Do your research!

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Meghan
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Do your research!

Post by Meghan » August 18th, 2010, 3:00 am

So, I was reading this novel the other day (I won't mention it) and the story was filled with discrepancies. The story took place in the past, but the language did not match what it would have been at that time, and several historical details were horribly mistaken. If there is one aspect of a novel that can really make me grind my teeth, it's when an author doesn't take the time to research what s/he is writing about. Even if the story takes place in present time, in your hometown, on the street you live, in your backyard, I still believe that when writing a novel, the author should take the time to examine the world s/he hopes to write about.

I hope I'm not alone in feeling this way, but far be it for me to say what is right or (and I hate using this word when writing is involved) wrong in a novel.

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Re: Do your research!

Post by Sommer Leigh » August 18th, 2010, 8:56 am

You're not alone.

In the middle of my book my characters have to cross the middle section of Indiana on foot. The wilderness there, specifically some of the state parks, are very important to the book in more ways than just setting. I'd done a lot of research, looked at a lot of pictures, spent countless hours playing with Google street view, but I knew I wasn't going to get it right (or good enough) unless I went there myself.

So I spent a week in central and south Indiana stomping through the woods, hiking in places where my characters would be hiking and camping. I took a ton of pictures, wrote notes about the trees, the colors, the smells, the difficult climbs, the people I met...everything. Which is good because Indiana is beautiful and I had no real idea just how beautiful it was. And isolated.

Sometimes you have to go stomping around the world you expect your characters to stomp around in.
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steve
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Re: Do your research!

Post by steve » August 18th, 2010, 10:10 am

Yeah, unless one is interested in cliches or conspiracy theories the internet is a useless research tool. It's filled with common-denominator nonsense and half-truths peddled as fact.

Best option is to go see for yourself, like Sommer did.

Second best option is to hit up your local university library, find the oldest, meanest looking librarian, and ask him or her for some books and reference materials.
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Re: Do your research!

Post by Margo » August 18th, 2010, 10:58 am

steve wrote:Yeah, unless one is interested in cliches or conspiracy theories the internet is a useless research tool.
I think this is a little bit of an overstatement, and depends on the topic. I have found good info on some subjects, only to find nothing but junk on others. I think internet research is more useful for someone who has a research background and can tell the pop culture sources from the real academic or expert layman sources. And of course, just like college, the use of a single source is always risky. Checking multiple sources will help weed out 'dark legends' and BS.
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Re: Do your research!

Post by Hyaline » August 18th, 2010, 1:33 pm

Meghan wrote:So, I was reading this novel the other day (I won't mention it) and the story was filled with discrepancies. The story took place in the past, but the language did not match what it would have been at that time, and several historical details were horribly mistaken.
I definitely hear you--I write historical fiction and it takes so much time to research the details I'm unsure of. Me and the library--we're good friends. It makes me so frustrated to read works that don't seem to make an effort to get basics right--I can let some details go because I know how hard it is (and plenty of things are obscure knowledge anyway). But the big stuff--if you're writing about a fashionable woman in 1700, know what kinds of clothes she would have worn. If you're writing about a sea captain in 1800, know what stuff on the ship is called and how it's used. I see it as a responsibility to the past and to the readers--your book might be the only exposure some people have to a particular period or event, so you should do it the respect of treating it as accurately as possible. Plus you lose readers if they don't trust you because you get your facts wrong :)

I have to say, I've heard plenty of people--both writers and readers--for whom "modern" language is a deliberate choice. I don't prefer it in my reading and don't make the choice to incorporate it in my writing, but many people would prefer to read historicals in which the characters speak in easier, more modern dialogue.

Great topic--you're not alone :)

PS Sommer--I live in southern IN and it is gorgeous down here :) Glad you had a chance to visit!

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Re: Do your research!

Post by Matt Phillips » August 18th, 2010, 3:03 pm

I'm also writing a historical, and that happy medium between accurate period speech and language accessible to modern readers is a tough one. At the very least, I think authors writing in a historical setting need to make sure they avoid anachronisms and an obviously modern-sounding tone. But they shouldn't go to the other extreme of trying to copy period style absolutely. Even as recently as the 18th century, some English words had different meanings or connotations. Going further back, the thees and thous from about the 17th/early 18th century and earlier would be an immediate turn-off to modern readers, and pre-Elizabethan English would be nigh on unreadable.

Having done a lot of primary source reading for my project, I'm hoping that will be sufficient to adopt a voice evocative of the setting without having to try too hard to copy a period style. In revising I'll make sure I avoid anachronisms and too modern of a tone, sprinkling in period vocabulary and syntax here and there in moderation.

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Robin
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Re: Do your research!

Post by Robin » August 19th, 2010, 9:29 am

I wouldn't discount the Internet and as source completely, I've found travel forums quite useful if you cannot physically visit the place.
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airball
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Re: Do your research!

