Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reasearch is Funny

It can be odd, the things you find yourself having to research as a historical fiction author (or the things you just want to research, whethery they have a place in a manuscript or not – research can be a labyrinth of rabbit holes teeming with plot bunnies).  Reading up on pattern welded steel swordmaking, brickmaking and architecture, and horse breeding/horseshoes is one thing, but then you find yourself needing to answer the question of whether and what type of scissors may have existed in your period, and confounded as to what exactly such tools might have looked like in use – not as artifacts, but as a part of regimens of toilette long lost to history, because they were *not* historical, and not recorded.

I know that Clovis was one of the reges criniti, the Long-Haired Kings, and I know from grave goods that Franks and so-called barbarians (get a load of the Swabian knot) took meticulous care of their hair and hygeine, even if without suds and “product”.  What I don’t know is what the *ritual* looked like.  I feel safe in assuming the king had body slaves, that this was not self-administered primping such as I indulge in the morning at my pretty little vanity table.  Though there once were scenes of Clovis’ mother, Queen Basina, tending to his hair almost as if it were his power and ambition itself, those are gone – and I cannot say I know that such “service” and personal interaction would align with the real picture of a Frankish queen and the familial interactions of the time.  I used the time spent thus to develop the difficult relationship of queen and prince, mother and son, and to draw in broad strokes the character of a woman Clovis wants nothing more than to shed, yet whose influence upon him was at least as powerful – if not moreso – than  his father, Childeric.

It is possible that the court of the time was sophisticated and rarefied enough the idea of this kind of tending and touching would have been unthinkable.  Yet this sort of maternal “indoctrination” feels authentic to me in a way that, as an author, I just beg off further research and write the story – because, sooner or later, *that* is the point, and (as we have noted before) I am NOT a(n) historian.  This is the limit of my responsibility, and my writing is always couched in service to the story above authenticity.

This is not to say I want to have Theodoric nattering away, say, while getting a haircut and receiving dignitaries; or to portray childbirth with willful inaccuracy – which is where those damned bunnies start hopping, and I find my prodigious ass lodged in a burrow too small for my ambitions, and get stuck.

As one of the more irresistibly charming agents I’ve met along my journey so far has insisted, I need to have food in the kitchen and furniture in the rooms.  I also need to know when to stop describing every stick of it, and when the recipes are not required.

One of the truisms of historical fiction and other authors working with much research must keep in mind is that research is like an iceberg.  Of the mass of what we learn along the way, really only the smallest tip should show itself; the rest is just what we need to gain authority in a period or world we’re building, unseen by any but us as we build it.  “Your research is showing” is a dreadful reminder that “show, don’t tell” has limitations.

It may be this that creates the sort of odd dissonance (resonance) between what we look into and what we end up writing.  In a way, the tension can be interesting.  Mostly, it makes you giddy as a writer – what to do, where to go?  You kind of turn into a rabbit yourself, or at least The March Hare, a bit frayed, a bit at loose ends, learning and then having to be your own arbiter:  “What, of what I have learned, should I share?”

I think most of us simultaneously love this part – and hate its implications.  There can be so much inspiration, yet not all of it is part of The Story … and we are, all of us, in service to The Story …

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