The acceptable face of research

Posted: February 16, 2012 in Kikimora, Reading, Research, Reviews, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

Due to a combination of naivety and idiocy, my work in progress, Kikimora, is set in the early 17th century in Eastern Europe, and largely concerns copper mining. When I first came up with the idea for the story, I gave little or no thought to the amount of research this would entail.

It’s a fairy-tale-ish, folk-tale-ish children’s story. Such things won’t really matter, I told myself. Then I tried to write it. I finished the first draft some months ago, but the first read through revealed many problems due to lack of research.

Informational image at the Peak District Mining Museum, Matlock Bath

It’s not that I hadn’t done any research. Far from it. I scoured my local libraries for relevant materials, and gave a day in the sun to two unloved books on local copper mining which prior to my interest hadn’t been checked out since the 1980s. Incidentally, the two books mysteriously disappeared from my library record whilst still in my possession. I suspect someone saw the opportunity to rid themselves of stack-balast and gift the books to a loving new home…

I read both books from cover to cover, making copious notes. However, my main research material is the 1000-odd page, translated-from-Latin, 16th century mining bible, De Re Metallica (not about Nordic heavy metal, disappointingly).This is perfect for me. It is the very book my protagonist miner would actually be referring to in his daily work.

However, it is also very hard work. I have had it checked out from the library for over a year. Occasionally I forget to renew it in time, and the fines I’ve already paid on it would have bought several new books – but not this one. This one is hard to come by, and the cheapest I’ve seen it is £40-ish.

And I’ve read… a few pages of it. It is dry as Jacob’s crackers. It is written in impenetrable old-fashioned English and stuffed full of technical terminology that I don’t understand. It is also too heavy to hold comfortably on my lap, so I have to sit at the table to read it. I did find a free PDF copy to download for kindle, but it doesn’t scale well to my kindle screen, and is either unreadably small, or so large I have to scroll across the page to read the end of each line :-/

Finally accepting after a year that I’m probably not ever going to wade through it all, I began casting around for other sources of information. And I remembered a 70s TV series, Poldark, which was set in maybe the 17/18th century, and featured a lot of mining. I knew it was based on books, so I looked them up, and ordered from the library.

I was a little dubious, it has to be said. My memories of the TV series are hazy, and I had a vague idea that it might be quite trashy and torrid, not much of a step up from the Mills and Boon novels my mum used to read (I’m happy to report she’s since progresed to Steig Larsen novels.)

I was very happily surprised. The first novel, Ross Poldark, was pacy and at times very funny* – the tone decidedly earthy, rather than romantic. I have learnt more about mining (18th rather than 17th century, it has to be admitted, but much of the technology is the same) in a week, than from a year’s possession of De Re Metallica. And what’s more, I’ve enjoyed doing it.

* My very favourite passage, “Sir Hugh, the present baronet, was fifty and a bachelor, under-sized, vigorous and stout. He claimed to have more hair on his body than any man living, a boast he was ready to put to the proof for a fifty guinea bet any evening with the port. He lived with his step-mother, the Dowager Lady Bodrugan, a hard-riding, hard-swearing woman of twenty-nine, who kept dogs all over the house and smelt of them.”

  1. elwoodcock says:

    The above is an object lesson in why I dislike publishing anything without a lengthy fermentation, review and editing period. I’ve just taken seven exclamation marks out of this post. It’s only ten paragraphs long.

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