Six impossible things

Specific Research

A while back, I had an inquiry from a reader regarding research, specifically asking how I went about researching historical slang and stage magic. I decided I’d answer it here instead of in email, because while the specific subjects are fairly easy to address, there are some general questions that I think would be of interest to people as well.

Historical slang from the last three or four hundred years is not terribly difficult to find out about. There are quite a few dictionaries that deal specifically with slang. Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English has been around since the mid-1930’s; there’s also the Historical Dictionary of Slang, and several similar titles, like The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, that focus primarily on British (as opposed to American) slang. The time-consuming part is browsing through them in hopes of finding a word that means what you want – they aren’t reverse dictionaries.

Reading letters, novels, and especially plays that were written at the time you’re writing is a good way to find useful period idioms, euphemisms, slang, and/or specific changes in grammar and vocabulary. Reading modern historical fiction set in the time period you’re writing is a bit dicey – it’s often difficult to be sure that the author did his/her research (and there’s always the temptation to make something up), but they can be a reasonable shortcut to finding words which you can then check out in your historical dictionary to make sure they really are period. (The Oxford English Dictionary is exceptionally useful in this regard because it is not only more comprehensive than anything else, it gives references with dates for the earliest usage of a word in each meaning.)

Stage magic is another thing that’s not that difficult to find books about. A lot of basic sleight-of-hand tricks have been around for a really long time, and there are plenty of books about the history of sleight-of-hand, famous stage magicians, and how the tricks are done, as well as how-to books for those who want to learn a few tricks (or just find out how stage magicians perform some of their famous illusions, like sawing the lady in half).

In other words, an awful lot of the research that looks like it should be tricky and difficult is actually much easier than it looks.

There are really two sorts of research that writers do: general and specific. It’s usually most effective to start with general reading, whether you’re writing historical fiction or a modern murder mystery. An overview of the particular time and place (Elizabethan England, Heian Japan, modern-day Australia, etc.) or a particular topic (horses, guns, poisons, military strategy, accidental injuries) gives you some idea what you’ll need to know and where to go looking for it. Starting with a general overview also provides you with background and terminology that is a great help when you move on to specifics.

When I’m researching a particular period, I usually start with books like A Social History of England or The World of Jane Austen. I read at least three or four of these overviews before I move into the next phase, in which I continue reading general histories but start adding biographies. I pick the biographies according to what I know about the book I’m going to write: for the Mairelon books, I read biographies of Wellington and the Prince Regent; for the Kate and Cecy books, I read more of those, plus ones about Beau Brummel and Lady Caroline Lamb, and a charmingly gossipy period autobiography I found in a used bin, titled Diary of a Spinster Lady. For the Frontier Magic series, I started with books about the most recent Ice Age in North America and the geology of the continent, then moved on to the few titles about pre-Columbus America; I followed up with a bunch of biographies and autobiographies of settlers on the Great Plains, plus the journals of Lewis and Clark.

By the time I finish all that, I usually have a stack of additional titles that look interesting and a list of things I want to know but haven’t found yet, like the period slang references mentioned above. Sometimes the things I know I’m missing are very specific – I spent several hours at the library hunting up a street map of London in the eighteen-teens for the Mairelon books, and another hour or so tracking down descriptions of early railroad journeys for Thirteenth Child.

It is often extremely useful to expand one’s research horizons beyond what is initially obvious. For instance, there are some great books about the construction of historical costumes that are written for people designing costumes for plays, which you can track down in the theater section, there are lots of books about “the world of Famous Author X (Shakespeare, Pepys, Jane Austen, Keats)” under literary criticism, and there are books about the design of period furniture under antique collecting and about the architecture of historical buildings under architecture.

During the writing process, I usually accumulate things to double-check – descriptions, distances, timing of events – and I spend a day or two looking them up and fixing them every couple of chapters (usually because I’m temporarily stuck and want to do something productive). The worst ones are the ones I sort of vaguely remember reading about, but can’t quite recall where – it takes forever to track them down.

Obviously, a book with a real-world setting, whether historical or modern, will usually require a lot more research than one where the author is making up the background from whole cloth. The interesting thing is that it’s often present day settings that the writer has to be most careful about, especially if they’ve never lived in a place where they’ve set a story. One has to be extra-careful, because there are a lot of people who have lived there, and who will catch you if you get things wrong.

