Monday, September 19, 2011

Research: the hunt for more than facts

Many times I've heard people they wouldn't want to write a historical romance because of all the research. I gather they envision historical authors in the dim recesses of a library, or hunched over the computer, looking up obscure information like how to make medieval beer or the names of the parts of the inner workings of a mill just to be able to shoehorn that information into a story. And possibly because they don't have a life.

Well, yes, we generally do have a life. And I don't research just for the bare facts. I'm hunting potential plot complications, things that are going to cause trouble, tension and drama for my characters. And ways to make to my setting more vivid. And ways to make my character seem more real, more human, and "of their time".

For instance, I learned about medieval beer because I wanted a medieval heroine who was unusual for both the time and readers. So I made Mair, the heroine of A WARRIOR'S KISS an alewife, a self-employed brewer of beer. Not exactly a modern occupation, so right away she's of a different time. Instant complication ensued because the hero is a knight, so definitely of a different rank. The brewery made for an unusual and hopefully interesting setting. I found appropriate terms so readers would believe she knew what she was doing.

Here's how I used some of that research (slightly abridged):

"Mair...added more wood to the fire in the hearth of the small house...within the encircling walls of the brewery bequeathed to her by her father.
Other buildings thus enclosed included the malt house, the brewery proper, the storehouse and the stable where she kept her horse and wagon. Her business was a prosperous one, because she was very good at her work. And because it was so prosperous, Mair was beholden to no one, and dependent on no man, and she liked it that way."

Notice I don't stop to explain what a "malt house" is (boring and not necessary here). Notice I don't go into any details here about her father's death. It's implied that her father taught her how to make beer; I don't need to say so. The mention of the horse and wagon, as well as the implied size of her brewery, backs up the assertion that her business is prosperous, and so it becomes believable that she can be an independent woman in a medieval town.

Now, some people will say much of this is "telling, not showing." Yep. That's the way I roll sometimes. I didn't want to have a whole scene of, say, people talking about Mair and how good her beer is and what an independent woman she is, although one could certainly do that. And it might be better. But by doing it this way, I can keep the focus strictly on Mair, and not the people talking about her.

To use another example, the mill:
Once you learn the importance of the mill to a medieval town, you know a destroyed mill can be a major complication, and it's destruction can make for a dramatic scene. Such an incident became a key plot point in THE UNWILLING BRIDE.

"When the timbers were well ablaze, the wind picked up more sparks and sent them spinning in the air toward the mill and the sluice channeling the water from the leat to the wheel. The great wooden wheel itself and the main shaft of white oak were too wet to catch fire, but cinders blew into the wheel pit. There fire found more to feed on - tallow around the lantern gear, and the dry wood of the inner shaft and spindle.
Like capering children the flames raced up the spindle to the rap, the shoe and the hopper, onward to the floor above. The millstone casing caught fire. And the garners storing the grain to be ground. Eventually the entire inner workings of the mill, the beams and the floors were all aflame."

Again, I don't stop to explain what some of these things are, although it took me the better part of an afternoon to finally find the names for the interior working parts of a mill, like "spindle". So why do that research? Why bother? All the reader really needs to know is that the inside of the mill is burning. I bother because by using the proper terms, by showing how the fire spread, I hope to make the scene more dramatic and vivid and real. This fire isn't consuming some sort of movie set, but a building made of individual parts.

A scene like that then allows me to have a bit like this, describing the hero who's been helping fight the fire:

"He stood near the huge millstones that had fallen to the ground and cracked in two. His hands on his hips, he was black with soot from head to toe, his chest and arms and face streaked where the sweat had run down in rivulets.
He looked the way Vulcan might have, before he'd been thrown from Olympus - a powerful, dark god, and one burning with a righteous wrath she shared."

What have I got here? Well, we know the mill's in really bad shape from those cracked stones. We know the hero was very much involved in the physical activity of fighting the fire. We know he looks like a Greek god (hubba), and that he's furious - this is a man of powerful emotions. And we know that at this moment, the hero and heroine are in the same emotional place - a link in their relationship has been forged by this fire. (And lest you think I'm that much of an intellectual writer or one who plans these things out, I just got that notion of the link in their relationship forged by fire RIGHT NOW. The things one's subconscious does....)

So you see, I'm not doing all the research just for the bare facts. I'm hunting for ways to make my characters and my settings more vivid, more interesting, more dramatic. And when I find 'em? Oh baby, that's exciting!


Anonymous said...

Well, I for one appreciate the effort you put into research. Few things are more annoying than to come across something that you know, but it seems the writer has no clue. Sometimes it's little details, like how fast a yoke of oxen pull a heavy wagon (unless they have spooked and are running away, it is a SLOW walk, not a "brisk trot") that bug me. Other times it's a biggy. A book I read years ago, set in the late 1700's, had the hero unzipping the heroine's dress. It's bad enough when the artist who does the cover art puts a zipper in a Georgian gown, but quite another when the AUTHOR does.

I'm glad to hear that you are back to writing after your break. Can I assume that there will be a new book out in a year or so? I hope so.


Margaret Moore said...

My comment didn't show up, so I'll try again.

I'm writing, but have no publication date as yet.

And yes, it can be frustrating when you find something obviously wrong. Sometimes things fall through the cracks, but the zipper? That's kinda mind-boggling.