Posts Tagged ‘research’

My work in progress, Slinter Wood, is largely set in the late 1980s, mirroring my own school days. I’m currently doing a lot of research to get the right tone and detail for the period.

I’d love it if you could help me!

Tell me in the comments (or via social media) any details you remember about school life, fashions, fads, insults, and pop culture in the late 1980s. If I use your idea in Slinter Wood you’ll get a thank you in the book – and (if it’s really good, and I haven’t already thought of it) a free copy when it’s released! (Don’t hold your breath. Given my usual pace, it’ll be years yet…)

It’s not the big stuff I’m interested in, the world events, the politics, the disasters – that’s easy to research. It’s the small, inconsequential details of life circa 1988. Sometimes we forget how much life has changed, but once you start thinking about it, it was a very different world back then.

What do you remember about those days? I’ve already filled 50+ pages with my notes and memories, and I know it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not looking for cliches and buzzwords from popular memes (Spangles! Boggle! Marathon!), but actual memories – it’s those minute, true details that give a story depth and richness.

Here are some of mine:

  • That stink of stale cigarette smoke every time I walked into any school toilets. Burn marks on the toilet seats, and the unfathomable mystery of the ancient, rusted ‘Bunny Incinerator’* on the wall
  • the breath-taking agony of getting a hockey stick whacked round my ankles on a frosty morning
  • the school bus: a narrow prison of torment, with no escape from those who would shout insults, pull your hair, kick your seat, whisper about you – just loud enough so you knew, even though you couldn’t hear what they were saying. The humiliation if you stumbled when the bus lurched to a halt; the hot, damp horror of all that laughter directed at you
  • watching Threads** in Humanities class at school, and the idea of nuclear war becoming a constant background fear. Waking in the early hours and hearing an aeroplane high overhead, convinced it was about to drop a nuclear bomb
  • owning only three video cassettes, but being a typical obsessive teen and wanting to hoard all my favourite things; having to make the painful decision of which much loved music video or comedy sketch to sacrifice when I needed to record something new.

I could go on, but I think that gives you an idea of what I’m after: snapshots, impressions, details that bring the period vividly back to you. I’d really appreciate it if you’d share any with me.

Thank you.

* Because I think that is going to confuse a lot of you, just as it confused me all those years ago, let me assure you it involves no cruelty to small furry creatures, but turns out to be some old-timey solution to the disposal of feminine hygiene products.

** Having just read the Wikipedia entry, it’s a wonder I ever slept again!

Today I am very pleased to recieve a couple of signed books from the delightful Krista D Ball.

Alongside her novels, Krista also researches and compiles authors guides. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is an entertaining and informative look at how food works (or should work!) in fantasy novels. Drawing on historical sources, as well as some enthusiastic home experimentation, Krista presents a lively guide to all things mead, ale and roast boar related.

signed books from Krista D Ball

signed books from Krista D Ball

A month or so ago I won a competition to supply Krista with an interesting food related fact. Having watched many series of QI, I had no difficulty in recalling that an allergy to Brazil nuts can be triggered by sexual contact with someone who has eaten them; it is the only food allergy which can be triggered in quite this way.

I was not the only entrant to explore the strangeness of Brazil nuts, but was fortunate to be chosen the winner. For this I received not only a signed copy of What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, but also Krista’s new writers’ guide: Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes, a Regency and Steampunk field guide.

Huzzah! I look forward very much to reading it. Thank you, Krista 😀

You can visit Krista’s blog here.
You can buy What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank here, and Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes here.

The woods above Cromford

The woods above Cromford

At any one time my reading table is piled high with about 20 books. Some are books I’m currently reading; some are books I intend to read soon. Some are books I think I ought to read, but somehow never get around to. And some are books that I dip into every now and then, slowly working through them a chapter here, another chapter three years later…

One of these reading table perennials is The Golden Bough by JG Frazer, which I have been reading on and off for over 20 years. For those who don’t know, it’s a huge, rambling, early 20th century study of magic, religion, superstition and mythology – and it is full of fascinating ideas, beliefs and practices.

