One thing about writing historical fiction: no matter how much you know (or think you know) about your time period, you will have to do research.
It may be as simple as stopping, mid-sentence, to wonder, “Did the word ‘substantial’ exist in 1485? Or ‘dither’? Or ‘launch’?” Yes, to all of those; no, to “charade.”
It may be something as frustrating as trying to understand just what, exactly, is meant by the word “kirtle,” a ubiquitous article of women’s clothing in the medieval world. Is it worn under or over another garment? Yes to both, sometimes. What is it made out of, and what does it look like? That… depends. All I’ve been able to establish is that I’m pretty sure I’ve been misusing the term.
Last week, I was looking for music. Try to imagine a worse search: in a time when very little was written down, what record can there possibly be for music? And how would we know what it sounded like, or what instruments were used?
Thankfully, the internet has made research a much easier task. Colleges and universities have put their extensive collections of ancient documents on line, so rather than having to fly or drive to search in person, all I have to do is Google and click. It’s freakin’ amazing.
And I am lucky in my friends. I have connections with other writers who are history mavens, research goddesses and librarians, so when I don’t even know where to start looking (as with medieval music), they can point me in the right direction.
I asked fellow historical fiction writer J. Anderson Coats for help with finding a song for my novel. What I envisioned was a scene where my main character and her love interest were (naturally) flirting and he was trying to get her to sing with him. J recommended a few websites to try, and I spent a good part of one afternoon hopping around looking at medieval and Renaissance ballads.
This is more fun than you might think. Or, at least, it is when you are someone like me.
Especially when you find a song called “The Batchelers Resolution” (original spelling) with the subtitle: “Have among you now, Widowes or Maydes,/For I come a woing as Fancie perswades./I must have a Wife, be she Older or Younger,/For I cannot, nor will not lye alone any longer.”
I can’t describe the thrill that went through me. This is so exactly the sort of attitude displayed by Shakespeares’ Petruchio as he waltzes into the square in Padua at the beginning of the “Taming of the Shrew.” There’s even a verse about how he hopes he doesn’t get stuck with a wife who is a scold, because those are just the worst kind of women and he’d hate to be brow-beaten and controlled by his wife but heck, at this point he’d take anything because he just wants to be married already.
Oh. My. God.
Needless to say, the scene I had planned — the two of them flirting and singing together — is no longer being written. No, there is a very different thing happening now, and I’m still mulling it over: what his intention is in singing this song knowing she will hear him, what her reaction is, whether he will see her reaction… All I know is, it will enrich the novel tremendously.
Yeah, research is work, but I’m so glad I do it.