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Research techniques

Readers often ask me how I go about my research, and comment that I must do massive amounts. Well yes, I do, but it is cumulative and much of it is fun and fascinating. It’s very seldom a chore. I thought I’d take this page to talk a little about the different aspects I bring together to help create a medieval world that I hope my characters would recognise at least a little. No historical novelist, no matter how much research they do is ever going to get everything right. I’ve made my own collection of errors and gaffs, but I do try my best and I am always aware of respecting the people and times about whom I write. I see my research as a braid of five interwoven strands consisting of:

Primary sources | Secondary sources | Visiting locations | Re-enactment | The Akashic record

PRIMARY SOURCES – Original documents, illustrations, artefacts and archaeological details from the period about which I’m writing – essential as base line for the stories and the mindsets of the characters. A list of the reference works I use can be found here.

SECONDARY SOURCES – These are mainly academic reference works written by experts in the field with the primary source material filtered through their eyes and opinions. There are also some coffee table books and good children’s books with plentiful illustrations. The academic side assists my understanding. The illustrations help to fire my imagination.

Right: Oxford Medieval Texts: Dialogus de Scaccario – The course of the Exchequer by Nigel Fitz Richard; and Constitutio Domus Regis – The Establishment of the Royal Household edited and by Charles Johnson

Elizabeth Chadwick on location
HANDS ON VISITS TO LOCATIONS – Wherever possible I visit the locations in my novels to walk the landscape, examine anything that remains, take photographs and buy the guidebooks. This is an invaluable part of the background to the writing process. It certainly proved its worth in the case of Shadows and Strongholds. There’s a particular castle window in that novel that is important to the story arc of Marion character. Originally, I wrote that window facing the courtyard. However, when I went to look at it in situ, it actually faced the ditch and thus the scene setting was totally wrong. Gulp! As soon as I got home, I rewrote the piece. Readers will know it when they come to it…

Of course one cannot visit every location, so then I have to rely on maps, guidebooks and the Internet. For example, much of The Falcons of Montabard is set in Middle Eastern warzones and I preferred to research these from a distance!

LIVING HISTORY – OR WALKING THE WALK – One October in the early 1990’s I was on a location visit to Nottingham Castle garnering atmosphere from a medieval pageant being held there. I saw a couple of Norman knights standing at the castle gates intimidating the tourist and was most impressed by their gear. A closer inspection revealed that the guys were wearing real mail shirts rather than knitted silver string and that their kit was authentic replica rather than bits pulled out of the dressing up box. As I got talking to them, they explained that they belonged to a Living History Society called Regia Anglorum that specialised in portraying the early Middle Ages as accurately as possible. They were often hired for documentary work for TV and they had a reputation for striving for accuracy. I realised that here was a resource that I just had to utilise. This was bringing the research off the two-dimensional page and putting it in the here and now in full 3D. It’s one thing to see a photograph of a 12thC cooking pot, the broken pieces glued back together; it’s one thing to see that pot behind glass in a museum, and it’s quite another to cook with an authentic replica – such as supplied by ‘Jim the Pot’ of Trinity Court Potteries. To hold a sword. To walk in replica medieval shoes up a spiral staircase to the battlements and know what it feels like. To look across a field, one’s vision constricted but concentrated by the eye slits of a late 12thC helm. To sail in a long ship. Where else could you get such hands on experience? I have been a member of Regia Anglorum for around 16 years now and what it contributes to my writing and my understanding of the period about which I write is inestimable.

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