I do some pretty meticulous research for my historical novels, not because the books need that level of detail–they don’t always, and it’s not such a great idea to to overwhelm readers or drown the story in a sauce of detail–but because I enjoy the research. And also because I think that author’s confidence in the subject conveys. The way historical information is presented, even in the smallest touches, a phrase or a sentence here and there, gives the book a quality of authenticity that readers perceive and hopefully appreciate.
But research isn’t always a dull, dry endeavor, author trapped in a mountain of books to crawl over before she is finished. OK, sometimes… but there are always those Adventures in Researching that come along and make it much more interesting. For almost every novel, I’ve gone beyond the research books to search out more information. I’m usually looking for that unique stuff that helps bring historical fiction to life. Dry recounting of how something is done just won’t do that in fiction–all the Wenches know that and do that in their books, and most authors will do it instinctively. That’s just part of creating a solid fictional world. No matter how great a fact or tidbit might be, in the context of the story, it needs to be animated, activated, made immediate and individual to the characters and the plot. Then it clicks.
I’ve had some adventures chasing down this information… I’ve met and interviewed historians, archaeologists, musicians, a swordsmith, a blacksmith, archery experts, falconers, stonecarvers, doctors, a gypsy, martial artists, and a professional knight. I’ve taken self-defense to learn how to physically take down a villain and get away, and I’ve learned to catch arrows. Oh, yeah, and I go to Scotland as often as can be managed. It’s a tough job, but someone has to….
For STEALING SOPHIE, where my 18th c. Scottish hero played a fiddle, well, I just had to find me a Scottish fiddler! CDs and books just wouldn’t do. Then I lucked out. A friend is a Scottish musician, and he was in the USA on tour, and we picked him up at the airport and later went to his local concert. Afterward, I was there when he was handed a fiddle in a bar and asked to play. So I stood close by and watched close up as he fiddled one of the very songs my hero in the book was already playing (in rough draft form). While everyone else was enjoying a foot-stompin’ Celtic session of impromptu fiddle and guitars, there I was, hard at work….and the same musician also thought up some great ideas for STEALING SOPHIE, having to do with Scottish fiddle and stories of Neil Gow, the great 18th c. Scottish fiddler, who was born in the same town as he was….yeah, I know–work, work work….
Who am I kidding? Woo hoo, this research thing can be SO fun!!
For a story where the heroine played harp in 14th century Scotland (THE ANGEL KNIGHT), I found almost nothing on the art of playing the harp in medieval Scotland. Then I saw a notice in the paper for a concert by a well known Celtic harper, not far from where I live (generally it’s ‘harpist’ for concert style, and ‘harper’ for Celtic style, I discovered, not knowing much about harping other than that I loved the music and had a collection of CDs already). The concert was fantastic, the music enchanting, and it was great to see the harp played in the old Celtic style on the left shoulder, and to see the details of the instrument, what it sounded like close up. Later, as she autographed CDs after the concert, I waited to buy a CD, hoping to ask her what sort of strings or wires they used in 14th century Scotland, among a few other questions. By the time I got through that long line, almost the last one waiting, the poor woman was clearly exhausted. It was late, and during her concert, her two-year-old daughter had drawn little spirals and curlicues all over her arms and legs in blue ballpoint ink, like a little Pictish elf. I nearly turned away, not wanting to bother the artist with my research questions then, when the concert organizer asked her what hotel she and her family were going to that night. Oh, said the harper, I thought you took care of that. I’m so sorry, said the other woman, I thought you had done it!
Uh-oh. Blank stares all around. The two year old blithely continued to draw on herself, and reached out to scribble on her four-year-old sister.
Um, said I. You could stay at my house, I’m not far from here.
The world famous Celtic harper looked at me. Okay, she said. Where do you live?
I called my husband a few minutes later to say, Honey, make the guest room bed up fresh, I’m bringing home the band!
They followed me home, and first thing she did was put her two-year-old in the tub to scrub the Pict off of her. Next day, after they were rested, we sat at breakfast and she answered every question I had, and more, regarding harps, harping, and history of Celtic music, with all sorts of tidbits thrown in that only she and a handful of others in the world might know. She had researched the history of the instrument at Trinity College Library in Dublin, translating early music texts from the Gaelic. I never would have found that in any research book, ever. Ever.
That sort of synchronicity usually happens more than once while I’m writing a book–though not always in as spectacular a way as the harp or fiddle coincidences–and this is one way that I know I’m on the right track, doing what’s right for the project. When I’m off track with the book, stuff doesn’t click like that. When I’m doing fine, and I need a certain sort of info, it seems to come in. I can’t explain it and I won’t try–-but I always remember to thank my research angels!
I’ve had other Adventures in Researching, too, and some of you have asked about that arrow-catching thing….
But I’m on a crazy deadline right now, and have errands to run. I’ll tell that story maybe next week — Adventures in Researching: Parte Le Seconde!
p.s. the musicians who helped me out with the research are Dougie MacLean and Ann Heymann–for those of you who love Celtic music, and those of you who aren’t sure, check them out at http://www.dougiemaclean.com and http://www.clarsach.net ….