"Have you ever acted out scenes, put yourself literally in the place of the character, learned a craft/sport/etc to put into a story?"
I will admit, that like Jo below, I am a passive writer. I like sitting in my comfortable office imagining what it might be like to be tied to a chair or on a sailboat crossing the ocean. I really don’t want to experience those things—although I have gone out on old ships for a few hours. That was more than enough for me! In historicals, the reality of daily life can be pretty painful, and I don’t believe my readers really want to live through what my characters accepted as normal.
But I do love setting, so I’ll take any chance I can to travel to the area I’m writing about and explore old houses! And for the contemporary mystery coming out next month, Undercover Genius, I visited Washington D.C. so I had a good idea where my heroine’s house is and what Metro trains she would take. And then there’s all the other marvelous D.C. sights like the Smithsonian… So no acting out scenes but lots of looking.
I don't think I have much to contribute on this one. I do it in my head, or by talking to people who do it. I once consulted some reenactors about the effect of arrows on chain mail for a specific scene. That was interesting. I did shoot a flintlock pistol once, as general research — heavy and noisy — and I've done a bit of Regency dancing in the same spirit. I suppose the closest to acting out was when our heating went out in February while I was writing a book set in winter. That was A Most Unsuitable Man.
I don’t often consciously “try out” activities of my characters as I write them, but I’m weaving in my past experiences—often my admittedly offbeat ones!—all the time. As many of you know, I’m the resident Wench “jock” so I’m willing to try most any sporting endeavor . . . even if it means playing golf in Scotland in gale-force winds with the freezing rain blowing sideways. (Not recommended for the faint-at-heart, but hey, it was St. Andrews!) I sooth the aches and bumps by reminding myself it’s research and will somehow prove useful for a book. And sure enough, I used the scene it in my Signet Regency A Diamond In The Rough, which is a golf romance.
Then there was the really stormy sailing scene in our Wench anthology, Mischief and Mistletoe. Yup—been there, done that. (Note to self: you get really seasick in rough waters.) Fencing, riding . . . all very useful for a Regency writer. I have yet to figure out how to use going over a mountain pass in the Alps—in a summer snowstorm!—on a motorcycle. But I’m working on it.
I've never acted out my scenes but I love researching my books and hands on research can be a lot of fun. I've done carriage driving and Regency dancing and a bit of sword fighting for my 17th century historical romance, but the research that really sticks in my mind was trying out engraving when I was writing The Rake's Mistress. The heroine was a glass engraver, and I wanted to know what the process would involve, so I went to talk to an acquaintance who works as a jeweler. She showed me the tools that would have been used in the 19th century and talked me through the engraver's art. I even gave it a little try although I didn't want to ruin anyone's beautiful glass!
The other experience I loved was travelling to the Arctic when I was researching Whisper of Scandal. A lot of the characters' experiences in that book were based on mine during that trip—everything from the creaking of the ice when the ship was trapped to partying on deck in 24 hour daylight!
I'm nowhere near as good as Nicola for actively doing research. Most of mine comes from books or websites. It's difficult to physically research a lot of Regency England things from Australia.
And I don't precisely act my stories out, but I will work out the actions physically when it comes to certain scenes. For instance when I was trying to work out how a heroine could get a semi-conscious injured hero up the stairs of a small cottage, I whizzed down to Captain Cook's Cottage in Melbourne, and walked slowly up the stairs, trying to imagine a semiconscious man slowing things down. I took all sorts of measurements and used the cottage as the model for my heroine. (The Virtuous Widow) For sea voyages I visit actual sailing ships and museums like the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, which has actual examples of cabins and interiors.
Quite a lot of the things my heroines do in my books I can do myself, like keeping bees, and growing things, also some of their crafts. As for acting it out, I will occasionally physically act out things like fight scenes — not dramatically, and sometimes from my computer seat — just to check that it all makes sense. Otherwise I have been known to wrestle a rolled up rug on the floor of my home, and I often carry an unconscious rolled-up rug around the house, noting where its face and feet are. <g> I have undressed an unconscious rolled-up rug, too, while sitting under it on a floor. I might dance with a rolled-up rug, sharing the dance floor with a standard lamp (tragically dancing alone, poor thing.) I suppose the rug ought to get a credit on my acknowledgments page, but sadly I take it for granted.
I wrote a blind heroine once — my Annique. For 80 pages or so a blind Annique was dealing with the everyday world, walking around, eating, building fires, fighting with quarterstaff, and taking bullets out of people . . . as one does.
To give me some insight, I'd close my eyes and try to do the ordinary household stuff without sight. Blind, you immediately figure out dozens of little tricks, none of which I would have thought of before I walked through the exercise. You stick a thumb into the edge of a cup to know when it's getting full. You touch the edge of the plate with your little finger and make a handspan to measure where the cup should go.
What surprised me most, I guess, was how astonishingly easy it is to get disoriented in space. I'd just know I was walking straight down the hall and BUMP — how did the wall get THERE? A person in darkness would want to keep one small touch on something solid to know where they were.
I came away from this with bottomless admiration for the folks who navigate the world this way all the time.
With every novel I've written, along with the research in books and online, I've done quite a bit of experiential research too–not only because I love research, but because I'm looking for more than I can find in history sources. I'm looking for what the characters would experience–and for the unique little bits and details that bring life to the research and authenticity to historical fiction in particular. So I’ve had some real adventures in research along the way. I’ve talked to historians and archaeologists, musicians, a swordsmith, a blacksmith, archery experts, falconers, stonecarvers, doctors, a gypsy, martial artists, and professional knights. I’ve taken lessons in Celtic harp and archery, I've gone hawking, I've taken self-defense classes and I've been tutored by a 10th dan black belt in catching arrows.
Going at the research experientially teaches me more than I can sometimes glean from a written research source. And often a lovely synchronicity comes with it. Often, if I needed to know something–about falconry, fiddling, harpistry, swordplay, or some obscure bit of historical information that I could not find in a book–whatever it happened to be, I have been lucky enough to come across just the right source, the right expert at the right time. And it's one of the ways that I know I'm on the right track with a book project. If I'm off track somehow in the story, stuff doesn't click smoothly. I can't explain it, but I've learned to thank my book angels for the lovely research luck and the fun that comes with it!
So how about you? If you’re a writer, have you acted out scenes or picked up a new sport for the sake of research? And if you’re a reader, do you like the bits of detail that come from this kind of research? Oh, and what kind of detail would you LIKE to see in a historical?