Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Research and Google

Hooray for Tim Berners-Lee because his invention - the internet - must be the best research tool ever for writers. Today, for instance, I was writing away, describing an ancient, sagging roof when I suddenly realised that I didn’t know whether it was sagging on to its beams or its rafters. Quick trip to Google-land and I knew more than I ever needed to about the difference.
It’s rafters, by the way.

I did the bulk of the research for Testament nine or ten years ago and you wouldn’t believe how much less information was on the net in those days. When I wanted to find out about medieval proofs of age, or the exact beliefs of the Lollards, I had to go and find a book which would tell me. And finding the relevant kind of books took AGES. Now, although every search will bring up a ton (probably actually would be a ton in reality if you printed it all out) of useless references, if you’re canny about the search terms you put in you can usually find some relevant stuff pretty quickly. And Google-hounds like me get ever so savvy about looking at a site or a page and working out within a couple of seconds whether it’s going to be any use or not. You can also quick-search the page you’ve come to for all your relevant search-terms using Ctrl-F and, if half of them aren’t there, bye-bye page.

As my current novel is set in the area I grew up in, I’ve discovered a lot of history I didn’t know when I lived there. My home town, Newcastle Emlyn, has a fantastic website as does the local history society, Hanes Emlyn. So I have not had to go to Aberystwyth University or any other University of Wales library, to trawl through their archives looking for information about, for instance, the Newcastle Emlyn workhouse. Everything I need is on the Hanes Emlyn site, including the name of the Master in the relevant period and census material for each decade of the workhouse’s eighty-odd-year history. Amazing!

Old maps, sadly, seem not to lend themselves to being scanned and put up on the internet and, during the writing of certain bits of this book, I have spent ludicrous tracts of time comparing place-names which occur in early nineteenth-century records with contemporary names and trying to work out whether they are referring to the same place. Sometimes, the places referred to seem to have vanished without trace; or place-names have changed their spelling, from an Anglicised version back to a more authentic Welsh rendition. At other times names have been used which don’t seem to relate to anything. The workhouse in question appears in a 1920s photograph, for instance, as Voelallt Castle which it never was!

I must confess, it was much easier writing a historical novel which was set in a city which has never existed. Salster, the city I invented for Testament, is situated roughly geographically where Canterbury is but bears little resemblance to historical Canterbury. (Though there are some similarities, I’ll be interested if those who read the book and know Canterbury well spot the references!)

I deliberately chose to write about a fictitious city so as not to give myself too hard a time with research. I knew I’d have enough to do finding out about the professions, religions, eating habits, dress etc etc of my characters’ world without having to place them somewhere which really existed. There are a lot of people out there who love it when authors get things wrong and delight in writing to them and saying ‘there wasn’t a White Horse lane in Oxford in 1352’ or ‘the church you mention in chapter 32 wasn’t built until half a century later’. I can do without that sort of hassle.

So why set the current book in a real time and place? Because I’ve always been fascinated by the Rebecca Riots – a sudden outbreak of nocturnal activity in my home area in the 1840s which mostly concentrated on destroying tollgates but which had some pretty interesting off-shoots. But that’s a post for another time…

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