Research: spiritual and sneaky

Bestselling author James Patterson says, with the vast availability of content on the Internet today there are “no excuses” for not doing research when writing a novel. And I say, why would you bother writing without it?

I cannot see the thrill of writing pure fantasy that comes only from my own head, without any anchor or reference to real life. For me, writing is a learning experience, and the thrill of finding something through research also is my inspiration. In historical fiction it is critical, and is the best part of the writing process. I become a detective in finding minute bits of information hardly anyone cares about, and then a weaver, binding it into the story to create a rich fabric. The process is nothing less than magical, and the bonus is that the reader also learns something new but hardly even notices it.

Redwing_BlackbirdDoing the research and then sharing it also can (and should) be a spiritual experience.

Years ago I had the honor to hear Father Noel Burtenshaw speak on spirituality at an event on St. Simons Island, Georgia. He’d been fascinated by seeing the redwing blackbirds in the marsh grass on his way across the bridge, this little black bird with a beautiful bit of red on its wings. Being a man of religion, he immediately thanked God for the wonder of such a creature. Then he turned to his wife.

“Did you see the redwing blackbird?” he said, thereby sharing the experience with her.

And then for the audience, he made the sign of the cross by lifting his hand to the sky (thanking God) and then extending it to his side (sharing with his wife in the car beside him).

Discovering something new, appreciating things in the world, and then sharing them with others is a spiritual act.

This week I was thrilled to stumble across something new in my research. It was the “1641 Depositions” from Trinity College Library in Dublin. I was so excited! There are 8,000 depositions from landowners and rebels all over Ireland giving testimony about the causes and events starting the Irish rebellion against Protestant English in the year 1641. I was grateful for it, because it informs my work in new ways. Immediately I shared this with my husband. He returned a blank look, and somewhat sad eyes, as if to say, “you poor crazy person.”

But I know the spiritual joy I will feel as writer, weaving these tidbits into my prose, adding authenticity to my story, and then sharing them by slipping them stealthily into sentences for the readers. It is fun to be both spiritual and sneaky.

Heh heh heh.

SharavogueCoverEmbark on your own sneaky Irish adventure by reading Sharavogue, winner of the Royal Palm Literary Award for historical fiction. Available from online booksellers:

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Chaos in Ham House

Last night my sister Daphne and I watched the movie, A Little Chaos, with Kate Winslet as Sabine, a 17th century landscape architect, and Alan Rickman as King Louis XIV. It was rather a lovely fiction about a the building of an outdoor ballroom at Versailles Palace (apparently the ballroom was real, but the screenplay was TMU: totally made up.)

In addition to enjoying just about anything set in the 17th century, we were thrilled to see familiar floors, archways, hallways and yes, the magnificent stairway we had seen when we visited Ham House last fall. This house and garden are part of the National Trust located just about 10 miles from London at Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey.

IMG_1184Ham House is a beautiful place, and I could not get enough of it, literally. Before visiting London I had corresponded with Lucy Worsley, a brilliant person who had recommended Ham as an excellent experience of a 17th century manor house. I had looked it up and thought I had all the details right, my two sisters and I took the train, but when we arrived at Richmond we got caught in a rain shower and ducked into a pub for a while. I thought we still had plenty of time because the place wouldn’t close until 5 pm, and we arrived before 3.

And our arrival was heroic, because my sister Gayle had worn her high-heeled boots that day. She swore they were comfortable to walk in, but we had about 1.5 miles to walk from Richmond, on a dirt path. It was a gorgeous day along the river, but poor Gayle could hardly enjoy it. And when we arrived for our tickets, the agent told us in fact we were late, because the shop would be open until 5 pm, but sorry, the house was closing at 3 pm.

She took pity on us (must have seen three very distressed faces) and said we could just take a quick run through if we would hurry. We did! The floors, the walls, the green closet, the fabulous library, the IMG_1186
gallery, the kitchen and so on. And then the chapel. And the magnificent carved staircase.

Thank goodness when they escorted us from the house I bought the books from their store, because when I saw certain scenes in the movie, particularly the house where landscaper Monsieur André Le Nôtre lived with his very naughty wife, I knew we had been there. The same floors, the same corridors, the arches, the front entry and gate. And the unmistakable balustrade carved with trophies of arms, with carved baskets of flowers on the newels.

Why did they use a house outside of London when the movie is set outside of Paris? My guess is because it was probably less expensive, and also because the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale lavishly decorated the house to show their high position in rich 17th century society.

IMG_1190I may be whining a bit here, as I wished to linger a while in the halls at Ham House, and absorb the feel of it, maybe see if a ghost or two might tap me on the shoulder. But alas, we had to leave. My poor sister could barely walk back to Richmond, but the Clark’s Shoe Store did benefit because she could not go another step in those boots and bought a lovely pair of patent leather flats. I wonder, if we had been shopping the in the 17th century, would they have been satin slippers instead?

The movie was interesting, mildly entertaining, but lovely for the cast (who does not love Alan Rickman?), the costumes and, of course, the wonderful settings. My only criticism would be that poor Kate’s wardrobe was drab by Louis XIV standards, and her hair was just as messy when she was going to court as when she was working in the garden. Disappointing. But it was truly a thrill to see on the screen the wonderful place we visited, and remember setting foot on those stairs.

SharavogueCoverHam House also serves as the model for a location in my upcoming prequel to Sharavogue, working title Glencurragh. Read Sharavogue and follow this blog for information on new books coming soon. Sharavogue is available on amazon.com, barnes&noble, iTunes for iPad, or Google books.