The month has gotten away from me. I’d planned to be all organized and have this post ready to go a week ago, then let Blogger post it on schedule, but here I am on Wednesday night, with this due on Friday, and I’m traveling all day tomorrow. So I’m in panic mode, and you’re getting the quick and dirty version of research, Hendrix style.
Since my current series, The Immortal Brotherhood, will consist of nine books spanning a period of nearly a thousand years, research is going to be a huge part of my life for quite some time to come. Except for the last two books, each of the tales will take place in a different century. Also, I believe in over-researching. I find that the more I internalize the time/place/clothing/social mores of my characters, the more likely I am to incorporate the details in a natural way and avoid the kind of data dumps that stop a story dead. This means I’ll have a ton of details to gather in a relatively short period of time. It’s all about approach.
Inevitably, the first place I go is the library and the local used book store to find general history books on my era. These give me the overview I need of the time period, so I can narrow things down and pick a specific location and year. I don’t like writing in generalities, so establishing a firm time and place is critical to me (i.e., medieval England must narrow down to 1096 in Alnwick, Northumberland). During this phase I frequently find some historical incident upon which to hang the story, or which I can at least include in the background. At a minimum, I must know what would be occupying my characters’ thoughts and conversations. (a war, the king’s death, those new windmills from Normandy, or whatever).
Once I’ve got the time period and location narrowed down, I go hunting for specifics. I use the library again, but I also hit the Internet, looking for timelines specific to my locale. For instance, for Immortal Warrior is set in Northumberland, and there is a terrific website, the Northeast England History Pages which has a timeline that I referenced quite a bit. This site was a real treasure trove, because it also has dialect, songs, place name histories, and famous people. (I haven’t found any single site quite as useful for Immortal Outlaw, but I’m still hunting and hoping.) Then I start filling in with details: clothes (I love you Dover Books!), politics, food, and so on. Since the first two books are medieval era (though 200 years apart), I’ve been putting in a lot of time on SCA and Regia Anglorum sites and on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The latter is very nearly as good as being able to dive directly into a European university library, with the additional benefit of having the source materials already translated. I buy a good map of the area, usually special ordering through Metsker Maps. (Addendum: not just “a map”—a truly detailed topographic map that you can use to figure out things like how many paces your heroine walked before she fell off a cliff in the dark, like the USGS and British Ordinance Survey maps at 1:50,000 or better).
Another source I find myself going back to over and over is the dictionary: the compact edition of the unabridge OED (thank you Book of the Month Club) and, even more immediately useful, the dictionary program on my Mac, which accesses New Oxford American Dictionary, the Oxford American Writers Thesaurus, and Wikipedia, all at once. I hit them at least 20 times a day for word origins and derivations, word choices, and general knowledge–so often that I frequently default to the Dashboard widget for the Dictionary, to check when a word came into use and what it meant at the time. Excessive, perhaps, but I am that nerdy kid that used to sit and read the Encyclopedia Britannica. It comes naturally.
Of course, I have other sites I use, everything from Google Earth to a site that chronicles the history of British winters, but I found them all using Google, so they’re nothing mysterious. I google multiple times for any given topic, using variations on my basic topic to get a wider range of sites. Some of what I find gets organized in text docs, where I cluster tidbits of related information (with url references at the bottom of each tidbit) so I can find what I need easily. Other pages get saved in entirety and dropped into a general “Research for [bookname]” file. Not precisely organized, but accessible using search.
One final favorite site is more about pleasure than research. When writing about Vikings, of course you must have Vikings to inspire you. I found plenty of juice for the imagination in the Jomsvikings website. The Jomsvikings are the leading Viking reenactment group, and they have some very nice photo galleries—not to mention the very nice Vikings in their Heroes gallery. Enjoy. I certainly have.