Writing historical fiction: researching the Third Crusade

Acre (Akko) The pisan port
Acre – photo by yanivba – used under CC BY-SA2.0

“Did Queen Berengaria and Queen Joan (or Joanna as she’s sometime referred to) depart Cyprus for Acre on the same galley as King Richard?”¹

You’re dying to know, right? Isn’t everyone? Ah, the joys of historical research!

Donna Gillespie at Pen in Hand writes “Research helps you shape your story, and on a good day it can even suggest a nifty plot complication, fully formed, little assembly required.” Yes, exactly! That’s what I look for while trying to work out the plot lines for my novella Battle Scars.

All I’d planned to do was make reference to a cool minor character teaching a few card tricks to Berengaria, who then bested her husband, the Lionheart. But if they weren’t all on the same boat, my bit of comic relief wouldn’t work – at least not in that particular spot in the story.

Hey, average Joe/Joanna: would you care? would you even know if I’d gotten the history wrong?

On the other hand, the Third Crusade aficionado might close the book on me – literally – if I messed with the historical record.

It’s important to me to get it right. Or, to do the best I can to track down the little details to keep my fiction consistent with actual events of the time. I do love the research. I was always the kid who saw something on television or in a movie or a book and had to go look up more information about it in the old World Book Encyclopedia or at the library.


I’m using Scrivener for this novella. It has some fantastic tools: a “binder” to upload research notes, images, or other documents, a document notes feature and synopsis for each scene or chapter. I have 15 scenes storyboarded in my rough draft for part 2 of the novella, which covers June 1191 through October 1192. Each scene has a corresponding notes section highlighting many of the actual events of a particular day or month. This allows me to keep the facts straight while I weave my fiction around them. I can look for opportunities: where will my next scene take place? At the Battle of Arsuf? In Jaffa (or Joppa – what spellling should I use?), in Beit Nuba?


My list of reference materials continues to grow. Nicholson’s Chronicle of the Third Crusade provides the basis of my research material. It’s a translation from an official chronicler, reporting events while accompanying Richard’s army. Richard the Lionheart: the Mighty Crusader by David Miller provides some nice details, and “Battle of Arsuf: Climatic clash of cross and crescent,” an article by Mark L. Evans in the journal Military History analyzes the strategies of Richard and Saladin. I’d mentioned a few other books on my reference pile in earlier posts here and here. And I haven’t even had a chance to check out many of these:

middle ages books at the library

How do you keep track of your research notes?

¹No. 🙂

  1. Jaime Avatar

    “Research helps you shape your story, and on a good day it can even suggest a nifty plot complication, fully formed, little assembly required.”
    To be honest, this was how I came up with the plot for the HL story from round 7. My co-mod gave me a very brief character description, and the story surrounding him came from getting lost at wikipedia for a few hours (I still intend to finish that. I hated not being able to keep up with it, but trying to run everything else by myself… there wasn’t enough hours in a day. :-/) The plot practically wrote itself…

    It’s important to me to get it right.
    I’m totally with you here. I’ve been doing a little plotting here and there for my nanowrimo story, and though it’s fantasy, it draws off of certain historical events (specifically, the lost colony of Roanoke.) I want to make sure I get things right before I go off the deep end with them. 😉

    How do you keep track of your research notes?
    I’ve never tried Scrivener. I usually use a simple text editor for writing (either focuswriter or plain ol’ notepad.) Most of my notes are plain text files shoved in a folder (text and RTF files are pretty universal and can be used with almost any OS without the need for special software.) I’ve been wanting to switch to just using a plain notebook to keep track of notes, though. I have a certain distrust of computers after the last crash I had, and I don’t have the bandwidth to work consistently out of a cloud… 🙁

    1. Char Avatar

      The plot practically wrote itself…
      Isn’t that a fantastic feeling?! I hope you find time to finish it. It’s hard to leave something hanging like that.

      Oooooh – lost colony of Roanoke. Cool! So you’re going to do nano? You go, girl! There’s just no way I could write 50K in a month. I’m getting better I’ve noticed as I’ve worked on Battle Scars but I’m nowhere near my record of 29K in a month – I did that when I wasn’t working. Now, I feel great if I hit 10K. I actually wrote – very very rough – almost 15K in 3 weeks with Battle Scars. Gotta keep it up. Keep writing. Keep writing.

      I gave up paper notekeeping a couple of years ago. Too bad you can’t work in the cloud – I probably shouldn’t feel overly confident with Dropbox, GoogleDocs, etc. but I do. And I try to remember to download to the harddrive or email myself stuff attachments of docs that I can retrieve if needed.

  2. Jadey Avatar

    I’ve not felt the need to do a great amount of research for my fanfic writing, although I do check on things, like names of weapons/clothing, as I’m quite keen to get the detail right and avoid anachronisms wherever possible. I guess if I were to ever write a historical novel something like Scrivener (which I’ve never looked at) would be a useful tool although, tbh, I’m an old fashioned girl when it comes to keeping notes, etc. All my scribblings for plot ideas, bit of dialogue and the like end up on bits of paper and, occasionally, a proper notepad. I always try to carry a notepad and pen around with me (although sometimes a till receipt or the inside of a loo roll has had to substitute!). But, yeah, I can see how something like Scrivener would help with planning a novel.

    Very much looking forward to Part 2 of ‘Battle Scars’ by the way.

    1. Jaime Avatar

      although sometimes a till receipt or the inside of a loo roll has had to substitute!
      LMAO! Oh good, I’m not the only person who has doodled on the inside of a toilet paper roll! They do work well in a pinch. 🙂 Have you thought about gluing them into your notepad, so you don’t lose them? I do that sometimes with my sketches (I go through glue sticks like crazy sometimes. LOL!)

      1. Char Avatar

        Gluing the notes in is a GREAT idea!

    2. Char Avatar

      I envy your ability to stay organized with written notes. I used to carry pen & paper & found I rarely used them. Now I pull out my iPhone and use its Notes ap quite often. I’ve tried the voice recorder on the phone, too, when I’m in the car. Now THAT can be quite hilarious. Receipts – yep, done that in the past. Or napkins. Haven’t tried the loo roll – love it though! I do highly recommend Scrivener.

      As for part 2 – I’m about at the halfway point, and had a chat with our friend Jen about a structure issue in this part. Sigh. That means I have a lot of rewriting of the rest of this part, so it may take a bit longer. And with the wedding, and then final revisions on Family Peace, finishing Battle Scars pt. 2 may be a little bit further out than I’d hoped.

  3. Marie Loughin Avatar


    I come from the other side of the spectrum. I do the minimal amount of research needed to float the story. But then, I’m not a librarian 😉

    Your average Joe won’t care if you get creative with the facts, as long as you write a good story. Fiction, remember? If a reader fails a history test because of you, well, he/she probably would have failed it anyway.

    As for the aficionado, ask yourself that question. If you’re reading historical fiction and you discover the author has fudged a fact, will you throw the book against the wall and never pick it up again? The answer probably depends on how good the story telling is.

    The truth is, authors fudge facts all the time to make their stories better. Even in historical fiction. And even if you don’t fudge the facts, certain readers will find something else to complain about, anyway. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about that sort of thing.

    So the real question is, how do *you* feel about fudging some facts? If it bothers you on a personal level (ignoring eventual readers), then don’t do it.

    1. Char Avatar

      And the real answer is, it pains me to fudge the facts … but I’ll do it if I think it serves the best interest of my story. Would I throw a book away if I found facts wrongs? Probably not, unless the story & writing were awful. I’m not going to worry about it too much. Promise. 🙂

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