Last weekend, I went to Legendary ConFusion, and attempted to sit in on as many writing-oriented panels as I could. I'm working through my notes and trying to share some of what I learned. Enjoy!
This Historical Fantasy panel, led by author Howard Andrew Jones, brought up different ways to research for novels and various things to think about. Good stuff!
I could sum up this panel in two words: Don't assume! But that's not very fun. So, here we go.
When doing research, look into a mix of primary and secondary sources. (If I remember correctly) Primary sources are those that would come from within the culture/time period directly, and secondary sources are anything else. A mix is important, because there are certain things that we don't talk about when we're in the moment. First hand descriptions may give you a better look at how that culture functioned, but may lack descriptive details about clothing, foods, etc. It really depends on what you're researching, but finding a good mix of sources is your best bet.
If you need help, professors are potentially a good resource, as they may have a wealth of knowledge on obscure topics that they'd love to share with someone who is actually interested. Another potential resource? Roleplaying guides, for names, art, and the like. (The author recommended the GURPS system, of which many books are out of print, but you can find them if you're savvy.)
But what are some things, specifically, that are good 'food for fodder' when building your historical fantasy?
Well, one thing to remember is that, at the core, humanity really hasn't changed. We're a bit more civilized (usually), we're more educated as a whole, and our tribes are larger, but we still have them. How we go about accomplishing things may have changed, but we're still trying to feed ourselves, put roofs over our heads, and build relationships with others.
Keep in mind that travel is a fairly recent phenomenon for most of the world. We can go further, for cheaper, and faster than was even conceivable a few hundred years ago. Some people did travel, yes. But keep in mind the scope of these things, and the toll they could take. If your relatives headed out west via the Oregon trail, the odds that you were ever going to see them again were pretty dog gone low. In Pride & Prejudice, Darcy makes a comment that Mrs Collins is fortunate to be settled so near her family. Elizabeth points out that fifty miles, at the Collins' income level, was not near her family.
People didn't travel the way we do now. For some, going to the next village may have been a real rarity. Remember things like geography, seasons, and income restrictions before sending everyone in your novel on road trips.
Also remember that innovation was slow up until the industrial revolution. People were fairly resistant to change unless there was a profit to be made. If it wasn't broken, chances are, people weren't trying to fix it.
But, all that aside, sometimes, there was really cool technology available that we may not readily know about. For instance, in the Byzantine empire, they had sun telegraphs. This means that they could communicate far faster than your standard horse and parchment. What kind of communication patterns apply in your culture? What kind of technology might there have been that we don't really pay attention to now?
Try to resist the impulse to info dump on your readers when establishing differences in culture. The truth is, much of the research you do will stay behing the scenes. Accent your world with new information for your readers, so as not to overwhelm them. Show how their lives are different through their 'everyday' patterns - through their thoughts and actions, not through paragraphs upon paragraphs of text.
What kinds of things have changed in our culture over the years that we take for granted? One thing I learned about was the concept of "two sleeps" - I had never heard of it before. Apparently there's quite a bit of evidence from various sources that points to our ancestors sleeping for a few hours, waking for a period of time, and then sleeping until morning. You can read more about the concept here. This is why research is important - what else don't we know about because it has died out in our culture?
As it comes to magic, think about the roots of mysticism. Now, if you want to write straight up "everyone has a wand and casts fireball" fantasy, that's fine. But in a more historical grounded perspective, keep in mind that in pre-science/education days, superstition and mysticism was far more common. People would view things that we might consider mundane as mystical. If you were bitten by a snake, you might very well assume that someone had cursed you, rather than your clumsiness being to blame. While we now understand some of the medicinal properties behind herbs, a lot of these were just magical concoctions then. People who were able to do 'magical' things would have been feared. They'd have been on the fringes of society, visited by desperate people in the dark of night. Some things actually worked, and some were deeply rooted in superstition. How that plays out in your historical fantasy or in the perceptions of your characters is up to you.
In the end, as I said earlier, don't assume anything - do plenty of research and question everything. But, err on the side of writing a good story over being accurate. Even the most well-researched novel will have errors, and you will get called out on it by someone who knows more than you do, or doesn't appreciate your take on it. Mention it in the afterward if you feel guilty - if you're writing fiction, take some liberties and write a good story.