Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing Historical Fiction, Setting

A while back I wrote a post about historical fiction and using details from your research to craft your plot. But what do you do when you need historical information and you can’t find it?

I faced this question many times for Screwing Up Babylon. For example, I needed information about the palace in Babylon. But I haven’t been able to find much information on the palace except that it was enormous (600 rooms) and extremely impressive. There are some photos on the web of the palace, except those are photos of Saddam Hussein’s rebuilding of the palace. And his attention to historical accuracy is doubtful. After all, he built his own palace in the shape of a ziggurat over Babylonian ruins. And, honestly, though Saddam’s rebuild is big, it’s kind of ugly and plain—just clay bricks that are already crumbling due to poor manufacture. My readers won’t be impressed. And the real Babylonian kings…well, let’s just say you don’t give the rulers of the known world shoddy workmanship.

So I had a few options. I could go with ugly. But I didn’t think that was fair. Particularly since the Ishtar Gate is amazing (no, the gate didn’t make it into the book), and I’ve no doubt that the Babylonian kings would have made their palace more impressive than a city gate.

Another option was to consider real possibilities and let my imagination run within those parameters. For example, Babylonians often used panels for decoration. So the palace I created has those panels. And I decorated them with aurochs and other creatures from Babylonian mythology.

The Babylonians traded all over the known world. So if an item existed within the Babylonians trading sphere at the time the story is set, then I assumed the item was fair game. For example, Tyre, Sidon, and the Egyptians all made beautiful colored glass, which means the Babylonians would have had access to it. So colored glass makes an appearance in the decoration of the palace.

Armed with historical information and imagination, I created a palace that I think my readers will like. And a palace that the king of Babylon would recognize—or at least one, that might make the king say, “We need to hire her to redecorate the palace.”


  1. I love historical fiction, but it really is about the painstaking details. That's why I don't write it.

  2. I write fantasy so I have a little more leeway, but there are times when I need a specific answer about how people lived in a pre-industrial world, and those details are hard to find.

    But I think it was smart of you to use your research to help you fill in those blanks.

  3. I feel your pain...and pleasure. I'm writing historical fiction and the devil is really in the details. It can sometimes be a pain in the butt - but when you've finished painting a scene with a blend of fact and imagination, it feels amazing :)