Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Research and Jabberwocks

Or: The Dragon That Was Not. More of that another time.
Well now.
You are a certified member of the illiterati and you're writing mass market trash. But you want it to be GOOD mass market trash.
You want the setting, the clothing, the weapons, the historical facts, the bloody details to be correct within the parameters of literary license, even when dealing with dragons and such.
Perhaps especially when dealing with dragons and such. You may already have stretched the boundaries of belief like an elastic band with techniques as time travel, reincarnation, or dream devices; so why tickle the harp strings any further?

So you research. You scour the internet for legitimate historical information. You pillage libraries - your own and public - until the area around your computer desk is a cheval de frise of stacked books with little coloured notes sticking out like knives. You ignore the cries of aux barricades when people want dinner. You ignore the whimpering dog traumatized when the pile collapses. You should not, however, ignore the library fines.
And then you write.

Alas and alack, your problems have just begun.
You are fat. You are rich with fascinating information. You have to decide just which details are germain to your plot and which are self-indulgent. You must resist the temptation to show archly how much you've learned about a particular incident or period. It's hard. Some of it is just so neat. Remember they want a story, not a dissertation on herbal remedies in Northumbria, a history of mortuary effigies in Yorkshire, or the entire history of alternate Anglo-Scot invasions.
Of course, you are entitled to sneer privately when you discover a popular writer committing a gross solecism about scimitars, falchions and such, but that is, sadly, a mere irrelevant perk.

You find yourself fussing over conventional beliefs and reality. Between the reader's possible expectation of castles as great stone piles - with attendant battlements, dungeons and portcullises - and the mundane authenticity of mud and timber "motte and bailies."
You hope your solution is not dry and didactic, but indirect and unobtrusive; and that your readers will think they have acquired a bit of special, even secret, knowledge, rather than feeling they had their hands slapped with a ruler.

Also, you hope that potential agents and editors are not historically challenged regarding same.

You dither over whether you should write mail or maille.You worry if authenticity nazis will ignore you have a modern character using the term chain mail - not a 12th century one - and if the entire membership of the SCA and other re-enactors will be coming with pitchforks. And torches. And staves.

You check for anachronisms and you revise. And revise.

And then.
Then you receive in the mail a possibly obscure but valuable book, written by an honest-to-God researcher. A resource you should have had at the beginning. Perhaps. You open it with a vile mixture of delight and trepidation, hitting the high points, hoping you are not about to be revealed, at least to yourself, as a total idiot.

Then you break out the blanc plonk, pour a glass, pick up the book again, rest your feet on the dog and relax.... Now that's interesting...I wonder if I can work that in....


ali said...

lol. I know exactly what you mean! And as for authenticity nazis, I did once get a very snippy note over a modern character using 'chain mail' instead of 'mail' (which the more informed, historical characters did use).

Bernita said...

Enjoyed your blog, Ali.
Thank you for stopping by.

Robyn said...

As a former member of the SCA and a card-carrying history geek, I try to ignore anachronisms if the story's good. For example: Julie Garwood's Scotland may as well have been on another planet. I still love those stories. Love 'em.

But I read one good story that had the hero wielding a claymore with one hand up a small English pub stairway. Granted, most readers won't know that a claymore is a six-foot sword that requires two hands to use, but that one thing sucked me right out of the story. The SCA has ruined better women than I...

Bernita said...

I rely on a couple of SCA types in the Family to give me early warning or point me to a reliable source.

Daniel Heath said...

writing is hard enough without having to worry about the details of, say, fifteenth century metallurgy. I marvel at you historical (and fantastical-historica) types...