Welcome to another installment of an irregular series of posts on research. The material that follows is adapted from How To Write Killer Historical Mysteries: The Art and Adventure of Sleuthing Through the Past (Perseverance Press, 2008) by Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett).
Hands-on research involves actually experiencing some of what you want to write about. If you write historical novels, go to museums that have items, perhaps even restored buildings, from the period in which you are interested. It it is at all possible, visit living history centers. These attempt to create an environment that closely resembles what a particular place was like at a specific time in the past.
At Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, re-enactors take on the roles of real settlers and do not step out of them as long as they are in costume. They “live” in the reconstructed village and speak in the accents of seventeenth-century England, even to their individual counties of origin. They work with the tools of the period, thatching roofs, firing muskets, growing crops, and raising livestock.
Each living history center is a little different but all endeavor to give visitors an accurate picture of life in the past. As varied as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia;
King’s Landing in New Brunswick, Canada; Washburn-Norlands in Livermore, Maine; and the Littleton Historical Museum near Denver, living history centers provide writers with a wonderful source of material—a firsthand look at how things were.
I’ve been to the Norlands many times, since it is only a few miles from my house.
On April 28, 2008, fire destroyed the historic barn on the property when a heater used to keep newborn pigs warm proved faulty. The fire almost consumed the farmhouse, as well, since here in Maine farm buildings tend to be connected (no one wants to have to go outdoors in the winter unless they have to!). The local fire departments, however, had worked out emergency plans for just such a contingency. While firefighters fought the blaze, impossible to replace items were carried to safety by members of the community who came out to help. Now the barn rebuilding project has become an opportunity to study nineteenth-century ways of doing things. Norlands continues to be an educational resource for the entire state, hosting school visits, quilting bees, live-ins, Civil War re-enactments and other events. You can find out more at http://www.norlands.org
Speaking of re-enactment groups, they provide more opportunities for hands-on research. From the Society for Creative Anachronism to the folks who recreate Revolutionary War battles, these are people who love their chosen period of history. No, the armor isn’t exactly like it was in medieval times. Some accommodations are made for comfort and for financial reasons, but don’t overlook what these organizations provide. If you want to experience the past you’re writing about, this is one way to do it.
Kathleen Ernst is one historical mystery writer who has been able to take full advantage of hands-on experiences.
She worked for more than ten years at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor ethnic museum near Milwaukee that features a crossroads village and ten working farmsteads ranging in date from 1845 through 1915. She “learned how to warp a loom, how to milk cows, how to make rennet and lye soap, wine and sauerbraten, hops yeast, and Finnish egg coffee,” and was then able to give many of these skills to her characters. She has used these experiences in her books for children for years, and more recently turned to writing mysteries for grown-ups. The detective? She a curator at Old World Wisconsin . . . in the early 1980s.
So, fellow Maine Crime Writers, what kinds of hands-on research, historical and contemporary, have you done? And could you have written your books without it?