Monday, May 22, 2006

The Man Behind the Curtain


Most novels require research.
Research and more research.
I've seen a writer nailed because he introduced a car model that didn't come out until two years later. Seems he'd altered the novel's timeline in revision and neglected that make-and-model detail.
Writers of historicals sweat the most.
Even someone like me who doesn't belong to that elite company.
Since time travel dumps my Damie into the 12th and other centuries for three or four chapters, I've researched motte and baileys, armour and weapons, foods and politics, the usual stuff.
Always there are elusive, evasive details.
The available period manuscripts are suspect or contradictory, the archaelogical information not forthcoming.
You find yourself flying by the seat of your track pants and reduced to deduction, instinct, logic and luck.
These nicky-picky detail always seem to involve pivotal plot points too.
I don't know why. Death wish, perhaps.
At one point my plot demanded that Roger de Conyers have in his hammer fist a broken sword. (Sneaky archetypal detail, anyone?)
Since I wanted the thing to be semi-usable, I broke the blade a third from the tip. Sheer guess. Hopefully produced from some reliable and subconscious memory.
Fortunately, I have a blade master, a fencing marshall, ( the Norman-type guy above) to check over my WIP for solecisms involving the etiquette of armour, pointy things, pennons, charges and the like.
He assured me that I had picked one of the standard break-points of a blade.
I excuted a minor gloat. Sometimes you get it right.
Keep your research notes. Make note of your authorities. You'll need them.
There are three kinds of nit-pickers.
Those who know. Those who think they know. Those who react to some fact based on popular mis-conceptions.
You just never know what detail you may have to defend.

34 comments:

Ric said...

Ah, discovering that the local public library has books with just the information you need.

Mystery novel set in 1960.
Heroine says, "Who do you think I am, Perry Mason?"

Ah, but was the tv show on long enough at that point for the line to have entered the lexicon?

Turns out yes - but I still had to check.

Rick said...

Horses will be my downfall. I'm dealing with aristos, who nearly first and foremost were the horsey set. (Is there any other Western language besides English where the word for knight is not "horseman?") I don't know Jack diddly about them - and much of the information is written by and for horse people, assuming some experience of riding.

Which is a very good reason why my male lead is Lord High Admiral - because I do know something about boats.

Bernita said...

Not only the TV show but the novels, Ric.
Still, it is always safest to check.

We can cut out cloak to suit our cloth, Rick, thankfully.
Now that you mention it, I imagine purists will decide I screwed up my destriers.
One thing I'm still uneasy about though, is a yoke of oxen.

Ric said...

It did cross my mind that the books were, of course, out long before the tv show. But, the phrase did not enter our common language until the tv show hit its stride a couple of years into production.

In order to use an allusion, you have to be fairly certain your readers will make the connection.

Even though nearly everyone has read Dan Brown, I'm not sure Priory of Sion has captured a spot in our collective minds yet.

Bernita said...

All those radio dramas and movies didn't affect the public mind?
Doesn't matter really, you're certainly safe with your timeline.

Dennie McDonald said...

I am a detail person and enjoy making sure the cars and whatnot are accurate - but as I write comtemporaries it's not that hard to make sure it's all correct...

he's a cutie!

Bernita said...

He's actually better looking than this photo, Dennie. - my scanner scwunched his features a bit.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I've just bought a bunch of books about forensics 'cause my next WIP's will deal with killings, murder and such.

My first WIP just had some weather and earthquake data that I had to make look really wonky and then explain later.

I try not to get in too much trouble with those kind of details.
Like I make my towns fictional so people can't nitpick details.

jason evans said...

Being accurate is important, but nit-picking bugs me. Too often it's about the other person's superiority complex.

Dennie McDonald said...

Bonnie - I am he same way with the towns... if I use a real town, I make up the places in it!

Gabriele C. said...

Don't get me started on research for historical novels. You'd be in for a major rant. ;)

Bloody elusive documents that have just that sort of facts to interfere with my plot, never the ones I need.

Bernita said...

Just forwarded you an e-mail about that Bonnie.

Imaginary towns sure can save wear n' tear.

The thing I'm most vague about is the specific day of the week. Makes me dizzy. Had enough trouble calculating time zones and flight times, etc., didn't want someone to say "It couldn't happen because it was a Sunday..." so I just don't specify the Day the story begins.

What bugs me most, Jason, is someone grandly announcing so-and-so is incorrect because - and then discovering they are full of it.
KM and December recently suffered from some of those experts, eg. no white linen in medieval England and the use of the word knacker.

Bernita said...

Or noticing something interesting while in pursuit of some detail, Gabriele, later deciding to incorporate it - and NOT BEING ABLE TO FIND IT.

archer said...

I like Stephen King's rule of research: "Just enough to enable me to lie colorfully."

I keep my research in big, important-looking black three-ring binders with Avery tabbed dividers color-coded by subject. When the doldrums come and the wind dies down and I'm adrift in a leaky first draft, I look at the binders and figure I must be doing something important.

Bernita said...

I admire that, Archer.
~she said, rooting mournfully among the dust bunnies for the wrinkled scrawls that slid off the bed last night~

Carla said...

One of the joys of historical fiction is recreating details that would never detain a historian. There has to be a limit though, otherwise you get so tied up in trying to work out the right kind of doorknocker and exactly how a wimple was folded that you never actually write anything. I try to be as accurate as possible but (much as I would like to try) I can't be an expert on everything and there are always going to be details I get wrong. If anyone writes to me to nit-pick and can back up their arguments I shall be grateful to them for pointing me towards evidence I've overlooked, and if they can't, I shall still be glad they read the book.

