Thursday, June 9, 2011

On Research and Fiction

Click on the book to go to Alison Weir's page
on Katherine Swynford
I have been reading Katherine by Anya Seton this week. It is a novel long beloved by historical fiction readers. I am not much for medieval era fiction in general, but the Plantagenet period has always held an interest for me. I enjoyed the novel at first, but now I am about 3/4 of the way through, and I have to admit, I'm flagging. It is one of those novels that could have stood a good editing, and now towards the end, it is limping along and throwing out the most ridiculous sentiments. Katherine went from innocent country bumpkin to innocent mistress to perceptive psychologist. I had to roll my eyes when she started psychoanalyzing her paramour.

I do find Katherine's ideas on religion pretty interesting; if you think about it, you don't read too many novels where the heroines turn down the chance to be the mistress of rich and powerful royalty. Especially when the girl is attracted to the guy. Of course, she gives in, but not after becoming a widow. I have to respect that since I am of a moral nature myself.

Even though the novel has its deficiencies, I have to respect the amount of research Anya Seton put into the novel. Can you imagine having to actually visit the places where your novel is set? Sure it is preferable, but not necessary in this day and age. I certainly would love to visit Ireland again to research for my newest work. And I was fortunate enough to visit Frankfort, Kentucky when I was writing The Enemy Within. But for the most part, a quick click of the mouse can get you what you want. I was flabbergasted by the idea that Ms. Seton probably spent many an hour in a dusty archive in England perusing medieval letters and records. Now that is dedication. And I say that as a almost professional historian (OK, really I am an architectural historian). I'm supposed to love trawling through libraries and archives! But in this fast paced world, I have to admit that I enjoy the freedom of clicking over to Google books and getting a wide variety of sources when I start my research. I am interested in delving into period works for Rebellion. Since they were all authored by Englishmen, I am certain to find out what they were really thinking. Bias always has a way of showing through.

So what about you? Do you thrive on getting out in the real world to do your research or are you an armchair historian (researcher) like me?


  1. I've enjoyed doing several research trips for my WIP, all of which - fortunately - but one were within a day's drive from my home. One of the major settings was inspired by my wife's family's annual summer vacation location, a state park in New York. So that's a great "research" opportunity there every year, at least as far as soaking in the natural atmosphere, taking note of flora and fauna, and brainstorming. There's also a great museum nearby on local Indian culture that's been vital.

    I've also found that even today, a few primary sources aren't available on Google. Since my story is based on my ancestors' experiences, it was such a thrill to visit a local historical society in Pennsylvania and hold in my hand actual letters my great x5 grandfather wrote in the 1770s while scouting in the (then) wilderness. Fortunately that was only a four-hour drive. I also rented a kayak in my ancestor's hometown to get a sense of what it might have been like to travel by canoe in that area. I saw a bald eagle on the river bank that day, which I hope was a good omen for my novel!

  2. I write fantasy. I don't have to research, I can make it all up.

    I don't know if people watching is research but I like to do that. I make up stories for and about them as I watch. That is fun if you have someone of the same ilk sitting with you.

  3. I love research...but you knew that I'm a dork! I love both elements, and really feel that trying things helps me integrate them into writing better. Knowing what things feel like, taste like, smell like can make it easier to use tactile details in writing. So reenacting has been a huge boon to my research--I don't have to guess at what black powder smells like or what wearing stays feels like.

    But...I usually can't afford to travel to all the places I could go to learn about whatever I'm writing about. And many things need to be answered by old-fashioned book research. So I like a balance of both!

  4. Like Mike above, I write fantasy, but while I have the advantage of being able to make things up, I also do my best to make them as realistic as possible. For example, my main character is a swordsman, so I practiced the art myself (still terrible at it, but at least I know what I'm writing isn't physically impossible). This has a downside as well--when I practiced (and this will sound silly) jumping to see how far someone without training could leap, after measuring my distance and having my characters complete jumps around the same length, many of my readers thought the leaps were unrealistically long at around eight feet. Maybe I'm just agile. Who'da thunk.

    So I guess that's research of a kind. When it comes down to actually looking stuff up though, Google and Wikipedia are peerless blessings (I'd still be poring over the Poetic Edda of Norse mythology if not for their verse-by-verse explanations).