Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Building the Time Machine: Writing Historicals (Part 2 of 2 Parts)

By Jeri Westerson

Originally posted August 10, 2010

Research, as you can imagine, is the most time-consuming part of the writing process. I do some initial research before I start to write so I can ground myself in what’s going on at the time, but even as I write there are constantly things that need to be addressed with further research. The real people who walk into the story must be investigated. An occupation or some point of politics must be gone over. And, sometimes, even weather or the phases of the moon play a role.

In my latest, The Demon’s Parchment, the plot deals with medieval Jews who were expelled from England in 1290, some one hundred years before the action of my novel. I had to research all aspects of Jewish life in the Middle Ages and how to logically and believably include Jewish people in a story centered in London. That research led to some very interesting theories that were incorporated into the plot.

How is this research accomplished? By plain old-fashioned book reading, which means a trip to my local university library. (And by the way, do not ignore those footnotes. I have found the best turns of plot in just the footnotes!)

Then there is the internet. I can contact people in archives across the pond to get information I need and sometimes I can simply Google something, like a cathedral floor plan, and it comes up! Gotta love the internet!

There’s hands-on research, too. I have a collection of medieval weaponry, mostly daggers and a sword. How does it feel to wear these items, to use them? What do the clothes feel like? What does the food taste like? All of these things have to be experienced to really get a feel for the era.

I’ve often been asked if I would like to time travel back to England in the fourteenth century. If I did have access to a time machine, I would certainly go back and step out. I’d love to really smell those streets and the people. I’d like to taste the food the way it was cooked, rather than rely on the medieval recipes I have collected. I would like to see the shopkeepers and touch the wares they sold. I’d like to eavesdrop on conversations to hear the cadence of the language and how words were used and pronounced.

And then, I’d climb back in that time machine and go home, because I know how good we’ve got it here and how tough and foreign it was back there.

A novel is that time machine, at least for the readers. I like to let them walk around.

Jeri Westerson is the author of the Crispin Guest medieval mysteries. The newest title in the series, The Demon's Parchment, is a nominee for the RT Book Review Reviewer's Choice Award for Historical Mystery.

Photo by Craig Westerson.


Sarah Shaber said...

I agree--I would love to visit my time period--but not for too long!
Unless I took a backpack full of supplies--antibiotics, imitrex, bottled water, etc.!

Norma Huss said...

Jeri, I'm a day late commenting on a question from yesterday about researching WWII. I'm one who remembers that time which is why I'm setting a bit of my current WIP then. I'm also checking lists of then current language and find some of it was way more "hip/hep" than I ever used. Possibly my cousin in a big city used some of that, but we country kids didn't. It must be like the clothes. SHE had to have at least five cashmere sweaters - one for each day of the week. I, on the other hand, was almost IN with one Jantzen sweater.

If anyone wants to run that era speach by me, I'll try to remember if it was current (to me) then.

The other day I was trying to mine SERPENT IN THE THORNS for an expression my daughter could use in her invented family history to replace "Wow." Found "Ow."

Jeri Westerson said...

Norma, how about "God's blood!" That's Crispin's favorite oath.

Jackie King said...

I'm totally impressed with your research! I thought researching the Oklahoma Territory at the end of the 19th century was time comsuming.

Pen N. Hand said...

In Jeri's search for realism, I think the best research she ever did was described in the post, "Sir Sirloin." I've sent
people to her site to show them the extent of an author's research.