word craft


Research matters

Medieval OxfordWhen I begin to think of a story—a work of his­tor­i­cal fiction—I begin to acquire books about the sub­ject. Here my day-job of yore—a research librarian—helps me locate titles. More often than not, I get these books via the inter­net, where a host of sites guide me to the cheap­est copies. Sad­ly, if for­tu­itous­ly, most of these books are dis­cards from library collections.

Let it be under­stood that, quite often, I do not go for­ward with many of these ideas. Still, I have the plea­sure of learn­ing much that is curi­ous and inter­est­ing, if not exact­ly useful.

That said, when I do go on with a project, I have these rather arcane books on my shelves, and I use them. Just today, I was work­ing on a nov­el which is set, in small part, in Oxford, Eng­land, medieval Oxford. There is a scene in a tav­ern, an inn. Does it real­ly mat­ter than I know the name of a real inn, and a real street to go for­ward? Prob­a­bly not.

That said, when I pick up my copy of Medieval Oxford, A His­to­ry of the City, by Janet Coop­er, being “an extract from The Vic­to­ria His­to­ry of the Coun­ty of Oxford, Vol­ume IV” ( a dis­card of the Oxford­shire Abing­ton Library), not only do to I find the name of a real medieval tav­ern, and its pre­cise loca­tion, there is a descrip­tion of the place.

Will it mat­ter to the read­er that I have been able to go for­ward with real verisimil­i­tude? I don’t know. Nev­er­the­less, it mat­ters to me—not just because it is accurate—but accu­ra­cy gives me con­fi­dence as a writer, and that con­fi­dence enhances my writ­ing. More­over, that enhance­ment will, I am quite sure, enter­tain the read­er just a bit more.

The for­mu­la is sim­ple: do research + gain more con­fi­dence + write bet­ter = enter­tain more readers.

5 thoughts on “Research matters”

  1. It mat­ters, only because it shows in your writ­ing. And it lends authen­tic­i­ty, even if nobody knows or cares but you (and we librar­i­ans, who still see the val­ue in dis­cards and always want them to find the right home!).

  2. And that’s why I loved Crispin: the Cross of Lead. You avoid­ed a stereo­typ­i­cal view of the Mid­dle Ages. Instead, you ele­gant­ly weaved his­tor­i­cal­ly-accu­rate details about 14th cen­tu­ry vil­lage life into an action-packed sto­ry. Crispin is a good way of intro­duc­ing chil­dren to such events as the Peas­ants’ Revolt.

  3. Does this kind of exten­sive research mat­ter to your read­ers? It cer­tain­ly does to me! I sus­pect it is one of the many rea­sons many love your books.

  4. Does this mean a new book is in the works? I wish I could sit inside your mind and lis­ten to it in the fold. But I guess that’s what read­ing is, isn’t it? I’m very excited!

    Inci­den­tal­ly, isn’t it fun­ny what books are dis­card­ed from the library? Old books can be vast­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed. I have quite a col­lec­tion myself. Peo­ple think that because the Inter­net exists old books are not nec­es­sary, espe­cial­ly those con­tain­ing non fic­tion. The trou­ble with the Inter­net is that you must ini­ti­ate a search. The great thing about a book is the book ini­ti­ates the search for you. There’s a big difference.


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