How I research...

Writing historical fiction takes a lot of research. Biblical fiction is no exception, though in some cases the stories are more laid out than in others. David's life, for instance, is given a lot of space in the biblical texts, though his wives get far less page time. To research their stories, I had to study David's life and imagine how they would have felt, reacted, lived during what was happening to David and going on around him. Michal, though rarely spoken of in Scripture, has more written about her family than Abigail or Bathsheba. Michal's father, King Saul, plays a prominent role in 1 Samuel along with her brother Jonathan. We can glimpse her home life through her family. Abigail, on the other hand, is only spoken of in one chapter, though in her case, we get to actually hear some of what she has to say. Less is told about her life except for her marriage to a "harsh and badly behaved" husband. Bathsheba is the most famous of the three, but little is known about her specifically. Her father and husband were named among David's Mighty Men and her grandfather was David's counselor, so she would have lived among privileged circles. Other than their beauty and sometimes there intelligence, we don't know much about these women.

The same is true for most women in Scripture. I am working now on Sarai's story and though we know much of Abraham, we only see Sarai (Sarah) from a side angle view. The New Testament tells us a little more about her faith, but we don't know when she acquired such faith. Did she believe God as quickly as Abram did? What kind of a woman was she? What was it like for her to leave her homeland and the prosperity of Ur to live in tents in a land not her own? And when the promise of a child was not immediately fulfilled, did she doubt? Did she fear?

So many questions to ponder! And we are all so unique in our makeup and thinking. An author cannot simply project their own personalities or feelings onto their characters and assume they would feel the same. So how do we get to know these women whose lives God immortalized in Scripture, whose sandals trod this earth thousands of years ago?

To answer these questions, I research. I start with the biblical account, not just reading it but reading the whole of Scripture to hope to shed insight into who these people were. That does not mean I read the whole Bible through every time I take to studying a particular person, but rather, that I continue to read other books of the Bible as I would in a daily devotional way, not focusing only on the one account where the characters are named. I have learned things about Abraham in other books of the Bible that I would not have found in the Genesis passage. For instance, it was in Ezekiel that I read why God destroyed Sodom--a more detailed reason than is given to Abraham by the Lord in Genesis.

I also pray for insight. God knows these people better than I do (they were real after all) so I ask Him to tell me about them. That's not to say my interpretation will be perfect or that I will know more about these men and women than anyone else, just that I need His guidance to understand who they were. I can't do this without Him.

Then I buy books. While I enjoy my Kindle, I buy research books in paperback or hardback. I want to hold the real thing in my hands. Color pictures are especially helpful since I am a visual learner. I buy "Daily Life in..." whatever time period I'm studying type books. For Abraham and Sarah I had to acquire books on ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient Israel. I need to understand the geography, the history, the beliefs, and the daily customs of each people group because Abram and Sarai lived in Ur and Haran (Mesopotamia), Canaan, and Egypt for a time. Egypt is quite different than Mesopotamia. Their gods, their way of life, their dress and daily habits are not the same. So to get a good picture of what life was like for Sarai, I need to know about the times in which she lived.

Cultural atlases are also great resources and Bible commentaries and encyclopedias can help me better understand things about the biblical account. The study also includes delving into the characters of Hagar and Lot's wife. Who were they? What was their background? What did they believe and what were they like? Other authors have done studies on some of these women, and it helps to read their works.

Archeological evidence, particularly pictures, help me visualize the past. Ur was home to a giant ziggurat, which was likely a temple to their moon god Nannar-Sin. (Some time periods give it different names, but the god is the same.) Archeologists have also uncovered a royal tomb in Ur, which has produced many artifacts and given much insight into the people of that day.

Pinpointing exactly when Abram lived is tough. Scholars disagree on this and the Bible doesn't give us a date, so I have to give it my best guess. That might mean I have him entering Egypt at a time other than what truly happened, but if scholars can't agree, I'm surely not going to get it perfectly right! It helps that this is fiction. :)

But the main point of all of my research isn't to prove or disprove when or even if (some say they didn't) Abraham or David or their wives lived. On the point of whether or not they lived, I assume and believe the Bible is true. My desire in researching these things is to give a fuller view of the story, to let us get a glimpse of the times, and in so doing, perhaps get to know them better.

In any case, the research is fascinating and eye-opening. One thing I have learned is that people do not change. Cultures change. Habits, belief systems, methods and means of doing things change. Even languages change. But human nature remains the same. So though a worldview may be far from what we can understand, a woman's feelings about her life are universal. Perhaps in studying and reading about the women in the Bible, we can see ourselves with more clarity. Perhaps that is why God immortalized their stories in the first place.


PersonalJill Eileen Smith