Important blog note: If you go back to earlier postings - as I hope you do - please don’t post your comments or questions there. I don’t check and may never see what you wrote. Even if what you have to say concerns an old post, please add your comments to the most current one, where I’ll be sure to read it and so will the other writers who frequent the blog.
On March 17, 2010 April wrote, It sounds like you rely primarily on books for research, with online searching as a supplement or back up. Is this just your preference? Or do you think the kind of information you're looking for is more trustworthy in a book? Or perhaps another reason?
And Priyanka wrote, April- my answer to you for that is that material you find in a cloth-bound book, which took a lot of time to edit and compile, is most probably more reliable than the majority of websites on the web, which probably got their own information from a book! (Take a look at the bibliography sections on well-written Wikipedia articles, they often have an extensive list of books.)
There are some exceptions for research online! I would trust anything I find in JSTOR or an online database such as EBSCO. I'm not sure how easily accessible those are for everyone, but high schools and universities usually have subscriptions to them, as do some public libraries. All it requires is a little searching! :)
I’m not an expert on research, so please keep my non-expertise in mind as you read. I also don’t have access to university databases or live near a big public library, so I’ve never used the online databases Priyanka cites. I do google the topics that interest me, and I use Wikipedia a lot, but the online sources that I find mostly give overviews. When I want more depth, I read books.
As you guys probably know, most of my novels are fantasies. Ever, for example, is set in a made-up version of ancient Mesopotamia. To help me write it, I read two books about the period and visited the ancient Mesopotamian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I also read Mesopotamian myths and reread the Greek myths. I read the bible as well, which, among other things, contains information about ancient daily life.
But my purpose wasn’t accuracy, it was flavor and detail. I didn’t mention Mesopotamia in the novel; the city of Hyte and the kingdom of Akka, where the action takes place, never existed. If I used a detail from an online source that was wrong, it didn’t matter.
It helps me to have specific information when I write, even if the information is riddled with inaccuracies. Reading that the houses of the period were made of baked mud helped me picture them (I’m pretty sure this detail is true). I read about the layout of rooms, and that helped too. If I’d discovered that these layouts were inaccurate, I would have tried to find out what was correct, but then if the correction didn’t suit my story needs, I would have gone back to what I knew to be wrong. I make no claims of historical verity, and I hope no teacher has made Ever part of a curriculum of the ancient world.
An aside: I found an online dictionary of ancient Sumerian and used it to invent names, places, and a few words. But I worried that I might have accidentally created words that exist in modern Arabic or Farsi, and I couldn’t tell if the words happened to be offensive. My publisher found a speaker of both languages to look at my inventions. Turned out that a couple were real words, but nothing bad.
Another aside: I discovered, online again, numbers as they would have been written in cuneiform. So, above the ordinary Arabic numerals at the beginning of each chapter are the same numbers in cuneiform. If you look, you can learn to write cuneiform numbers up to sixty-nine (the number of chapters in the book)! I love that.
My fairy tale books from Ella Enchanted through Fairest are not set in any time period more specific than pre-industrial. I did little research. I looked at costume books, especially for Fairest, but I roamed from century to century to find gowns that fit what I wanted. (Some of the fashions were completely ridiculous, which suited my story. For a hoot, take a look at an illustrated fashion history book.) For Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, I researched armor, but not extensively.
I have gotten letters from children, thanking me for teaching them about the middle ages through my books. When I read these letters, I shudder and feel guilty. So for A Tale of Two Castles, which April named on the blog, I did read two books about medieval daily life, and I referred constantly to a children’s book, Castle by David Macaulay, about castle architecture. If kids write to me about the middle ages in that book I’ll feel a little better, although I still made things up.
Children’s nonfiction is a great source for gaining nontechnical understanding of a complex subject. In For Biddle’s Sake a fairy turns characters into frogs, and I read two children’s books about frogs. They told me everything I needed.
It’s important to note that although I’m writing from a European fairytale tradition, there is no Europe in my books. My fairytale novels take place nowhere on planet earth. Even though I researched frogs, if I’d wanted to give them wings or make each of them as big as tyrannosaurus rex, I could have. If you do set your story in a real time and place, then I think you need to be accurate. For example, suppose your fantasy takes place in sixteenth century France, even if you have dragons dotting the landscape, you need to be true in other respects to the place and time.
When I wrote my non-fantasy, realistic historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in New York City in 1926, I did extensive research and tried to get everything right. I read several books about the period as well as poetry and a novel written at the time. I spent days going through the photo collection at the main branch of the New York Public Library, looked at street plans of the time, visited the Tenement House Museum and spoke to the curator, visited the New York City Transit Museum and talked to an expert on mass transit during the era. And much more. Best of all, I had two friends with excellent memories who were alive at the time. If you’re writing about a period that’s within living memory of your parents or grandparents or of people you can contact, talk to them. They will give you details and a flavor of the time that you can’t get any other way. But then fact-check their information. When I was little, for example, I remember telephones being only black. I would guess that they began to be produced in colors in the mid to late 1960s, but the change may have begun earlier. Dates in memory are often slippery.
These prompts involve research. If you want to surround them with a story, so much the better.
• Some emergency has arisen during the night. Your seventeenth or eighteenth-century daughter of a duke has to dress in a hurry. Write about her getting dressed with as much historical accuracy about her clothing as you can find. Remember, she is rushing.
• Describe five minutes of a medieval feast with as much historical accuracy as you can.
• A young squire (or female equivalent) is polishing his lord’s armor and decides to try everything on. Once he’s outfitted, he mounts his lord’s charger, just as someone unexpected (you pick) enters the stable. Write the whole scene, including what happens next.
Have fun, and save what you write!