I picked my copy up second-hand from Cromford’s world famous Scarthin Bookshop in 1991 (I know, because I wrote so inside the cover). It is not a particularly handsome or exciting edition, and I feel no compunction in underlining interesting passages or scrawling notes in the margins.*

The prose is quite dated and shows the prejudices of a privileged white male of what was still then a colonial super-power. But look beyond that, and The Golden Bough is a treasure trove of fascinating ideas. Barely a page goes by without me jotting something in the margins – though often it is only an exclamation mark. Over the years I have squirrelled away many little snippets and ideas, and every now and then I find the perfect place to make use of them.

Yesterday I had great fun writing a scene (for my work in progress, Kikimora) in which the inhabitants of my fictional town decide their gods aren’t pulling their weight and need reminding of their duties. They take the god’s statue from the market square and parade it through town, beating it, and calling insults at it. They then throw it in the icy river, and tell it it will stay there until the god answers their prayers and brings the long overdue Spring.

According to Frazer such practises occurred as recently as 1893. In drought-stricken Italy,

“saints were turned, like naughty children, with their faces to the walls. Others (were) stripped of their robes, exiled, threatened, grossly insulted, ducked in horse-ponds.”

“At Licata the patron saint, St Angelo … was put in irons and threatened with drowning or hanging. ‘Rain or the rope!’ roared the angry people at him, as they shook their fists in his face.”

This is wonderful, entertaining stuff. If I hadn’t read it here I would never have believed such things took place. I love the idea of gods having to prove themselves and pull their weight.

One of the enjoyable things about European heritage is the way that Pagan traditions have managed to coexist and insinuate themselves into newer Christian ideas. In many places it was common for people to go to church every Sunday, but still honour their household gods and spirits with little offerings and sacrifices. This interplay of Christian and Pagan ideas allows the development of fascinating hybrid customs which are a gift to a writer.

One of my earliest short stories borrowed ideas from Frazer in the competition between three brothers to become their villages new Rain King (after the old one was burnt alive for failing to bring the rains). It was a very cynical story in which the most ruthless and underhand brother won, and turned out to be just the leader the village needed. I have no idea what became of it, or if anyone but me ever read it.

Similarly, my first (unpublished) novel had a recurring motif based on Frazer’s idea of the King of the Wood – the concept of killing the king in order to become king.

It seems I owe Frazer quite a debt of inspiration.

I will continue to dip into The Golden Bough now and then, when the mood takes me. You never know what odd, horrific, or amusing thing will crop up next, or where I’ll be able to make use of it.

I’d be interested to hear if others have their special go-to inspirational texts? Where do you keep going back to?

* I am not precious about books. I know some people are. My sister used to berate me terribly for cracking the spines if I borrowed books off her. Seriously, how can you read a book without cracking the spine? Personally I think books are to be read and enjoyed, and a bit of wear and tear proves this has happened.

Housework rules! picture source: http://feministing.com

No. It doesn’t.
[picture source: http://feministing.com%5D

I’m currently having a slight crisis of confidence in the protagonist of my work in progress, Kikimora.

Very loosely based on Slavic folklore, the story is set in 17th century Hungary and follows the life of a girl created by a grumpy magician for the sole purpose of terrorising the local miners and driving them away from his mountain home.

During the course of the story, Kikimora comes to empathise with the miners and question her duty to the magician, whom she thinks of as her father.

So far, so good. The problem I’m having is that for the first half of the book, Kikimora’s defining characteristic seems to be a great willingness to do all kinds of housework :-/ Rest assured, she has far more interesting things to do in the second half – but I’m worried my readers may have abandoned her in disgust by then.

This is in fact just one aspect of a greater dilemma I’ve been having regarding realism versus telling a good story.

While researching what would occupy the days of my 17th century characters I began to fully appreciate quite what a big deal housekeeping was in the days before fridges, vacuum cleaners, electric ovens, gas stoves, irons, washing machines, indoor plumbing, disinfectant, rubber gloves, antiseptic… You can read about the daily toil here.

