Tips on Research: On Location

Welcome to the next installment of our 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).

In an ideal world in which all writers receive huge advances, every one of us would probably opt to spend as much time as necessary living on the spot, absorbing every detail of our surroundings. In the real world, this isn’t always possible.

I’d have loved to travel to England before I started the Face Down series featuring a sixteenth-century gentlewoman as the sleuth, but whenever I had enough money to go, I didn’t have the time. When I might have been able to leave home for several weeks at a stretch, I couldn’t afford the expense. As a result, until after the publication of the sixth book in the series, the only time I had been to Europe was as a college student in the spring of 1968. My memories of that trip have more to do with student riots in Leeds and Paris than with sixteenth-century architecture or the geography of any particular English county.

my "research assistant"

The official reason for my return to England in the summer of 2001 was to visit as many sixteenth-century country manor houses as I could find. I was planning Face Down Below the Banqueting House at that point and for the first time meant to set an entire book in Lady Appleton’s home. I’d never done more than give brief glimpses of a couple of rooms in earlier books. Now I had to come up with a floor plan and lots of descriptive details.

There aren’t too many locales that have remained completely unchanged since the sixteenth century. I visited over a dozen houses extant then, and all had been improved upon. Cothele in Cornwall is still as it was in the seventeenth century, but most of the rest had additions that were made much later.

A problem I hadn’t expected, though I should have, came from seeing so much in such a short period of time. I had only a little over two weeks to visit all the places on my list. Soon all those houses started to run together in my mind. The detailed notes I made, the ones that made perfect sense on the scene, were less easy to interpret after I got home. Furthermore, most historic homes won’t let visitors touch things or take photographs or shoot video indoors. It is possible to make photography arrangements ahead of time at some of the locations, but not always.

Outdoor footage has its own value, particularly for reminding the writer not to put in hills where none exist. That sort of geography doesn’t change. A camcorder proved far more useful for research purposes than my still camera, allowing me to shoot 360 degrees from the center of the inner courtyard of a manor house or straight ahead as I walked down a path through a garden. In two weeks, I filled eight one-hour tapes.

The first of the houses I visited in my “search for Leigh Abbey,”

Haddon Hall with a person for scale

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, has an excellent guidebook with floor plans and offers many postcards. Not all houses do as well with these aspects. But I have trouble imagining spatial relationships: distances; height; size. And if you look at professional pictures, you notice that they almost never include people, which can be a guide to size.

But how do you tell what was really there more than 400 years ago and what has been added since? The guides at National Trust and English Heritage properties are well versed in history and eager to be helpful, but sometimes they don’t know either. In the case of one Tudor palace, what is now a mellow shade of red brick was painted bright red with accents in white and black in the sixteenth century. I got that detail out of a book by an expert on Tudor palaces. I’d never have known from visiting the place, nor would I have known to ask. Similarly, although I could see that extant sixteenth-century black-and-white townhouses sag, I am not enough of an expert to know if they did so even in the sixteenth century. Those built in medieval times may well have.

Even more misleading is present-day landscaping. Although Tudor houses would have had gardens, the gardens I saw were, for the most part, Victorian or later. Except for the occasional small section given over to a knot garden or a maze, they aren’t at all as they would have been in the period I was interested in. There are also many plants in them that an Elizabethan would not recognize.

did it really look like this then?

A word of advice: if you don’t know what questions to ask when you visit, or if you even suspect you may have questions later, introduce yourself to one of the guides, or better yet the estate manager if there is one on the premises, and get an address to which you can send questions. I had bookmarks with me listing all the titles in my Face Down series, and discovered that most of the volunteers who serve as guides in these houses are avid readers. They are also familiar with areas of the houses that are not open to the public and could tell me, for example, that the ceilings in the garrets at Speke Hall are high enough to allow a person to stand upright.

In some cases, replicas give a more accurate representation than originals, if they are built after careful research. Barrington Court is filled with furniture made and displayed for sale by Stuart Interiors. These replicas can be touched, and signs clearly date each object. The New Globe Theatre in London, built just a few years ago, is already weathered, but it’s the sort of weathering the original would also have experienced after a few years. I also boarded replicas of two ships, the Matthew, modeled after John Cabot’s ship from the 1490s, and the Golden Hinde, modeled after the ship in which Francis Drake sailed around the world in 1577-1580. Formal pictures cannot convey the size of these. I already owned a six-hour documentary on the Matthew, but now I have video of myself on board. I know where the lintel would crack me in the forehead and when the ropes on deck would trip me. Much more vivid, I assure you.

But to return to land—what about topography? Does that stay the same? Not always, and that can be a good thing, leaving the writer free to imagine what once was there. What was decidedly rural in the sixteenth century—the site of my fictional Appleton Manor—is now part of Greater Manchester. Not only is the entire area covered by a modern city, but the canal system put in during the nineteenth century has completely changed the course of the rivers.

In Kent, however, although it is a well-populated county, an amazing amount is unchanged. Narrow country lanes lead to Barfrestone, the village at the geographical location (“halfway between Canterbury and Dover”) that I blithely assigned to Leigh Abbey in the first book in the Face Down series. The present-day village consists of a Norman church, a pub, and a few houses. The surrounding land is gently rolling and wooded. The video I brought back was extremely useful when it came to writing scenes set there.

If you cannot visit the location of your novel, should you abandon the idea of writing a historical mystery set there? Of course not. Yes, it is an advantage to be on-site, but you can find a great deal of material in books or on the Internet. You may also be able to contact someone who lives in the area or has spent some time there. Find out as much as you can. Try to avoid elaborating on details if you’re uncertain about them. However—you are a writer. The ability to imagine is a requirement of your profession. You can visit sixteenth-century England, or any other time and place, and become an expert on it, without leaving home. Best of all, you can write a historical mystery that will take your readers there with you.

That’s it for this blog, but you can check for previous research tips in “Kaitlyn’s Posts” on the left side of this page.

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1 Response to Tips on Research: On Location

  1. John Clark says:

    Fascinating post. I’ve heard some interesting panel discussions at BOSCONE about the challenges of being accurate when writing historical fantasy and your information expands upon that nicely. Thank you.

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