Bernita said...

Some details are just not worth the anquish and belong in the "best guess" category. Truly.

The very best kind are those who are not nit-picking per se but sharing information in a collegial manner.

kmfrontain said...

Research. ::shudders:: I've had to look up cement. I had cement doubts. How old is cement? Turns out the Egyptians used it. So, good. My fantasy medieval-type setting could have cement drainage pipes for the city sewers. Small detail, big ramifications if I screwed it up.

In one case, though I "saw" it in my head correctly, I had a horse lowering to the ground incorrectly and made it lower like a cow. Wrote it wrong, but fortunately had someone mention the goof in time for me to fix it.

But yes, I've had someone recently knock me down for details that weren't incorrect. In that case, you can only shrug and move on.

But fortunately, Bernita came to my rescue! :D

Bernita said...

For some reason, your horse makes me remember my airport scene contortion.
Nah, KM, you'd already skewered insufferable Anonymous pretty good.
I was especially offended by his quibbling because it was an excellent piece of writing you'd put up.

ali said...

It reminds me of a quote from (I think) Nigel Tranter when he was asked whether he could prove some of the events in his books happened like he said - he replied 'Can you prove they didn't?'

Bernita said...

With all due respect to the gods of accuracy - to whom I make humble, if clumsy, obeisance - I like that very much, Ali.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Bernita that's what I use my Microsoft Office OneNote program for. When I'm researching I select the whole page and save it in OneNote.

Bernita said...

Bonnie is organized.
Bonnie is efficient.
Bonnie is very, very smart.
Be like Bonnie - don't be a scatter-note like me.

archer said...

Other cool research things I've discovered:

(1)Hyperlinks are really great! You link to the research you downloaded or whatever. Then on the first rereading of the draft, when you come to the part about cement and go Oh shit--click!-- there's your research.

(2) Usenet is a fine thing. I go on alt.trains and say Hi, I'm Archer and I'm writing a book, and need some advice about what would happen if you cut the airbrake hoses on a train that's going 70 mph. (Don't worry about asking such stuff. The DHS is far too inefficient to

Bernita said...

Thank you, Archer.
~sigh~
Sometime I wonder how old he really is.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...I'm not organized, efficient or smart...that's why I need to use my laptop! It goest where thy goest! LOL

I'd be really lost without it!

Patrick said...

I very much agree with Jason:

Too often it's about the other person's superiority complex.

A vampire plays a role in the psychological horror story I'm working on. I've done some research about the vampire legend, and was pleased to meet a local college student who's majoring in anthropology and has a great fascination with vampire lore: he's practically a walking encyclopedia on such things.

We discussed the myths, the conventions literature has taken, and I suggested some ideas I had in mind...he seemed to think that everything I suggested could fit easily within the broad vampire mythology.

So I'm satisfied with what I'm writing. If a publisher is pleased enough to buy it, I'm not going to get all that bent out of shape if some nit-pickers want to tell me how wrong I got the laws of vampirism. (Unless, of course, they've sold more novels on the subject than I have!) ;)

For The Trees said...

My mother-in-law has excoriated me for putting a sexually-aware and self-assured woman in an Alternate Reality novel set between the mid 90s and the early 50s. She said unequivocally that no such woman would have existed in the 50s...it just wasn't done.

I thought about that at some length...bothering me about that detail...until I realized I'd written her to BE that outlandish woman, NOT fitting in with her time. It made her the character she is.

So I let it go.

What I **AM** worried about is the trains and whether or not they had radios in the early 50s. I think not, so I gotta go research THAT.

Drat.

December Quinn said...

KM and December recently suffered from some of those experts, eg. no white linen in medieval England and the use of the word knacker.


Ah, yes. I was actually going to mention that.

The hard part about historicals is, some untruths have become so ingrained in collective thought that people won't believe they're not true.

Which is really, really frustrating, when you're trying to be as accurate as possible, but you know someone is going to read it and think it's wrong. (Example--I had the heroine in an earlier work set in 1265 complain there was no saddle for her-e.g. a sidesaddle. Most people believe the sidesaddle wasn't introduced until the 14th or 15th century, but there's an original source in the 12th that laughed at the Empress Matilda for "riding a horse like a man". So that's what I used...but had that ms ever been actually subbed anywhere, I bet I would have had some problems with that.

Do you write the truth, or do you write what everyone thinks is the truth?

Bernita said...

Hi Patrick!
You are perfectly safe. Don't they want new, fresh original twists?
Somehow it boggles a bit to think there would be those who would claim "but vampires don't DO that."

Pulling my leg again, Forrest?
I hope you told her "phooey."

I'd go with the truth, December, as long as you can back it up with either authority or common sense.
Re: saddles. I have a character state in 1128, "we have no lady saddle here." so I'm in the same boat. Women rode astride, by pillon behind a groom or side saddle. I'd better hunt up my reference.

Ballpoint Wren said...

Yowza, Bernita, your neighbors are way more interesting than mine. Nobody in this neighborhood wears chain mail, that's for certain!

Bernita said...

My neighbours are dull as dishwater, Bonnie, or have been since the Neighbour From Hell moved out.
This guy's my son-in-law.

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