I've just finished reading The Scourge of God by William Deitrich - a historical novel about Attila the Hun. I hadn't read a big historical novel for a while, but I wanted to do some research on that era and thought I'd start with a novel - one that came highly recommended for historical accuracy. At first, there was so much information that I struggled with it, but once I got to know the characters a little, the story started to take off. There are several point-of-view characters but the main one is a Roman called Jonas. As with many historical novels, this person never actually existed, but most of the other characters did. A fictional narrator gives you a bit more leeway with the novel side of the project.
Deitrich did a great job of depicting both the cultures and life of the time, as well as the geography. Jonas begins in Constantinople, and then travels north into what is now probably Romania, then west into France where the huge final battle between Aetius and Attila takes place. His description of that battle, which some estimates put at over half a million soldiers on each side, is terrific, both in the single viewpoint of hand-to-hand combat and the overall fighting of hundreds of thousands. Some say three hundred thousand died in one day.
At the back of the book, there is a chapter on how he researched the story, and how little evidence there was of what really happened. The Huns didn't believe in reading and writing, so there are no written accounts from them. What there is came mostly from Romans. Deitrich talks about how he visited a number of museums and sites, trying to gather as much material as he could, but there isn't even a reliable picture of Attila, just a portrait made many years after his death with no evidence it was created by someone who knew him. Still, the level of detail in the book shows that Deitrich found enough to enrich the book immensely.
We are so used to having everything at our fingertips these days - TV, 24 hour news, internet, research libraries - that to write about a whole race of people who had no interest in recording their 'doings' is a real challenge. Which brings me to my research. I've been struggling for a while with a story, thinking it was fantasy but gradually realising that somewhere in my subconscious I've dragged the story up from a historical base. But what? I didn't do ancient history at school, and while I've read historical fiction over the years, I couldn't figure out why I could 'see' this story but had no idea where it was set. The word barbarians kept coming up, though.
Then I did some research on weapons, and immediately found that the ones I had in mind were used around 400-500AD, which led me to Goths, Vandals, Visigoths and Huns. Aha! I had my era at last, and my location - southern France. Now, this is a very weird way to go about researching a story - write a third of it before you know where and when it's taking place! But that's the way it happens sometimes. As for reading novels as a form of research - I can highly recommend it. You gain a 'feel' for the place and time in a way that normal historical reading rarely gives you, and you can then move on into more factual stuff as you need it.