Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sources for Anywhere and Nowhere

These next few posts are going to be reprints of the workshop I gave on research sources in the 2011 Muse Online Writers’ Conference. Christopher Hoare;

Discussion on finding research sources for military history, history of technology, castles, ruins, and ships. While the Internet has become a valuable research resource, there’s nothing like being there and touching the bones.

1. Living in the history

2. Books and used bookstores

3. Who’s online?

4. Museums, Re-enactments and battlefields

5. Techniques, sharing sites, and questions

1. Being There: Living in the History.

I must first acknowledge that an awful lot of investigation aimed at catching up on background research for fiction can be done online today. However, reading about the detail your story needs isn’t as good as actually touching the bones.

In somewhat the same vein as the aphorism “write what you know” I have to suggest that if you ever think, or thought, you wanted to write fiction one day, you should ideally have already been living the life that leads toward the writing you want to do. I must hasten to add that this is not an unbreakable law, nor a fatal error if you haven’t collected experiences and knowledge that you now find useful. I merely suggest that it will be easier to write what you know if you have always
built your knowledge base with a leaning toward that writing. I’ll offer a couple of examples.

I was born and raised in England and have always been interested in the remnants of history scattered about the countryside. I liked visiting castles, Iron Age oppidas, and traces of Roman roads and marching camps. Today, if I need to include a scene in a castle, I have memories of being in several to draw out and add to the page. What good castles would I recommend from Europe? Bodiam in Sussex, an empty and largely intact coastal fortress dating from the 1380's, is a great prototype to adapt to almost any medieval castle your story needs. A bit later and something more Disneyesque? You can hardly beat Berg Eltz near Cochem an der Mosel in Germany. Still occupied by the Counts of Eltz, it has parts open to the public most of the year. The oldest part of the structure just grew into a twisted labyrinth of rooms and passages in Medieval times, while the present residential wings are mostly 16th and 17th century. I use the maze of steps and twisted passages of the old wing of Eltz whenever I want to ‘feel’ what it’s like in a confusing stone fortress. Can’t leave castles without mentioning the visitable dungeon at Rheinfels above St Goar on the Rhine. It has the bottle shaped holes in the wall beneath the guardroom, where the prisoners had to be let down or brought up on a rope when the hatch in the floor was opened. One of the four (as I recall) dungeons has a hole broken in the wall at the base where a visitor can enter from the courtyard level and imagine being confined in the pitch dark stinking hole for years. I put my protagonist Gisel Matah in one of these kinds of dungeon in Deadly Enterprise.

The second half of this discussion will be the topic of my next post here.

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Blogger Joylene said...

I wrote a 125K novel about Vietnam, and I've yet to have seen the place. But I yearn to go there. You're so right, Chris. There's nothing quite like touching and smelling and tasting the places we write about.

3:12 PM  

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