Floors needed scrubbing. Pots needed scrubbing. Many households produced their own preserves, beer, cured meats. They kept livestock, which would need daily attention. Vermin were a constant nuisance, and had to be kept from the food stores. Much of the clothing would be homemade; holes would be darned; clothes which grew too tight would be let out. Firewood would be needed for cooking and heating the home.

My protagonist, Kikimora does not shun all this drudgery housework. She embraces it. Partly this is due to the folklore the story is based on – the original Slavic Kikimora was a household spirit, assisting respectful housewives in their daily tasks, and playing tricks on those who angered her. That’s the author reason. But the character’s reason for embracing housework is because it is the exact opposite of what she is supposed to do. She was created to be a monster. Her duty is to terrorise. But she’s really not that keen on her duty.

The heroine of my all time favourite book, Howl’s Moving Castle was also quite enthusiastic about housework, and I didn’t think any less of her for it. Personally I detest housework.* It is the quickest way I know to get sweaty, bad tempered and bring back to roaring life all the aches and pains my yoga, pilates, hot showers and regular (self administered) neck massage barely keeps at bay.

During the course of the story Kikimora makes up her own mind about what she believes and what she will fight for.

Ultimately I think I’m content with the feminist credentials of my protagonist. But what do you think? Am I over-thinking it? Is it even an issue? I’d love some opinions on the matter.

* I don’t count cooking as housework – though I know many people do. Cooking is creative. Cooking is enjoyable. Cooking garners praise, wonder and gratitude. None of these things are true of housework (especially gratitude, for some reason).

I must have been feeling pretty arrogant confident the day I decided to write a novel set four centuries ago in a country I have never visited, and largely concerning an industry about which I know little – either in the present time, or how it was practised in the past.

My work in progress, Kikimora, has required a LOT of research. And every time I think I’ve done enough and can get back on with the story, I immediately butt up against another detail I’m not quite sure about…

Shane MacGowan of the Pogues

Shane MacGowan of the Pogues
[picture source: http://www.lemondrop.com]

18 months in I reached a turning point when I realised that making it too realistic would spoil the story.

Life was pretty miserable in the 17th century. It was squalid, rough, and disease-ridden. Justice and equality had far less meaning or import than class. Life was cheap, and none more so than peasant life.

Modern sensibilities do not sit easily on that foundation. We have to prettify it a little in order to connect with the characters. We would struggle to empathise with romantic leads who in their eventual clinch bring together sore lips, blackened teeth and foul breath; who are unaware of the concepts of tooth cleaning and deodorant; who might perhaps take a bath once a month, at best.

It’s good to bring in a taste of realism, of course. A certain grittiness is pleasant to read about as we sit in comfy, padded chairs in heated rooms, sipping hot drinks and nibbling chocolate biscuits. But too much realism would be overwhelming.

This is just one area in which reading has the advantage over watching films. Film-makers create their exact vision of the characters, sets, costumes, etc, and we the viewers see those characters and sets exactly the same way the creator did, and exactly the same way all the other viewers will.

But when we read a book there is a veil between what the author wrote and what we visualise in our minds. We might all read ‘dimpled cheeks’ or ‘kind eyes’, but the character I picture in my mind will be different to the character you see – and both will be different to the author’s vision.

Similarly, it is easy to ignore unpleasant details (so long as the author isn’t constantly bashing you over the head with them). You might know objectively that the historical protagonists will almost certainly have rotten teeth by their age, but since you can’t see it, and if the author doesn’t mention it, then it’s quite simple to picture them with beautiful white smiles. Most of the time I doubt we’re even aware that we’re censoring realism for a more pleasant storytelling experience.

It is far more glaring to watch a historically-set film but notice the heroine’s immaculately sculpted eyebrows, hairless armpits, carefully applied make-up, and perfectly straight, white, teeth.

A late update to this (April 2015)

I actually love Joe Abercrombie’s recent work, Half the World, and the grimy, awkward sex his protagonists eventually enjoy – all sour breath and uncertainty, but none the less passionate for it.

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.”