Andrea here, putting together this month's Ask A Wench feature, which poses a particularly fun question from Wench reader Claire Phillips. (Thank you, Claire!): What are the best resources you've found for your research? What are the most fun ones?
Christina: For me, both the best and most fun resources have been seeing historical reconstructions and trying things out for myself – in my case, Viking longships and houses, and some of their implements. Being able to take a short trip in a longship and help with the rowing was invaluable as I would never have known exactly how it felt otherwise. I couldn’t possibly have imagined how smoothly the keel cut through the waves or how easy it was to use the oars – I would have thought it was much heavier. It was good to know that as a female, I could have played my part and taken turns at rowing. To sit and lie down on a fur-covered bench in a reconstructed Viking hall also added so much to my picture of life a thousand years ago. And having a go at turning a quern stone gave me huge respect for the poor thrall women who had to use those all the time – it was incredibly heavy! When you experience things first-hand your senses are assailed in every way and you gain a more complete understanding of what it was like. I’m always thrilled when I get to do anything like that!
Pat: Aw, c’mon now, the most fun research resources? TRAVEL. That’s just too easy, right? I know way back in the Jurassic, I wrote about what I knew, which was Kentucky, because I lived there and could see what I was writing about. When I had to get brave and venture outside my home ground, I’d have to find books in the library on geography and history and look for local maps from the time I was writing about and . . . My librarians hated me because all those books had to be borrowed from out of network. And even after all that research, if I grabbed an opportunity to visit, as I did one memorable occasion, I’d discover my heroine would have to jump off a cliff to reach the beach I wanted her on.
So now, if it is at all possible, I travel for research. I pick up books on the locale, take photos, talk to people, get some small grasp of the lingo and cultural habits. Even with Google Earth and everything available online, there simply isn’t any better resource than standing on the ground the characters will walk, seeing and smelling and hearing what they sense. How could I ever have understood the tufa caves beneath Orvieto or the medieval towns on top of hills had I not traveled to Umbria?
Nicola: I’m lucky enough to have accumulated a vast library of amazing research books, varying from the general to the gloriously specific. Titles include Beards through History, Beef, Bacon and Bag Pudding (which is about the English Civil War in Berkshire) and a History of Belly-Dancing. So if there is some aspect of life in the Regency period that I need to find out about, for example, it’s likely I’ll have a reference book about it somewhere. I’ve just inherited my parents’ books as well so a very big overhaul of the bookcases beckons and there are challenges in how I categorise them all! I also love the online site JSTOR which is a digital library of academic papers, books and primary sources, and the Dictionary of National Biography which gives so much detail on the lives of the famous and influential. They are both places I can get very distracted as one research query leads to another.
The research that’s the most fun, though, is the stuff I call “method research” like method acting. This could include trying out falconry or carriage driving or Regency dancing so that you understand exactly what your characters would have experienced when they were performing the quadrille. That sort of hands on experience is invaluable. My all-time favourite thing, though, is visiting the historic sites I write about. Not only do I love wandering through old houses or ancient stone circles but I love lapping up the atmosphere. You tread the same paths and stairs your characters walked on, see the same view and get as close to their lives as you can. You can even dress up in a lot of these houses and pretend you really are Lady Nicola in the 16th century! It’s a sort of time travel!
Mary Jo: Travel and first person experience are wonderful but not always possible My first and most fundamental research resource is books, which is why I have so many. I started writing pre-internet and finding books with good Regency information was a passion. We Regency writer cultists swapped information about what books were good and where to find them.
If you think this can result in an overabundance of books–you're right. <G> A primary reason for moving from my pleasant compact first house to this one was because the first house had run out of bookshelf space. Now this one has, too. Think maybe it's time I started thinning the herd?
Besides a solid foundation of general information research books, each new book requires more specific books. The inspiration for my newest novel, ONCE A LAIRD, came from visit Orkney, and buying every local guide book I could find there. But I bought still more books on Orkney when I returned home, including a book on Orkney cooking.
The more remote the setting for a book, the more research was required. This probably reached the pinnacle of book craziness with SILK AND SECRETS, an adventure romance set on a rescue mission to Bokhara in Central Asia. I relied heavily on the memoirs of a man who made the actual rescue mission that inspired my plot. I couldn't find a copy to buy, so I got the book from Inter Library Loan–and stood over my little photocopier and copied every page. (Somewhere between 200 and 300 pages, if I recall correctly.)
The I sat down with a highlighter and Post-It notes and went through the whole thing highlighting and flagging every bit that might be useful: Layout of caravansaries. Information on Bactrian camels. (No dromedaries allowed!) Entry in the walled city of Bokhara. Horrid details of the Black Well of Bokhara, the khan's version of a oubliette. I also drank cardamom tea with a native Afghan who lives near me and who was a seller of gorgeous rugs. (I fell in love with Central Asian rugs and they brighten my house to this day.)
If this sounds like the research equivalent of "In my day I had to walk five miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways!" you are not wrong. <G> But creating a vivid sense of place is important for my books so I did it. The internet made this a lot easier, but it's still serious work. And it still involves buying more research books for every project. <G>
Andrea: I love research and there are so many wonderful resources for authors these days. Many historical societies and museums have their collections online, so I can see a mind-boggling array of wonderful stuff around the world without changing out of my pajamas! Books—on most any obscure topic one can think of—also allow me to do deep dives in the subjects like the history of gunpowder or mechanical automata. So I read a lot and have accumulated a ton (literally) of really interesting books, like Poison: an Illustrated History; The London Sewers; The Humble Little Condom . . . I really get a kick out of learning about things that most people would find . . . weird.
I often find inspiration for my stories in the arcane little details that I discover when I’m actually looking for something else, so spending time in museums, especially the smaller specialty ones, just looking at all the elements of life in my chosen era of the Regency helps me craft a world for my characters that is accurate and authentic. Visiting the Horse Guards Museum so I can get a feeling for my military heroes . . . traipsing around the Dockland Museum and the old East India docks so I can picture the complex world of commerce along the Thames . . . hanging out in the Science Museum in Oxford so I can see what my hero, Lord Wrexford, would have in his laboratory . . .
You’ll notice that museums often go hand and hand with travel! Travel is of course the ultimate research fun, and museum are the first places I visit whenever I go to a new place. And then I just walk, walk, walk, soaking up all the sights and ambiance.
I never know when a special exhibit will spark some plot twist or ah-ha moment. One of my favorite examples is an exhibit the Metropolitan Museum in New York had several years ago on the pre-eminent gunsmiths of London during the Regency. The details and technical innovations were amazing, and I discovered Durs Egg and his beautiful but deadly pistols. (Honestly, how could I resist creating a cameo appearance in my stories for a fellow named Durs Egg! Look for him and some of his fascinating technical innovations in my September 2022 Wrexford & Sloane mystery, as well as my Lady Arianna mysteries!)
So what about you? Do you have a hobby pr passion that demands research? What are some of the fun resources or research experiences you have had? Please share!