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Libraries – The Internet on Paper (Or How I Learned What Machicolations Were)
Even before I could read, I loved libraries. I can remember going every week with my mother, trading in the old books for new ones, standing in the stacks, surrounded by towering shelves of books, the smell of paper and bindings filling me with a sense of well-being. There was adventure there. Escape. A door to other worlds.
As I grew older, I learned that there was more to libraries than great stories. There was also knowledge, arranged in some incomprehensible order by a great magician named Dewey Decimal. Dewey helped me uncover the secrets of the Arthurian Legends, find out about countries across the world, learn about the first theatres — heck, the first people. It was like a National Geographic episode on every subject all at once.
And the magic didn’t fade. In fact, the enchantment grew as my world expanded. I rarely read a book or watch a movie with a thread of historical basis without running to the library the next day to learn more about the characters the story was based on. (Ok, I’m a little compulsive, but I do know the real truth about the man who shot Jesse James.) Or sometimes it’s just an author I want to know more about. I discovered the complete works of Alistair MacLean because of the Guns Of Navarone.
In today’s world of Internet access and coffee shop bookstores, it is easy to forget about libraries. But I’m here to tell you, they are alive and well. And they still smell of bindings and paper. And they are still full of magic just waiting to be discovered.
When I decided to write a romance, to actually put my pen to paper and take the leap of faith that I could start — and finish — I did what seemed natural to me. I headed for the library. And using those resources, I created a fifteenth century Scottish world. And so I wanted to take a moment and tell you how I did it.
Not so much the wonderful tomes themselves. I’ll leave those recommendations to better qualified historians. What I want to share with you is the process itself. Some of which you probably know, hopefully, some of which you don’t. (Or you’ve no doubt moved on to The Six Reasons Why You Should Never Name a Hero Wilber.)
Assuming you don’t have a PhD in history (and I have several writer friends who do — talk about intimidation!), you will want to start with the basics. And I mean the basics. Writing, believe it or not, is a very visual art. Most writers see things in their minds, and then use their talent to put that vision to paper, so that other folks can see it, too. (Of course it’s often a fine line between sharing those visions and a padded cell.)
In researching an historical period, the best way to start is to get a general picture of it. To do this, the best place to begin is with the children?s section. Yes, you heard me right, kiddy books.
There are wonderful overviews of entire historical periods done for children. Titles like Amazing Boats, Castle, Abbey and Town, Life in a Medieval Village, and Explore a Castle. (You can guess what my first two romances are about.) These books offer loads of pictures and simple explanations. Because they are geared for understanding not enlightening, they often cover topics ignored in more scholarly works, where they go to the bathroom being a perfect example. (By the way, you really don’t want to know. And believe me, more importantly, you don’t ever want to be the designated garderobe cleaner.)
Okay, so you’ve perused the books and learned more than you could have dreamed about building castles, weaving your own clothing and home brewed ale. (See, there is always a side benefit to everything.) Or, if you’re writing a western, you’ve learned about wagon axles, hard tack, potash, spittoons, outhouses, and watering down whiskey. (I see a disturbing trend in my research here.) All done, right?
Wrong. The next step is to move up a level. You now have a picture in your head, you’re ready for details. I like to start with a general historical overview. To do this, I try basic history books. A History of Scotland or the like.
For me, this is the time when I usually get side-tracked. Kind of like the web, it’s easy to get off on a track that has nothing to do with my story, but is darned interesting all the same. I do find that these forays off the path are useful, though. I often come across some little tidbit that either inspires another story or winds up being worked into the current one down the way.
Once I have the general historical overview, I like to delve into the social history. This gives me a better idea how people related to one another, how they thought, what they felt. If you’re writing about a time period not so long ago, journals and diaries are excellent sources for this kind of stuff.
If you’re writing about fifteenth century Scotland, the pickings are slimmer. But undaunted, you can sally (who the heck was Sally, anyway?) forth with the help of interlibrary loan. This is basically the internet on paper. You identify the book you’re looking for and then request it from interlibrary loan. In a few days, it’s yours. I’ve received books from all over the country. Even found a copy of the only book I think was ever written about fifteenth-century Scottish society. (There was quite a story about a visiting clergyman waking to find a woman in his bed, but I’m saving that for another book.)
Next in your growing quest for knowledge is a little background on the setting itself. Travel books and photography books are an excellent way to learn about the flora and fauna of an area. You’ll be amazed how many times you will want to refer to a bird or animal or need to describe the flowers in bloom. These books can be invaluable.
Other sources include costume books, cookbooks, old catalogs, biographies, professional memoirs and photojournalism of the day. All these sources are available from the library. At bigger libraries, usually on site.
You can even research dialogue. There are studies of language available. There are also numerous guides to languages, including idiomatic English. But I prefer fiction to get an idea of what is being used in popular novels with similar settings and biographies and journals to get a flavor of how these folks really talked. (The spelling alone often makes some of these first person accounts worth reading.)
Now your overview research is finished. For lots of folks that’s all they need. They’re ready to write. For me, I find that as I go along, I go back to the books (for which I now have a neatly typed, okay, crazily scribbled, bibliography) for further clarification and specific detail. But the foundation for building my story is complete. My characters and setting are more realistic because of my research. They take on a depth that only comes from knowledge. Not to mention, I’m all revved up, dying to find a way to use the word ‘machicolations’ in a sentence. (Really. I actually worked it into the story.)
Libraries today are easier to use than ever before. The days of paper card catalogs are almost a thing of the past. And before long, the world of fiche machines will no doubt go with it (which is all for the best because they make me queasy — really queasy).
Today’s libraries not only have their catalogs computerized, many have them on line. Which means you can search for books right in the comfort of your own office. Even better, libraries will send books found in one branch to another closer to you. This means you can shop at home, then run down the street to your local branch and pick up your books. Add interlibrary loan to the mix, and you’re picking up books from all over the country at your branch library.
Our brains are living things. They need stimulation to grow and thrive. Libraries with their unending bounty are sources for this stimulation. And as writers, what better feeling could there be than to sit in silence, surrounded by books, and let our imaginations run free? (Okay, I admit sitting in the aisle where my hundreds of volumes are housed would probably top that.) Over all, though, there is nothing like a book. And so, by definition, nothing better than a place where all the books are gathered simply so that you and I might have the opportunity to read them.
Now get out there and research