History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 December 2006

Going Native with Celia May Hart

Don't forget Celia is giving away a copy of her new book, THE HAREM to one lucky poster!

That’s what you have to do to write a historical of any sort or description. Go native. I’ve been reading about the Hoydens going to primary sources...

But what if your primary sources are in a moldy library in Hyderabad, India and in Deccan to boot? That’s where scholarly secondary sources come in handy.

When I chose India as the setting for my novella “East Meets West” for THE HAREM anthology, I knew next to nothing about it. Oh, I knew about the East India company -- that was where younger sons came back from with riches to star in a book of their own set in Regency England. That’s all I needed to know, right?

There’s a phrase among readers that’s called “glomming” and that’s about the best way to “go native”, by immersing yourself into anything and everything you can find that belongs to that era. Primary, secondary, visual, audio, anything that will make the flavor of that time and place second nature. Do it until it comes out of your pores.

“White Mughals” by William Dalrymple, did that very nicely. He did the research in that Hyderabad library and followed the compelling tale of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British resident at Hyderabad and his love for the beautiful Khair un-Nissa.

Kirkpatrick and other British men went native while at their posts, not just taking a bibi (which means “wife”, but to the men it meant “convenient woman to sleep with”, although to be fair, some did treat their bibis like their wife), but becoming deeply involved with the culture, the religion, the festivals. One of the hotly debated points in Dalrymple’s book is whether or not Kirkpatrick actually became a Muslim.

They dressed in the local style, kept local hours, attended the festival, took up the hookah. Remember Becky Sharpe sampling a chili in “Vanity Fair”? They grew accustomed to the foods. Most of it was due to political expediency and the importance of getting along with the local rulers.

Dalrymple didn’t just settle for these observations of how the British changed, but he examined the lifestyle of local aristocratic circles these men often moved in, including the culture surrounding the marriage of a young woman as well as festivals.

He even uses an Iranian visitor, Abdul Lateef Shushtari, to examine both sides. (The upper caste of India (the Mughals) were of Iranian stock and this is why they were Muslim.) Like all travelogues it has nifty little details, such as that despite the British respect for the Indian elders, they apparently had a lot to learn about hygiene. In Shushtari’s opinion the Muslim caste had also gone “native”, adopting Hindu ways and their women were overeducated and independent-minded compared with the women at that time in Iran.

A good secondary source can also find you those primary sources that are accessible, as well as other secondary sources that might focus on a particular subject. Read the footnotes, read the bibliography, find other books. Historians can be notorious for disagreeing with each other, so make sure you get at least one alternative viewpoint in there. Find those primary sources, if you can, listen to the music, view their art and before you know it, you’ve “gone native”.

Welcome to the club!


Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wonderful post, Celia. I've never been to India, but I plan to go someday, and "go native," at least as much as a tourist can!


8:00 AM  
Blogger Maureen said...

I don't know that I want to travel to India but I have enjoyed reading your post.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband had a layover in India and teased me that if I had been with him, I wouldn't have gotten off the plane---a profusion of too many people, bright colors, smells ---altogether too stimulating for a "country girl" like me. But I've always been fascinated by eastern fabrics,jewelry and art. The movie Vanity Fair wonderfully contrasted the exotic with the constrained, due, no doubt, to its brilliant Indian director. I'm looking forward to reading this book! Maggie Robinson

1:59 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm off to Morocco next month for work and I so plan on going native! LOL!

5:46 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Morocco, Kalen???? Wow. Hope you have time to do more than just WORK while you're there!

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to go native. Some day hopefully I will :).

11:49 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Y. said...

Great post! I'd love to travel to India someday.

12:20 PM  
Blogger robynl said...

Going native is the way to go and to learn about the culture and the people.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Great post, Celia. And just to point out that Candice Hern used echoes of the Dalrymple book in her current JUST ONE OF THOSE FLINGS.

9:24 AM  

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