Research thoughts

Joe’s Post #128

Research Insights … OMG, not ‘research’, again, right?

sharpeWell, I decided to take a look at some books that I loved. You know, historical books. I didn’t read through them, again, but just took a look at the first pages and a few chapters. And it gave me a few insights I’d like to share. The books I looked at were Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwall, the Brother Cadfael series by Edith Parteger (Ellis Petters), and Dorothy Dunnett’s books (Lymond, Niccolo series).

So, are you ready?

  1. Jamie Fraser from Outlander

    I read them all for the characters. Yup, that’s right, the characters. So if you’re going to get anything right, get the characters right, right?

  2. Setting is a character. I know I just said that I read them for the characters, and now I say setting is a character, but with these writers, it’s not just a place to set a scene, it’s an active part of the story (like a chase across the red-tiles roofs of Venice.)
  3. None of them bog us down with details. A few writers that I’ve read (and honestly couldn’t finish) had vast swaths of information about the period they researched, like they wanted to show us how much research they’d done.
  4. The characters live and breathe in their world. By this I mean the world for them is not a collection of facts, but a real place, with real smells, and sounds, and all of that seen THROUGH the character’s eyes.
  5. spoonDetails are (mostly) added sparingly. Like a sprinkling of salt. “Picked up the wooden spoon”, vs “picked up the wooden spoon carved from a spruce branch that was cut in the summer which was, in fact, the best time to cut such things”.
  6. windowsWhen they spend time on details, it’s because it matters to the character. Like the first time they see something or when it’s a wow moment for them. I mean, hey, the first time I saw Chartres Cathedral in all its glory, I was gobsmacked (yes, that’s a word). That we, as human beings, took hundreds of years to create perfection in stone and glass and wood, that every detail, every window, every carving had a purpose, made me stare in wonder at what we could do when we put our minds to it.
  7. food hollandFood, dammit, food. That Don Maass guy know his stuff when he talked about food being a vital part of taking someone back in time. Why? Because we are all linked to food. But all these masters of writing do way more than just sit someone down with a nice cup of tea, they add tension, smarty-pants dialogue, mood, and even suspense in that scene as well.
  8. Story is key. Outlander, for example, is a time-traveling story, perhaps more science fiction than historical fiction, but the tale she tells of Claire and Jamie is one that’s hard to put down. I honestly can’t remember if she got the kilts right, but damn, she nailed the romance.

So, that’s all for today. Just a few insights into research while I work away on my novel. Now I’m going to bug my Netherlands experts on what they would have eaten.

So what makes a good historical novel for you? Come on, I really want to know!


Best show last week – Being sick for most of the week, I watched a bit more TV than normal. The Killing is perhaps the most depressing show I’ve seen in a long while. It’s unrelentingly grey. Brilliant, but grey.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. Nope, still not sold on this. It’s going to be a slog to finish. Not that there isn’t interesting stuff happening, but it’s happening to other people. His protagonist is not the hero of the story, or even the narrator.

Pages written on new book  40 (Could be more, I did a lot of rewriting this week.)

Social Media update – Trying to do a bit more on this blog. Have you seen the changes?

Health  Still sick. Dammit.

Best thing last week  Down 10 lbs now. Awesome. Forget that it was due to sickness.

Worst thing  The flu. Yup, still the worst thing. Yuck.

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Lastly, again, my favourite author, Sean Slater, had his newest book released in Canada. I honestly believe it’s his best book he’s written, and he got virtually no support from the publisher, so if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.


6 thoughts on “Research thoughts

  1. All great stories are ultimately about character; ultimately about hearing a character’s story. The only purpose of setting (historical or elsewise) is to illuminate character. If you think about setting in those terms you will be able to create meaningful details which will bring depth to your story and seduce your readers so they fall into your characters. Its one thing to know what a spurtle is because it is described as a long, slender stick or wand made of wood which is used to stir porridge. It is quite another to have a character recall:

    My father once gave me a stick of wood for my birthday — a magic wand of raw blonde wood, polished smooth so it felt like silk, or butter, between my fingers. “Its for stirring porridge”, he told me. “You know the porridge is done because it will stick up straight by itself when its done.” My father was a distant man. This was one of only two gifts he ever gave me which made me feel like he was paying attention. He knew enough about me to know that I loved to cook and I was curious about my Scots heritage.

    Not stellar writing by any means — but far different than the bland description of the object. It relates the detail of the object to the character and what she is feeling. That is the key.

    I don’t think a writer should concentrate on limiting the amount of detail. Quite the contrary — I am a “more detail is better” kind of reader. But the detail must tell us something about the character. The example that immediately comes to mind is to contrast the character of Claire in Outlander to Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear. Both have a stunning quantity of detail about plants and their medicinal uses. And I have vivid images of both books. But Claire’s story is more intimate and Diana’s research served the story while Jean’s story served the research.

  2. You’re right at the heart of the research dilemma, I think, and there are probably many ways of making the research serve your story (rather than the other way around). I suspect you will have to make your own “brand” of historical fiction. Maybe the most important thing is what you can maintain your enthusiasm for while writing. If you’re not having fun writing it, it’s a good bet that readers won’t have fun reading it. It’s always “work”, of course, but it shouldn’t be drudgery — the kind of writing you can’t wait to get finished so you can get to the good parts.

    I love the example of Gabaldon, who is masterful at applying her research findings in a way that’s personal, intimate, and integrated into the flow of the story. I totally agree that character is the key … the historical details need to matter to the characters in some way, practical or emotional. They need to have relevance to the here-and-now of the story. Nothing makes me put a book down faster than a history lesson, especially one that recites battles and/or historical figures and lists of their accomplishments. I’m a little more accepting of genealogies if told the way they would be as oral histories — with colourful, mythologized accounts of their conquests and adventures — much as Tolkien did.

    Good luck! You’re getting there!

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