Post by airball » August 19th, 2010, 1:17 pm

Meghan wrote: The story took place in the past, but the language did not match what it would have been at that time, and several historical details were horribly mistaken.
These strike me as very different issues. In <i>Wolf Hall</i>, Hilary Mantel avoids anachronism, but she also does not try to use English in the way that the Tudors did. At the same time, she captures a great deal about the past through her understanding of the period and the characters. There is a scene in which Cromwell reads his Bible (I think) on All Saints Day, and the passage describing his sense that the dead were present around him captured the early modern mind more perfectly than any historian could ever hope to.
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Re: Do your research!

Post by Sommer Leigh » August 19th, 2010, 1:33 pm

Hyaline wrote:
PS Sommer--I live in southern IN and it is gorgeous down here :) Glad you had a chance to visit!

Oh my god your state is so beautiful. I spent all week mostly hiking around Hoosier National Forest, in particular the Hemlock Cliffs area (I spent my nights in Bloomington, also a lovely town!) The pictures I have are to die for. Walls of limestone! Trees with bark as white as snow! And it was so quiet. There's nothing like the quiet in that part of your state. I can't wait to come back.
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Re: Do your research!

Post by Meghan » August 19th, 2010, 11:56 pm

airball wrote:she also does not try to use English in the way that the Tudors did. At the same time, she captures a great deal about the past through her understanding of the period and the characters.
To be honest, I'm not sure if any of us can be 100% sure of the language used in the past and I don't necessarily mean that when we write in the past we must have the perfect vernacular, but there should be at least a basic knowledge of the rules. For example, when living in victorian England, two men would not refer to each other as 'Dawg.' (i've never actually seen this)

Maybe language isn't as important as having a knowledge of the time period and as airball proved, we can still believe we are reading a true depiction of the past as long as the discrepancies are hidden.

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Re: Do your research!

Post by sbs_mjc1 » August 20th, 2010, 2:12 am

Mike and I do obsessively detailed research, but when we took our story to people to critique (OL), we got quite a number of folks who thought various items were anachronistic or seemed improbably modern. I have no idea what to do about this.
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Re: Do your research!

Post by polymath » August 20th, 2010, 2:40 am

English dialects of the past are documented and pretty well known by linguists. Old English has a dialect that's still known, with many regional variations though. Same with Middle English. One of the factors marking the switch to Modern English was the Great Vowel Shift taking place in the later Fifteenth through early Eighteenth centuries. Middle English dialects aren't dead yet. I know of three communities in the U.S. where Middle English dialects survive somewhat, mostly the vowel sounds of Middle English. I live in one now, I lived nearby another years ago, and a speaking acquaintance grew up in the third. All were settled by rustic English immigrants during the later times of the Great Vowel Shift and remained mostly isolated enclaves until recent times.

A sample of Middle English dialect used hereabouts.
Out and about. An idiom meaning gone from home, abroad but not far away. Pronunced oat 'n a-boat.
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polymath
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Re: Do your research!

Post by polymath » August 20th, 2010, 3:16 am

sbs_mjc1 wrote:Mike and I do obsessively detailed research, but when we took our story to people to critique (OL), we got quite a number of folks who thought various items were anachronistic or seemed improbably modern. I have no idea what to do about this.
A narrative can have several relevant time periods' dialects and dictions. The setting depicted. The setting the narrative was written in. And the setting in which it's read. I've read narratives that aren't necessarily authentic to one or another. Past eras written in contemporary language. Contemporary narratives written in language from the past. And there's a gold mine of past classics of all their own times. Well-mannered dialect and diction were common for hundreds of years.

Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, 2004, takes place in early Nineteenth century Britain. Its dialect and diction are true to the setting. Narrative point of view too.

Brian Moore's Black Robe, 1985, takes place in Seventeenth century New France. It's written in a decidedly modern dialect and diction and narrative point of view completely out of place for the setting and the literary era, but it works because if it were written true to its setting it wouldn't be relatable by contemporary expectations and cultural coding conventions.
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Re: Do your research!

Post by Hyaline » August 20th, 2010, 11:16 am

Meghan wrote: To be honest, I'm not sure if any of us can be 100% sure of the language used in the past and I don't necessarily mean that when we write in the past we must have the perfect vernacular, but there should be at least a basic knowledge of the rules. For example, when living in victorian England, two men would not refer to each other as 'Dawg.' (i've never actually seen this)

Maybe language isn't as important as having a knowledge of the time period and as airball proved, we can still believe we are reading a true depiction of the past as long as the discrepancies are hidden.
Agreed--though we have their written conventions, we don't really know how people spoke to one another. You can see novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth century that the dialogue and the narrative aren't identical in how they use language, just as is the case for us today. And I'm sure that dialogue is refined even further from real conversations! I do like to see an author attempt to capture an essence of how people spoke and interacted--having an idea of how one would speak to others of various stations or different genders, appropriate body language...these things add a lot for me when I read historicals.

I suppose I just don't want to see modern people in historical clothes like actors offstage after a play--I want to see some attempt to bring the culture of the past to life, and that might mean some use of language. It's tricky, because historical fiction still needs to be approachable. But my favorites strike an excellent balance.

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