Researching stories - how to go about it

As the writer of novels set in medieval time, I've had to do A LOT of research before I started writing these stories, and even now I am still rushing around trying to find out what I need to know. For example, Janna and her mother have the knowledge of healing - but I don't. Nor did I know a great deal about how life was lived in medieval time. Living in Australia, I didn't know too much about the English countryside either! To complicate matters, on Janna's quest to find her father, she moves from forest to hamlet to farm to abbey to town and right into the heart of the royal court. So I, too, had to find out what life was like (for both nobles and peasants) in those places. Whew! The journey has been great fun, I've learned heaps along the way - and I am still learning!

It's hard to know whether you should find out everything you need to know before you start - in which case, the scope is so huge you may NEVER start! The danger is you'll either lose heart or get side-tracked and lose sight of what you originally wanted your story to be about. So here's how I go about finding out what I need to know:

I do a little research, enough to get some sort of background, and then I start writing. For example, with Hearts in Chains, I started the story while in Adelaide on a May Gibbs Fellowship, basing it on what I remembered from a holiday to Norfolk Island almost ten years ago. With the story in my mind, I knew all the things I needed to find out when I actually went there - which narrowed down my field of research, but has meant a fair bit of rewriting now that I've found out the reality of the situation. An added difficulty is writing about a close-knit community on a small island - I don't want to be sued! The flash back to the convict past details real events and gives a true portrayal of what life was like in the penal settlement back in the 1850s - but most of the characters in the past and all of the characters in the present are fictional, as are the present-day events I describe. (So I've told all my new friends on Norfolk that they won't read about themselves in my new book!)

Before I started writing the Janna Mysteries, I downloaded maps, did some research, and found out where (and how) she was going to live. Once I started writing the story, then I had a clearer idea of the sorts of things I needed to know, and so I could research them as I went along. The danger of doing it this way, is that you might find out that your story is wrong, that it's based on something that either didn't, or couldn't have happened, and then you have to start again, or do some rewriting. But I still write this way and take a chance, because I lose courage very quickly when I'm faced with a pile of books I have to read and all the time I'm just burning to get on with the story. So there is no right or wrong way, each has it's pluses and minuses and difficulties. The trick is to find out what works for you, and do it that way.

Here are some of the resources I use when I'm researching my novels:

  • The internet is great. You can Google all sorts of subjects, and even if you don't hit what you want straight away, sooner or later it should lead you to where you need to be. For example, in Book 2, Rue for Repentance, Janna lives and works (as a boy) on a manor farm. I was able to Google the medieval farming year, so I could find out what she would be doing when, and how she would go about e.g. weeding, haymaking and harvesting, what tools she would use, etc.Map of Wiltshire

    In Book 3, Lilies for Love, Janna takes refuge in an abbey. She is expected to take part in abbey life, so I was able to Google and find out about various abbeys in England, plus the hours (and names) of their services, day and night, which nuns were expected to observe in medieval time. I was also able to download a copy of the Mass in Latin, which is how Janna would have heard it.

    Because my character lives in a particular place, I Googled a map of the area, plus maps of other places she visits. Later, I bought some Ordnance Survey maps of the areas, which are very detailed indeed, and are the best way to go if you're not familiar with the area you're describing.

    Beware: there are a few traps when it comes to Googling: One time I was researching something, and I lobbed into a whole lot of porno sites by mistake! Fortunately, I discovered that a friend of mine had seen what I wanted to know, and was able to tell me about it. Also, remember that anyone can put anything on the web, and that information may not necessarily be accurate. If you can, check your 'facts'!

  • While Google is good, books are better! Yes, BOOKS. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. I have several children's books about life in medieval time, with great pictures of e.g. castles, water mills, street and market scenes, etc, all of which I need to know about. The 'See Through' series is particularly good as they have several layers to their illustrations, showing e.g. what a castle looks like outside, and also how it looks, and works inside. It's a great resource when you have to describe something.

    I also have a whole lot of books about the society of that time, about the laws, who the kings and people in power were, where peasants and nobles slept, how they dressed (I have two books about clothing through the ages) and what they ate. I have to make sure my characters don't eat tomatoes or potatoes as they weren't available in England at that time, for example! On the other hand, I found out that nobles might feast on roasted swans (with their feathers stuck back after they were cooked), or peacocks, or larks' tongues. And yes, sometimes live birds were quickly baked in a piecrust and released when the pie was cut - it was considered quite a novelty!

    I have biographies of King Stephen and also the Empress Matilda, so I can get both sides and a balanced view of the dispute between them for the crown, and I also have copies of chronicles of the time: William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

    All the abbeys in England were destroyed at the time of Henry VIII. In Lilies for Love, Janna takes refuge at Wiltune Abbey, which no longer exists so I had to make it up, which I did from a plan of a typical Benedictine abbey which I found in a book.

    I have books of names as well as lists of Anglo Saxon and Norman names. I have a huge collection of guides to wildflowers, trees and birds in the UK and, because Janna is a healer, I have an even bigger collection of books about medieval cures and herbal medicine - eg Culpeper's and Gerard's Herbals, Pollington's Anglo Saxon Leechcraft and Abbess Hildegard von Bingen's Medicine. My library is constantly growing!

  • I was lucky enough to be able to go over to England to do some research, so I could walk in the forest where Janna would have walked, and go to the various hamlets, manor farm, cities and palaces she will also visit. It was also useful to be able to visit museums and libraries over there, and to photocopy documents not available in Australia. The Victoria County Histories are a particularly wonderful source of information - and there are copies in some libraries in Australia too.

  • One thing I have found, as an author, is just how kind people are, and how ready they are to share their knowledge with you. Wherever I go, I ask questions - and you'll see from my acknowledgements lists in every book just how lucky I've been to find people with the knowledge I need.