A friend recently commented: “You must have done a lot of research to write your book.” I was caught off guard by the question and a little confused, leaving me scratching my head a little, because technically my book is fantasy, though the label has, and always will, make me a little uneasy. Aside from the fact that the places in The Scribe’s Daughter are purely fictional, as are the characters, and that nothing in the book is fantastical — there are no dragons or magic or anything that might otherwise cause a reader to suspend their disbelief — it’s about as realistic a fantasy as has ever existed. And this is perhaps why my friend asked the question.
I grew up reading some sci fi and a lot of fantasy, though these days I prefer literature, action/adventure, political thrillers, and a whole lot of historical fiction. It is from this last category that I would name my favorite authors. And from these favorites, two of them, Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick I count as friends. While these two ladies have given me hours of pleasurable historical fiction reading, they are also the ones I blame for keeping me from actually writing it.
Why, you ask? The reason is quite simple: they have set the bar too high and I cannot hope to attain their same level of exhaustive research. If I was to write historical fiction, I would always want to hold myself to the same standard, and at the present time I can’t hope to do that. Sharon has often said that she reasonably needs three years both to research and to write her usually 600+ page tomes, and the hours and hours of exacting, tedious, and thorough research she does would overwhelm my life at this point. I have the idea that perhaps some day I would like to research and write the story of John Churchill of Muston in Dorset, England, who was the first Churchill in my family to emigrate to America sometime around 1642, but most likely that will be a project for my empty-nest years.
So if a big part of my reading enjoyment comes from historical fiction, and I won’t write it, where does that leave me? Writing fantasy fiction that reads like historical fiction! As I said earlier, this is perhaps why my friend thought that perhaps I had done a lot of research. Yes, I did research the rudiments of smithing so that I could competently describe the tools Kassia would need to acquire to complete her assignment and so that I knew what terminology to use to describe a forge and a smithy. I also had to do miniscule bits of research about generic climate in the mountains and some geology so that I’d know what a ridgeline was, what a tree line was, and where Jack and Kassia could reasonably ride on their way to the Allmor Plain. I may have written a fantasy of some stripe, but I still did my best to root the story solidly in reality, and I wanted readers of historical fiction to feel at home in the world I created even if it was all invented. However, this level of basic research could hardly be considered scholarly.
Perhaps the most significant source of my “research” is the decades of reading for pleasure that I enjoyed long before I ever knew I was a writer. When you read you can’t help but develop a sense of many things, even if only at an intuitive level — of history, of cultures, of peoples and places far removed from your own. You also gain a sense of the styles of other authors, of how to turn a phrase within a style, of pacing and plotting and character development. Research by osmosis in a way! Ultimately writers are collectors of ideas. They have to be, as fodder for their storytelling if nothing else. It’s these details which have been stored away in the subconscious, have fermented and taken on a life of their own, that then come out in the writing. These ideas and notions are the foundations of authenticity brought to any story without trying too hard, the things that readers pick up on even if they don’t know it.
They say you can’t be a writer unless you are a reader, and I would say that “they” are quite right! It also doesn’t hurt to count as friends some of the best in the business. To these authors, from whom I have gleaned much about both the art and business of writing – among them, but not limited to: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Michael Jecks, Priscilla Royal, Stephen Lawhead — I tip my (proverbial) hat. Thank you.