First, fantastic book. Now that I have that out of the way, I can get more analytical.
Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors is a compilation of hundreds of articles that spring from the extensive research that different authors have done for their novels. Ever wondered about bathing habits in medieval times, or how Tudor kitchens actually worked, or how flush toilets came to be? It’s in there, and more.
The book’s structure makes it an easy read. It is divided into nine sections, ranging from Roman Britain and the Early Medieval Period through the Twentieth Century – plus a special bonus section for Historical Tidbits Across the Ages (for topics, like the royal coat of arms or Christmas, that span multiple time periods). This allows you to skip around a bit – which I confess to doing. I started with the intention of reading it straight through, but given that I have a strong preference for the Tudor era I ended up skipping ahead a bit and then circling back. I also confess to skipping some of the essays – not every reader will love every author or every title – but that is part of the genius of the format. Since each essay is only about 2-3 pages long, you don’t feel like you are losing much if an article here and there doesn’t quite pique your interest (plus it happened fewer times than I would have expected).
Still, its most enduring legacy is the fact that it assembles so much information – this makes it a critical resource for all writers of historical fiction set in England. I am currently writing a novel (Jane the Quene, about Henry VIII’s third wife, scheduled for release in 2015), and I loved the opportunity to read more detail about the tiny elements that I’ve been researching on my own. For example, I used the essay entitled The Elizabethan Gardening Craze to make sure that a scene I had written involving a garden was accurate (while the essay focused on the second half of the sixteenth century, it discussed some of the background and helped contextualize much of what I knew). So helpful and reassuring!
In all, a wonderful book. I am looking forward to the sequel!