Susan Sarah here, after a particularly trying couple of weeks, and so it continues…this week there’s some guys working downstairs to install hardwood floors. Our little Westie, otherwise totally adorable, natch, likes to show our two geriatric parakeets that she is The Boss–long story, but trust me, a Westie with a power issue is not good for carpeting. Ahem. So the old carpet came out and hardwood is going in this time, and she’d better not puddle on that…. Anyway, it’s incredibly noisy in my house this week. Who can think up a blog on such a day?? Who can think? Luckily I had drafted a blog on research weeks ago, and I’ll dust that off and trot it out.
Did someone say research sources? Always a good topic. Susan Miranda sparked a discussion of research sources earlier this week, so I’ll return to that from a different angle, and present a basic template for a writer’s research library.
As the resident Scottish-historical author among the Word Wenches, I have written more medieval Scottish-set books than 18th and 19th century (though I’m working to catch up!), so some of the basic sources that you all discussed, which are faves for many of you but somewhat new to me, though I’m learning fast (the next batch of Sarah Gabriel novels will be set in early 19th c. Scotland, so I’ve been diligently researching and having fun in a new era).
Knowing the expertise on this blog, among Wenches and Wenchlings alike, I won’t presume to advise on Regency research matters.
As I was looking through my own shelves for some book titles to offer up for the discussion earlier this week (Mrs. Beeton is there, as are English Country Houses, Jane Austen’s Town and Country, as well as the Mark Girouard books and Emily Hendrickson’s fantabuloso Regency Reference Book/CD, to name just a few), I realized many of these would be repetitive suggestions. So I thought I’d play around with the broader categories found in every good home research library. Some of you are historical writers just starting out with your research, and madly compiling resources, while some are more experienced historical authors with bookshelves jampacked to capacity, still madly compiling resources (it’s an addiction, I know, cuz I have it).
In the course of writing a book, I begin with general sources (like histories of the place and time) and work my way through the basics (such as costumes, names, social customs) and the specifics (whatever special subjects are treated in the book, like specific historical situations, law, crafts, magic, gypsies, hawking, ships, mountaineering, whatever may be needed). As I go along, certain sources will prove so invaluable to a certain story that I’ll keep them nearby for months, while others get skimmed quickly and tossed aside (or even set back on the shelf!). And of course it doesn’t have to be in that order, though it helps. Sometimes I’ll start out with a specific source that’s so fascinating that I want to set a story around it
Research is a solid foundation of historical fiction, but the story’s the thing, and the characters. Only a small percentage of the research I do actually ends up in the book. Some of the research reading sparks ideas for plot and characters, and some informs the writing to become a general and reliable backdrop. The bulk of the research is for me–I want to fully comprehend the world of my characters, not inundate the reader with all that I’ve learned. Saturation and immersion is beneficial for the author in the building stages of the book, though too much historical detail can obscure the story. It’s a balancing thing, and requires an intuitive feel for what’s enough, what’s too little, and what’s too much.
But where to start? If you’re lazy like me, you want the books right there–turn around, grab the book, look something up, get right back to the writing. If your research covers a more obscure topic and sources are not widely available, even on the web (I recently finished a book set in Viking Scotland, for example), tracking down some sources in used bookstores or getting them through interlibrary loan is a good idea–and again, you’ll have them right there as you write.
After years of happily accumulating sources, here are some categories of research books to own, or have quick access to–a general list, not too specific, so that you can fill in the blanks for your own needs and interests….
–General histories and broad surveys that provide overviews of whatever time period you’re interested in writing about
–Costume books, tons of ‘em, all varieties – there never enough costume books!
–Name books (also never enough! I keep a couple of favorites on my desk)
–Encyclopedic volumes of the time period and era, like the London Encyclopedia, or Keay’s Encyclopedia of Scotland
–Encyclopedical sources from that specific time period, if available (early editions of Brittanica can be found in good libraries or used; and Encyclopedia Brittanica has an 18th c. edition reprint)
–Languages and other dictionaries (like A History of Swearing)
–Foreign language dictionaries (French, Latin, Italian, Gaelic, whatever your story might need)
–The OED, or Oxford English Dictionary (you can find it in good library collections, or buy it new, find a used copy, subscribe online at www.oed.com , or borrow a friend’s copy if they’ll give it up)
–Thesaurus and/or The Synonym Finder
–Biographies of people who lived in that era, or whose lives could be models and sources of information
–Women’s studies and studies of women’s roles in society and history
–Myths, legends, and folktales
–Songs and poetry from that era
–Literature written during that time period
–Arts and specific crafts that may appear in your story (weaving, spinning, sculpture, painting, stonecarving, etc.)
–Clan histories for Scottish research (Moncrieff’s Highland Clans, R.R. MacIan, others)
–Herbals, books on healing, and medical histories
–Domestic subjects (Mrs. Beeton; cookbooks for the time period; crafts, books on servants and services, etc.)
–Information on specific skills, hobbies, and occupations (such as falconry, engineering, mountaineering, equestrian, ships, etc.)–you may need the history behind an occupation, or a how-to)
–Histories of architecture and interior design (The English Medieval House, The English Country House, Irish Georgian, etc.)
–Travelogues and travel books (like the AA series of British road books)
–Regional books (information on landscape, terrain, nature, plants, animals, seasons)
–Maps, lots of lovely maps, both historical and current for terrain, distances, place names (more AA, Ordnance Surveys, etc.)
–Place name books (these are fun to look through, and often very useful)
Did I forget anything? Do you have any suggestions to add to this template?
There’s room for more lovely books on my shelves….