July 16

Challenges in Writing Historical Short Stories


I have spent the major part of the last one year researching for my latest book, ‘The History of Mathematics’. The book is a collection of 26 short stories that fictionalize how mathematics evolved from when civilisation begins. This project was quite unlike writing a historical novel that deals with a single time period, a single civilisation and a single set of characters. Writing a collection of historical short stories, ranging across geographies and time periods on a topic as wide as the ‘History of Mathematics’ proved to be a Herculean task. I realised this only after writing some six stories in this collection.

The first step was to get the facts right. Then came the task of fictionalizing it with a sprinkling of the creative license. Coming to the research, every story dealt with a different time period, a different personality and a different event. For each story which was between 1000 to 2000 words, I had to read at least a 100 to 200 thousand words before gaining a fair understanding of the world and the math behind them.

The challenge was more intense when it came to Indian Mathematics. The Indian mathematicians had a philosophy of working for the sake of spreading knowledge rather than gaining name or fame for their works. Therefore, books about the rich history of Indian mathematics had little about the lives of these great Indian mathematicians. For instance, we know that the Indian mathematician-astronomer Aryabhata wrote Aryabhatiya when he was twenty-three years of age, but we have hardly any other historical information about this great man after whom India’s first satellite was named. Any book about the ‘History of Mathematics’ would be incomplete if it did not contain a part about this great man. So, it was with a lot of difficulty and after a lot of thought that I came up with Aryabhata’s story in the collection.



I made many mistakes in the writing and research process for this book because I had never worked on anything like this before. My errors delayed the book but gave me a better understanding of how to read, research and write challenging books. I would do things very differently when I do it again. (And yes, I plan to do it again! This will hopefully be the first book of a series!)

The second part of fictionalizing comes more easily to us writers. However, I had to face some agonizing episodes of writers’ block figuring out the way to fictionalize particular episodes. Eventually, I have arrived at a mix of some very different ways of fictionalizing. As a reader would see, some of these stories are very different from each other in the format, manner and approach to fictionalizing, ranging from first person narrative, journal entries, exchange of letters etc.

Some practical tips on fact researching

Some things that I learnt in the last year that I think might be helpful to all writers researching for your books:

1) You can’t remember it all

The first time that I started reading about this topic, I was blown away. I did not know that our civilisation had contributed so much to mathematics. I was in awe of all that I was reading that I had hardly stopped to think or make notes about the sources of what I was reading. You guessed it right! I had to read the entire thing again. By the way, ‘thing’ here means about five to six books that were about 500-700 pages each.

2) Make notes

Please make notes as you read about a topic. In my second reading, I wrote down all the important points with the sources and had detailed notes on every topic and every mathematician. My notes were not based on the book that I was reading but was based on the topic that I wanted to gather information on.

For instance, when I was reading ‘Cracking Mathematics’ by Colin Beveridge, I did not make notes directly in the order that they appear in the book. Instead, I had pages dedicated in my notebook for Aryabhata, Bhaskara, Archimedes, Pythagoras and so on. Whenever I read anything about Aryabhata, I made notes in the section dedicated to Aryabhata and along with my notes, I mentioned the source. This made it easy when I was writing a story about that particular person or that particular civilisation.

Another digital tool that can make this process easier is Scrivener. I’m not sure how many of you have heard about this writing software that makes it easy to order and reorder your scenes and structure and also keep your research handy. The History of Mathematics was exclusively written on Scrivener. I had separate folders for research on each topic and a separate folder for my second draft. My first draft is always handwritten.

3) Use technology

I loathe technology when it comes to communication. I prefer talking to a person rather than messaging endlessly. However, when it comes to research, technology can be a powerful weapon in your hand. Whenever I came across anything that could be remotely useful to my book, I clicked a picture on my phone. Images saved on my phone went into Google drive directly and sank into the ocean of images there.

That was when I started using Evernote. This could probably be called as one of the greatest apps in the digital world. I have a separate folder titled ‘The History of Mathematics’ and all spare notes, images, book recommendations, website recommendations, screenshots, quotes, etc. were stored here. This also synced with the Evernote app on my iPad and my laptop.

Evernote became a repository of all my research and could be accessed from any device anywhere. I know there are other apps like Google Keep that also do the same work for you. However, I prefer the ease and interface of Evernote.

4) Do not stick to just one medium

Whenever I speak to other writers about researching a topic, they ask me how many books I have read on that topic. Books are just one medium of research. There is so much more that goes into researching a book. For instance, when a serious writing block was stopping me from continuing with the book, I fortuitously visited the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya at Fort, Mumbai. They were holding a special exhibition called ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’; the story of Akkad and Shonapath during the Harappan civilisation was a direct result of that visit.

Similarly, my chancing upon the original Bakshali Manuscript at the Science Museum of London (where incidentally a show on ‘Illuminating India: 5000 years of Science and Innovation’ was going on) resulted in me breaking down and turning museum guide for other foreigners interested in India. It also enthused me to gallop with the writing of the book.

These are the moments that turn all the hard work into beautiful memories.

Apart from books and museums, I had also interacted with a few professors and other enthusiasts who are interested in this field. Their ideas and viewpoints added more value to the book. Remember, research must be multifaceted to add the most value.

I hope my journey filled with mistakes and discoveries will help you pen the next best historical fiction.




About the author

Welcome! I write for adults and children. More importantly, I love to write for writers. This is where I share everything I know about this mysterious process of writing.

Archana Sarat

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