Research and more research


oedOne of the things that is dear to my heart is getting the details right. I’ve read many historic fiction where the characters leap into American slang or phrases that are very modern. I check. That’s what I use the OED for (Oxford English Dictionary). All of us, or at least me and my friends, slip up when writing a first draft. It is imperative to check your details on the second or third draft and make sure that they would have been used in the time period you write about.

It isn’t always easy to get the correct information and there are so many ways to screw up. Food, tools, housing, landscape, weather, weapons, the list goes on with things to consider, ways to err. But there are ways to mitigate the damage.

I read original (translated) texts, read lots of history books, go to museums to see artifacts from the time and culture, visit countries, stand on reproduction ships, wander around old houses, meander through the countryside, whatever I can to figure out details that will make my books accurate and more interesting. Still it is difficult to get all the details correct all the time.

One of the interesting pieces of research that I did for The Stone Lions, involved corresponding with a scholar in Spain, one of the researchers for the Alhambra (I also joined the medieval Islamic listserve for a time). It was from him that I got the layout of theAlhambra during the late 1300’s and found out that the original fountain in the Court of the Lions had been stolen during the 1500’s. He kindly sent me photos of these both. Some of you might have noticed that the fountain on the cover of The Stone Lions is not what is there now. The depiction is of the original (not that anyone but me cares).

Then there are issues of food and culture and tools, all these must be thought about. Here are some examples from my and others writing that I have come across.

1. Transportation

In medieval times, there were no carriages. It is a hard thing for some of us to wrap our heads around, especially those of us reared on Disney films. Cinderella always rode in a carriage! Carriages, as we know them, didn’t appear until the 18th century. There were SOME cartlike/wagonish things earlier that would have jolted your loose teeth out.

2. Food

Fads have come and gone. If you are doing a contemporary book, watch out for what your characters eat. Regional foods can be tricky, not only with what is eaten but what decade and what they call it. Make absolutely sure that you get it right.

If you are placing your characters in a different country and time, spend some research effort in figuring out what they were eating. For example, the simplest error people make is putting New World foods (corn, potatoes) in pre-Columbus time. Even tomatoes sauces wouldn’t have been widely eaten before the mid-1800s.

3. Clothes

What did your characters wear? If they are in the ’60 in America or the 1500 in the lowlands of Scotland, you need to figure out what was being worn. The Society for Creative Anachronism can be a big help here. They have web pages on clothes and style.

4. Names of characters

One of the ways (the many ways) I almost screwed up in The Stone Lions was with naming characters. I looked up names on the web that were Arabic, patting myself on the back for doing a good job. Fortunately, I checked with an Islamic friend one discovered my spellings were Persian. That got corrected.

5. Buildings

Do you really know what the buildings were like at the time/world your people are in? With the Alhambra, I trotted though it. Of course, it has changed during the last 500 years. For other books I learned other interesting details, in Scotland, early on, buildings were very narrow, 10 or 12 feet wide, with steep stairs to an upstairs. I hadn’t believed one writer’s account of this until I saw a number of houses like that and walked in one of them.

6. Weather

This one can take a bit of thought sometimes. California (where I now live) is dry during the summer. But when I lived on the East Coast, getting drenched on a weekly basis, I could not wrap my head around that fact. How could it never rain?

These are just the very beginnings of things to think about AFTER your first draft is completed. I’d love to hear the research that you have done for your novels.

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~ by Gwen Dandridge on October 18, 2013.

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