It is a blessing to be a historical fiction writer in our day and age. I took advantage of many online resources to help me with my research: I toured the streets of Granada and Madrid with Google Street View; I took a drive from Madrid to Toledo with a YouTube dash cam video (why does that even exist?!… well, it was helpful!); I read a great deal of historical information from scholarly articles and book excerpts posted online; I became more or less literate in Spanish (and French!) thanks to religious use of the DuoLingo app; and I discovered the wonder and glory that is mass open online courses (MOOCs).
A few months after I finished the first draft of By Light of Hidden Candles, someone pointed out to me that Coursera was about to run a MOOC on deciphering medieval Spanish documents. I was thrilled, because this was exactly the sort of information I needed! I signed up for it right away, and every Sunday when a new lecture came out I sat down with great diligence and watched from beginning to end. I loved every minute of it and learned a lot of important information that was later incorporated into the manuscript.
The course was the first stage of the Deciphering Secrets Project, part of a scholarly initiative called the Revealing Cooperation and Conflict Project. The goal of the project is to “re-examine historical cases of medieval and early modern Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interaction” as well as “buttress humanistic reflection within academia as well as the general public.”
Deciphering Secrets is the crowdsourcing initiative: utilizing the skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm of “citizen scholars”–ordinary people all over the world like myself, who are fascinated by this topic and would like to contribute to scholarly discovery. Specifically, we help transcribe documents from medieval archives. You can find out more about it on the Deciphering Secrets and Revealing Conflict and Cooperation Project websites.
The project is the ambitious brainchild of Dr. Roger L. Martínez-Dávila. A professor at the University of Colorado, he has a deep passion for medieval Spanish history, and particularly for exploring the points of contact between people of different faiths in Spain of the Middle Ages. In other words, his expertise lies smack dab in the middle of the themes explored in By Light of Hidden Candles. To top it off, as a descendant of the Carvajal family, he has converso roots, and at one point served as President of the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies.
Needless to say, I was an instant fan!
After the course, I got in touch with him to ask a few questions. His help was absolutely invaluable. His suggestions and clarifications had a direct influence on the manuscript–and he’s helped me with other stuff as well.
I participated in two more Deciphering Secrets courses: one focusing on Burgos, and just now, one on Toledo. Here, for example, is a video introduction to the Nobility Section of the National Historical Archives in Toledo, where Alma and Manuel make an important discovery.
Other courses are forthcoming and I’m looking forward to them! If you’re interested in joining the project or simply enriching your knowledge with one of these excellent courses, visit the Deciphering Secrets website and sign up for updates!