotamia is often in German or French and partly relies on documents in the ancient Mesopotamia languages of Sumerian and Akkadian. I can read French and German, but not expertly, so I do extra research to verify facts from articles in those languages.

Two summers ago, I took a correspondence course in Sumerian. (Really!) Now I can compare the transcriptions of original texts against authors’ modern translations and judge for myself how reliable each might be.

5. Over-research makes it easier to avoid info dumps. Historical novelists often love their research so much they want to include every last bit in their book. After all, we’ve already generously shared with friends every detail of fabric dyes or furniture construction or cooking techniques of our time period, and readers are just friends that we haven’t met yet.

Over-research curbs that tendency because it leads to finding conflicting interpretations and contradictory evidence. One is acutely aware that few “facts” are 100% certain. For example, I read in the past week that chemical analyses of the bones of ancient Egyptians suggest they were vegetarians. In contrast, ancient art and common sense suggest Egyptians ate a lot of fish. (Glad I’m not writing a novel set in ancient Egypt right now!)

As a reader, I want a novel to provide an accurate understanding of life in a particular era, but I also want a strong plot and characters with understandable motivations. Let’s face it: It’s hard to understand the motivations of people in 1950, let alone those of people in 1950 B.C.E. Authors must modernize characters at least a little—enough that readers don’t see them as alien and incomprehensible.

As a writer, I try to provide the reading experience I desire for myself by writing a story deeply grounded in the time and place but not mired in details (which could be wrong) or explanations (which jerk the reader out of the story).

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Learn more about Shauna Roberts on her website.
Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
You can buy Like Mayflies in a Stream on Amazon and B&N.
Claimed by the Enemy will be available this summer. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great post, Shauna! Historical research is the original "too much is never enough" activity. I appreciate your observation than learning a lot helps curb the desire to show off. Partly, as you say, because you know enough to know how uncertain our knowledge, but also contradictorily because you learn enough to time travel and let your characters just live through their days with the ideas and objects they find there, rather than dumping clumps of scenery here and there. Your book sounds delightful, I must rush off and add it to my TBR list!