Then you pretty much have to improvise.
For both of my prior novels, The Secret History and Daughter of the Gods, I had the benefit of being able to travel to Turkey and Egypt for research, but a series of unfortunate events (and a strained pocketbook) meant that I had to write The Tiger Queens without a trip to Mongolia. Lacking a time machine (or a TARDIS), most of my research came from my trusty old friends: books.
My quest began when I stumbled upon Jack Weatherford’s fabulous volumes Genghis Khan: The Making of the Modern World and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, the former being up for grabs on a freebie table in my high school’s teacher lounge, and the second which I found a week later in Costco. I’d never heard of Genghis Khan’s powerful first wife, Borte, or his many daughters and daughters-in-law, but I soon discovered that they were fierce as tigers and tougher than nails. (They’d have to be after hanging around Genghis Khan!)
But there was still the problem of how to get those tricky historical details, the ones no historical writer thinks about when they start writing but that quickly become all-encompassing. What kinds of boots did the Mongols wear? What did they eat and drink? How did they build their tents so they didn’t freeze in the winter?
Fortunately for me, the stars aligned and I discovered Louisa Waugh’s memoir Hearing Birds Fly, which provided all sorts of answers, plus I discovered that one of my students had been to Mongolia for an exchange trip. Between the two of them, plus other fun sources like Marco Polo’s Travels, I found out everything I needed to know about Genghis Khan’s world.
Also, for the record, Mongols wore felt boots with the toes turned up so as not to accidentally kick the Earth Mother; they ate a LOT of horse meat, sometimes slipped raw under their saddles and tenderized while they rode; and to this day they have an ingenious system of pounding wool until it’s flat, then rolling it and dragging it behind their horses until it can be shaped into the yurts we’re all familiar with. Also, their tents would have been terribly smoky from the dung fires used for heating and cooking… Great details for writing, but nothing I necessarily want to experience firsthand!
About the Author: Stephanie Thornton is the author of The Secret History, Daughter of the Gods, and The Tiger Queens. She is also a history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel.
Giveaway: For a chance to win a Kindle version of Stephanie’s The Secret History, I’d love to hear about the things you find interesting but wouldn’t like to experience first hand. I’d go first and say I’d love to take a look at Renaissance Europe, but not so keen on the lack of hygiene and flush toilets 🙂