The Pitfalls of Historical Research by Lisa Yarde

Posted by on Jul 29, 2013 in Featured Book, Muslim Societies | 4 comments

sauvé de justesseEver felt bogged down by the details? Every writer of historical fiction has likely shared the experience. Stories of bygone eras immerse readers in a particular time and place by invoking elements of the past that bring history to life. In the quest to blend fact and fiction, it is too easy to get lost in fascinating details that have absolutely nothing to do with the story! How do we find the balance between getting the facts straight and keeping an audience entertained? After all, we are storytellers at heart, not historians.

Writing a series on Moorish Spain posed unique challenges, beyond the study of a different religion and the taint of old prejudices about Moorish culture. While Spain’s Islamic heritage dwells in its food, architecture, and people, precious details of the Moorish past are lost forever or mired in propaganda. I have devoted more than twenty years to the lives of the historical figures in the Sultana series. The biggest surprise has been how much remains unknown about them.

The Nasrid Dynasty caused incredible amounts of confusion in the initial research, starting with just the names. For one, too many sons, fathers, brothers, and uncles named Muhammad, Yusuf, and Ismail to keep them straight! The most frustrating aspect became a consistent lack of information about my heroine, except the certainty of her name. The first dangerous trap loomed, as countless hours disappeared while I searched for elusive facts on her life. Let’s face it. Sometimes, the research is much more interesting than writing the story. Five years would go before I even wrote an outline or first draft. Little of what I found would become part of the narrative of Sultana or Sultana’s Legacy.

ResearchReaders of the series have often commented that while they find the history and the famous Alhambra setting interesting, they connect with certain characters and most enjoy the relationships forged between them. This does not mean I get to ignore the research. After all, why write historical fiction if the past is no more than a backdrop? At almost the completion of the latest installment, Sultana: Two Sisters, new resources on the period revealed aspects of the Nasrid Dynasty I had never known. The knowledge almost threatened to undo the storyline.

Is there anything as perfect as serendipitous discovery, the instant where a writer of historical fiction learns the facts and storyline coincide? Cue heaven’s angels and their hearts. Is there a more frustrating moment than when new research dramatically alters the narrative? I had always guessed that the heroine of Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy died sometime during the early reign of her grandson, the hero of Sultana: Two Sisters. Imagine the mix of elation and utter horror when I found out she lived for fifteen years into his rule, interacting with the main characters of the third novel in the series, who had all spoken of her death! In a complete panic, I scribbled an email to my beta readers with an appropriate subject line, “Help!” Sage advice from everyone reminded me of how an author can avoid the pitfalls of historical research; not every detail is important for inclusion.

So, how did I resolve my research dilemma? Find out, as Sultana: Two Sisters makes its debut today.

Lisa Yarde, July 29, 2013




  1. Congratulations on the third in the series! Good grief, I want to know how you worked out a revelation like 15 years more of life for your heroine!

    • Thanks Judith, it’s great to see the book out there and to start working on the next in the series. I wish someone had been around to take a pic of my face the moment I found out Fatima was still alive. Shocked doesn’t begin to cover it. In April, I stumbled on Las Sultanas de la Alhambra, which covers the two centuries of the dynasty I’m writing about – cue the angels and harps. Wish I’d had this information nineteen years ago, but at least I got in just in time for the latest book.

  2. Wonderful blog post about the nexus between the underlying research and writing the historical world and its characters from that research. Looking forward to the latest.

    • Thanks, my dear. There are times I would rather do the research than write. Not very helpful for getting a book out, but it is fun.