I’ve already talked a little about my research into the world around Ghadid in the Perfect Assassin – books and books and days spent in the University library – but I’ve never really talked about the how of it.
How did I do the research. How did I find those books. How did I take what I’d learned and weave it into a story.
It’s all about the references, really. And the bibliographies. You’ve gotta start somewhere, though, and sometimes that somewhere is the most pop-culture-y book you can find. But the key is, you don’t stop there. You dig. You check the back. You check what they referenced. You find those books.
And then you keep digging.
I started off with books like Sahara by Marq de Villiers and Men of Salt by Michael Benanav, which were great introductions but definitely not places to stop. They were both full of interesting information filtered through a very white, very Western (and male, to boot) lens, so I had to dig deeper. And you do that by flipping to the back and seeing who they cited, and then finding those books and articles and documents.
Which usually requires a trip to the local university library.
Thankfully I had one nearby, as well as a wife who could request Inter-Library Loans for me. And I used that for books out of print for 40+ years and books in French and books only in one particular university library and books in German. And still they were mostly by outsiders or imperialists and so you had to be careful with the narratives they were trying to form and build.
If you can, you find and read everything you can get your hands on from primary sources. Those were too few and far between, at least in English. But you can still glean a lot from secondary – even tertiary – sources as long as you keep in mind who is writing and why.
Who can often tell you their biases. Why will tell you their audience. Are they trying to entertain? To other? To make themselves sound more important or more in peril than they actually were so their buddies back home would go “ooooh.”
Because if I learned anything from studying Classics, even the most scrupulous and supposedly objective historians still had an agenda, and that colored their stories. So it’s best to take even the driest account with a grain – or twelve – of salt.
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