Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Research Visits: Are They Important?

I am in the middle of writing my first historical fiction book, the working title of which is: The Touching of Stones. 

Initially I saw it as a trilogy, though it may possibly turn into a saga, as I have an ongoing idea of where my story will go. and for this reason I feel it is important for me to visit the places that I am writing about. I also think that even if it wasn't my first foray into historical fiction, I would still need to visit the places that I will be writing about. 

I visited Edinburgh in May to research St. Giles' Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel, and John Knox House. I felt it was important to visit these places to obtain some idea of their history first hand, and to soak up the atmosphere too. In all of these places the history was, and is, palpable, and I wasn't disappointed either. The visit added much to my Work in Progress. Without the visit I don't think that I could have placed my characters securely within the story.

This begs the question: How important is it to visit the places that will be in your story?

I have read, on Facebook, that some authors include places in their novels that they have not visited. All their information having been gleaned from books, or the internet and still create the atmosphere that is needed. I am lucky inasmuch as I am able to visit Scotland, but if my novel had been set in Australia, or New Zealand, then I would be able to go, but find it a little difficult, I think. It would be better to rely on information gathered from books and DVDs, and the like, not to mention much cheaper!

Having said all that, taking a research trip gives the mind the opportunity to concentrate more fully on the writing process, I think. When I was in Edinburgh in May I wrote more freely, not being hindered by the normal run of the day. Plus being in the place in which you are writing helps enormously. Well, it certainly helped me, and I know that we are all different.

So, I went back again on 7th November. This time I stayed for a week. Four days in Stirling and three days in Edinburgh. It was a real boon. When I was in Stirling, I visited the castle, The Wallace Monument, Stirling Bridge, and The Robert the Bruce statue and visitor centre. The visitor centre was very helpful. They have a weapons handling room. This is where I really appreciated the weight of the mail, the coif, the helmet, the sword, all of it. It gave me a real sense of the power that the knights had, the stamina, and the weakness if pulled from their horse. Once on the ground, they were practically helpless because of the shear weight of that which they wore.

In Edinburgh I was lucky enough to come across some stone masons at St. Giles' Cathedral. They were engraving the name of the cathedral in the stone: St. Giles' Cathedral. There will always be controversy over whether St. Giles' is a Kirk or a Cathedral to the people of Scotland, In St. Giles' Parish Profile they refer to it as: St. Giles' Cathedral, The High Kirk of Edinburgh. The controversy continues. 

The stone masons had taken two years going through different procedures with the authorities in order to be able to engrave St. Giles' Cathedral into the stone in front of the main entrance. 

They had started the previous day sketching out the letters, measuring them, to get them equidistant to each other. On the day that I first came across them at around 13.30, they had been at work since 08.00 that day, and had already achieved the full work, but were doing finishing touches ready for the next day. This is when they painted the lettering a beautiful dark red, made from natural minerals mixed with a spirit. The idea was for the lettering to stand out from afar. At first I thought it a shame to paint them at all, but on reflection, I think I have to agree that it does look so much more stylish; it has a certain permanence.

As my WIP is fundamentally about a family of stone masons whose lives get caught up in the politics of the Scottish War of Independence, among other events through time, then I felt it most fortuitous to come across these wonderful people in the execution of their work. I visited them on two consecutive days to view how the work was coming along. As you can see by my pictures, for which I have their permission to show, their work is splendid in every detail. The weather was bitterly cold, a face-numbing cold, and they sat there cheerfully carrying out their work. Although I have had a continuing interest in stone masonry for some years, I learned a lot from them, which will be a great help in my writing.

My visit to Stirling Castle, The Wallace Monument, and The Robert the Bruce Centre was extremely helpful, and I am really glad that I went to all three places. The castle was extraordinary, and I spent most of the day there. It was captivating, the architecture, the furniture, the tapestries.... marvellous. I had an audio-guide, so that I could just take my time in each part of the castle, and listen at my leisure, depending on where I was in the castle. I took many photos, thankfully these were not prohibited, as in The Writers' Museum, which I visited whilst in Edinburgh.

One of the guides

Beautifully crafted furniture

Replica wall tapestries
each one taking longer than two years to complete

View of The Wallace Monument from Stirling Castle
A detail from The Wallace Monument - William Wallace
Robert the Bruce at the
Bannockburn Heritage Centre
I knew it was large, but it is enormous!
For myself, and I can only talk of my own experiences, the visit to the Bannockburn Heritage Centre was one of the most important visits I made. An afternoon well spent.

Edinburgh Castle, missed the first time in May, was a totally different experience, being a working castle. I stayed there for about three hours, and tried to imagine how it was back in the day. Not much different to how it is now, I imagine. The history, as with Stirling Castle, is palpable. I sat on a bench, shut my eyes, and just listened. When I had managed to edit out all the nations that were wondering around, I imagined how it would have been. It is a formidable place, I also experienced the two minute silence for Armistice Day here. It started with a gun salute, and finished with a gun salute. The intervening two minutes silence was extraordinary.... there was a crow hopping around my feet pecking at crumbs, another came and squabbled for them, a fluttering of wings, cawing, and then silence. The second gun discharged, and the birds rose momentarily, and settled back to scavenging, and the hubbub of the people restarted, rising incrementally as each group resumed their tour.

Two hours later it was the One o'clock Gun. This time I was no more than 20 feet away, and when it went off, well, you can imagine, it was deafening. Difficult to know which was the louder though, the gun or the teenage girls screaming and laughing straight afterwards.

So, to answer my question at the top of this blog; How important is it to visit the places that will be in your story? I would have to answer yes, it's very important to visit those places, if it is at all possible.

All in all, my visit to Scotland was a complete success, what it has left me with, however, is writers' block. I have so much information which I am trying to put into some order, that my writerly mind has quite simply checked out, and my 'organising the information' mind has taken over. Very frustrating!

I've had many suggestions from fellow writers on Facebook, after I had asked how others cope with writers' block, and I am on my way to trying them one by one. I have no doubt that once the muse has recovered from her holiday, I will be off to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries again, and, yes, I will most definitely be sometime, the muse willing!

You can find me on these links:

My book Future Confronted, which has been awarded a BRAG Medallion, can be bought in paperback from CreateSpace and as a Kindle from amazon

1 comment:

  1. I agree. I always try to visit the places I mention wherever possible, even if it is only to see the lie of the land, the nearness of rivers and hills or the perspective of defenders or attackers. This last 18 months I have walked the battlements and passages of more castles than I have in 40 years. Just knowing the detail helps write the story even if it is not directly referred to on the page, and hopefully, it should come through in the mind of the reader as they read the story.