On research and world building

One of the things I always love to see in reviews is a reference to how accurate my setting and the time period are.  I’m a bit of a pedant so I hate finding anachronisms when I’m reading.  It’s even worse when I’m reading my own work.   I’m at the redrafting stage of my work in progress and know I’m bound to find a few things that slipped through the net.

A few weeks ago I was asked to take part in a discussion on the Harlequin blog about creating believable worlds.  I wrote this piece that I’m sharing here.

‘Round about chapter five of my first book, Falling for her Captor, I had the characters sitting round the campfire. The seasoned older soldier, about to dispense some words of wisdom to the hero, lit his pipe and somewhere in Anachronism Central a red light flashed and a siren started wailing. Why? Because my story was set (albeit in a fictional country) in the medieval period, which as we all know means no tobacco. Fortunately I spotted that one and didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of my editor pointing it out but it still makes me cringe.

It does, however, illustrate how important research is to the historical writer. Big inaccuracies can ruin a book from the outset so make sure you’re familiar with the hierarchy of society, forms of address and social conventions for the time you’re writing about. Fortunately there is a wealth of information available online to ensure you get these right.

I love reading historical fiction as well as writing it and for me a convincing world is one where the author has got the small, incidental details right (thought choose your details carefully- your hot medieval duke would almost certainly have had lice and bad teeth but your reader won’t want to know this). The story and characters are naturally the most important element but nothing kills the moment like an anachronism leaping off the page. In the same way that an errant TV aerial can ruin a period drama, the reader’s should be concentrating on the hero slowly teasing the heroine’s shift down over her shoulders, not shouting in annoyance about the fact that cotton wasn’t available in the Middle Ages and she would have worn linen.  And don’t get me started on the Tudor novel where the heroine felt a jolt of electricity run through her!

When trying to find ideas for clothing, food, houses and transport my first port of call is often contemporary art such as illuminated manuscripts and tapestries which can be a wonderful source of detail. Knowing exactly what sort of river ferry existed made it much easier to describe Will in  A Wager for the Widow almost knocking Eleanor over the side when he jumps his horse on board. I also love researching the food characters might have eaten and have some interesting recipes I’m planning to try out as soon as the holidays come around.

I’m naturally obsessive and sometimes researching what should be a small plot point ends up taking a lot more time than it should. My latest heroine inherits a business from her deceased husband so or A Wager for the Widow I ended up so engrossed in oyster farming in Medieval Cornwall I lost hours! Ditto tide times in December that cover the causeway to St Michael’s Mount. I’ve also spent time on Google Maps working out distances and cross referencing them with tables of how far and fast a horse could be expected to travel to ensure my characters could make journeys in the timescale I’ve given them.

So what have I learned? Know your period well before you start to write so you don’t write yourself into a corner. Don’t put the wrong monarch on the throne, don’t have a six-day journey taking a couple of hours. Don’t dress your characters in clothes that weren’t available, and don’t have your knights eating baked potatoes.’

How much do anachronisms bug you?  What is the biggest you’ve spotted in a book or film?

2 thoughts on “On research and world building”

  1. You do develop the sort of “sixth sense” about your period after you’ve written in it for awhile. The biggest oops of my own that I caught early enough to avoid embarrassment was having my heroine think about someone’s “ego” in the Fourteenth Century! Sometimes it’s the philosophical, instead of the daily items, that are the hardest to spot because they are so much part of our own thinking. (And I LOVE the idea of Anachronism Central!)

    Liked by 1 person

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