History reveals itself to us with names and dates, major events and people that altered the path on which humanity has unfolded. We study these things, memorize the dates, and learn why these people made these choices, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of history. As writers, research leads us down these same roads, through the long hallways of history, and the people who made it. But there's a problem, and one that I imagine troubles historians as well.
Events, art, literature come down to us throughout history, information passed between generations. But those same people woke up in the morning, dressed themselves, did or did not brush their teeth. They fought with spouses and children and complained about their knees and the weather. The things of day to day routine must have gone on, but there is so little record of them. I have made great efforts to discovered what Ancient Egyptian queens did all day, but I can't find it. Anywhere. Specific acts, decisions, dates and birth and death, those things are everywhere. But how they filled their days between history-altering decisions remains a mystery.
It is very difficult to find sources, even in personal journals, of the details of regular life, because they were unremarkable. Only the unusual days are noted, I imagine this is because these details were considered uninteresting, but for the most part, they are what makes up a life. Getting up, making the bed, brushing our teeth, kissing our loved ones good night. These details, so universal and so intimate, were never recorded, and they are what make our characters real. What did a lady in waiting do in her down time? What did the mob boss's wife do after lunch? What color was Shakespeare's underwear? (Most likely, he didn't wear any, but that's not the point.)
This is where our creativity shines, a place for artistic leeway. Maybe the lady in waiting had a taste for birdwatching, and the mob boss's wife crocheted baby hats. I like to think Shakespeare liked purple. Though research is critical, there is a place where fact ends, and at that place, art can flourish. The details that truly make up a person's life are so often left in shadow, and we tend to see this as a handicap, but it is actually freedom. Plots grow in these strange shadows, and the grey mist of the past can be lifted, even in pure speculation. What if the lady in waiting said she liked to watch the larks in the morning, but what she really liked was to watch the Lord of the Manor in his morning exercise, and that is why she poisoned his wife, a solution to the mystery of her death. Such speculation is the foundation of historical fiction, and one of its great joys.