There are also a number of specific topics – horses, guns, period dress, ships – each of which has a passionate and vocal following of folks who have apparently memorized every detail of their chosen obsession down through history. If you can find one of these folks, they are invaluable research references; on the down side, if you make an error in the size of a screw, they will let you (and everyone else) know about it. It is therefore well worth the time to put in a bit of extra research in these areas (and on others that attract ardent hobbyists), and to find a knowledgeable person to vet the manuscript in those areas if you yourself do not happen to share that passion beyond what you need to know for the story.

8 Comments
  1. Slang Through the Ages by Jonathon Green is a really cool book (picked up a copy at my University Library) because it is a reverse dictionary, where you look up Money or Sex and then find the slang words referring to those things, their period of use and their uses. Tamora Pierce mentioned she used it and I had to go and dig it up. Even if you’re not researching, it’s a pretty hilarious read.

  2. a book with a real-world setting, whether historical or modern, will usually require a lot more research than one where the author is making up the background from whole cloth

    I find it the opposite. A historical setting has usually been examined and described by more than one someone and all you need to do is work your way through the reference books.

    When you make up a world, it has to be plausible and you’re forever balancing between what resources your world has and what your characters would have made of them. And some of those choices are logical (if you have timber and clay you are likely to get timberframe buildings, but moments later you’re thinking about towns and fire risks and local stone and building techniques and not only do you not have the ability to simply look things up on a geological map, you need to make sure that the landscape your character walks through matches the inn he’ll rest in at the end of the day.

    And *then* you need to ask what your culture would have made of the resources and whether their magic or religion or social customs would make a difference. (When you get the whole household and all their dependants eating together, you need a large central room they all fit into, and then you need the timber to construct such houses and the requisite tables. Etc etc.)

    From where I’m sitting, that looks like more work. I’m lucky that I have a lot of that knowledge at hand, but there’s a lot of thinking about consequences involved. And of course you can just borrow a historical region, but to me, that feels like a cheap way out, because the historical setting evolved _in history_ and doesn’t take well to being grafted upon a fantasy setting. Most of them don’t take and wither away.

  3. Great advice. It’s also useful to use the less is more concept in some cases, because it’s the extra details that will trip you up. Writers should also take care to use just enough background research to season the story. Think of salt and pepper. A sprinkle is sufficient.

  4. I’ve never tried writing a book with slang, because I know it would be difficult for me at this point with my writing ability. You did a great job of that with the Mairelon books. Her slang cracked me up. I remember something about polishing the King’s iron with their eyebrows being particularly funny to me 🙂

    Right now I’m looking into period dresses, since I want to borrow some specific dress styles for my own fantasy world. It’s turning out to be more interesting than I thought it would be.

  5. The interesting thing is that it’s often present day settings that the writer has to be most careful about,

    So, so painfully true!

    I notice you left out the part about hours or even days being sucked away as you wander off on some only tangentially-related but *utterly fascinating* subject. Or do you have some magical means of avoiding that? 😉

  6. I write in a fantasy world of my creation, but I find I do a fair amount of research. One of the characters in my first novel was learning to be an herbalist, so I ended up reading on aromatherapy (which seemed to be closest to what she was doing). I’m sure I’ll continue with similar research when a character is doing something about which I don’t know enough.

    The other issue is just the one described by green_knight. Everything in a world seems to be connected to everything else. How can I be sure my creation hangs together? What I tend to do is compare the bit I’m wondering about to a bit in our real world that is similar. (I’ve researched the history of mining, as well as that of medicine and other topics.) And then I work out what is different and how the differences would make certain parts of my fantasy bit different. (Not sure I’m making sense.) And I “translate,” since the words used by my fantasy cultures tend to be different from modern terms.

    No complaints from my readers thus far, but I’m new at this! I suspect that if a certified aromatherapist ever happens to read Troll-magic, she’ll find errors!

  7. I was just revisiting this post because my editor suggested looking into more historical language. One trick — the 1811 dictionary of the vulgar tongue is on project gutenberg, and you can kind of do a reverse dictionary by using the find function on an electronic copy.

  8. That dictionary is rather longer than I expected. And here I thought that Ms. Wrede was a bit heavy on the slang in the Mairelon stories. She could have larded it on even more.

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