If you're a writer, you are well acquainted with the need to bring authenticity to your writing. As a reader, you surely want that quality as well. Anyone deciding whether to invest in an author's work needs some assurance they'll be taken to a place they couldn't otherwise go. Whether it's a Texas BBQ cookbook, a sci-fi space opera, a classical murder mystery, or a historical fiction set in 15th-century Romania, just about every reader is banking on the author knowing more about these things than they do. Or at the very least, that the topics and subjects will be represented true to form, and ideally with a fresh perspective.
But do you need to have been a sailor aboard a tall ship to write compelling stories about pirates? Should you have spent years under a swordmaster studying the art of combat in order to lay out a gripping duel? For each of us, the answer will be different, of course. Some love to swim in the details, finding a certain joy in describing the archer's poise, the cant of the bow, the anchor point at the corner of the mouth, the mystical flight path of the arrow. Others prefer to just brush the surface with such details and focus on the drama unfolding beneath. The choice, of course, is yours. But should you choose to delve deeper into the particulars of a certain topic, there are numerous ways to do so. And, I might add, they can be both enriching to you and your readers, and not necessarily require a burdensome commitment of time or money to achieve.
Whether it's giving life to a character's walk through a medieval bazaar, or adding believability to an encounter with a medieval vintner, each comes with a challenge! At times, I admit to a tiny bit of neurosis in this area. If I had a nickel for every time I asked myself, "But what if some really clever reader comes along and finds flaws in my creation?" I'd never need to sell a single book!
I suppose it's a risk we all have to take. We write our stories, we add as much detail and authenticity as we can, given our own experiences and knowledge, and we do research to fill the gaps. But the sad fact is there will always be someone more intimately familiar with sword-fighting or mapmaking, you pick the topic, who might scoff. The question is what kind of research is the right kind? And will it pass the ultimate test when we pull the trigger and release our babies into the big bad world of readers?
Enter the world of a writer's R&R! For most, it means "rest and relaxation". But for writers, I assert it should more accurately be termed, "recharge and research"!
Case in point, in our ongoing Storm's Rising series, our heroes frequently travel aboard sailing ships to cross the seas in pursuit of the next objective in their quest. The younger main characters have zero nautical experience, so our goal was to write these scenes from their perspective, showcasing the unique and charming nomenclature used aboard sailing vessels, and the incredibly complex art of sailing itself.
If you know anything about sailing, you know very little is as straightforward as it seems. Ropes aren't called ropes, for instance, unless they are merely coiled up in the cargo hold, with no purpose assigned to them. Once they have a purpose, they are often called 'lines.' But it doesn't stop there! If their purpose is to hold something permanently in place, they are called 'braces' or 'stays'. If they are meant to raise or lower a yard (and thus raise or lower a sail) they are called 'halyards.' If they are meant to adjust the angle of the yards (and thus the angle of a sail) they are called 'sheets'. And the list goes on and on and on!
Much of this can be learned through diligent internet research. Finding reputable sources and spending a few hours (or days) watching educational videos, studying diagrams of sailing ships, and so forth, will fill much of the gaps in your knowledge. You'll soon know a fife rail from a dog rail, a quarterdeck from a poop deck, and a flying jib from a spanker! But putting it all together, and peppering your description of scenes taking place aboard such a ship from the perspective of a land-lubber, is another matter.
In this particular case, R&R for us came in the form of charting a short educational cruise aboard the working/teaching vessel, the Californian, out of San Diego Harbor. It was a 4-hour cruise, during which we were both passengers and students in the art of sailing the historical topsail schooner. We had all the crew and captain available to us throughout the tour, we asked all the questions we possibly could, took extensive photos and notes, and even got to join the crew in raising the mainsail! It's work, let me tell you!
The result was that we walked away from the experience greatly enriched. We had not only read and learned the components of a sailing ship, we had scratched deeper than that. We had been aboard one! We had walked the decks, heard the commands of the first mate, felt the salt breeze stir in our hair and ears, felt the incredible tug of the wind as it first caught the mainsail and compelled the ship forward! Those things you can never get from mere online study. Not only that, though, because of our interest in authenticity, we were given access to an online resource normally reserved for the crew of the Californian alone: the online Crew Manual! It details all the parts and pieces and terminology of the ship, as well as all the command sequences for the vast variety of tasks and maneuvers the ship might undertake. Talk about authenticity! If this interests you, check out the Maritime Museum of San Diego's website.
In another segment of our stories, we found ourselves in a subterranean boiler room, where ingenious craftsmen devised a way to draw in water from a nearby river to provide the nobles and royal family above with heat and hot water. Neither of us had ever even seen an ancient coal-fired boiler furnace, much less had any experience operating one. But there are plenty of earthly equivalents to draw from, and so it was to the internet we went for our knowledge. With a little care and persistence we came across a few older models of boiler, and were able to learn all the components and maintenance routines required. In the end, this research paid off well, as we were able to paint sufficiently compelling images of what existence would be like for workmen assigned to the task.
Another option for writers is, of course, to draw upon our own life experiences for the authenticity we seek. Write what you know, right? As we've mentioned in previous blogs, I (Jason) have had a long and rewarding career in the California prison system, and have had the opportunity to extensively tour nearly all of the institutions in the state. This experience, especially that gained from the older institutions such as San Quentin and Folsom, translated quite well into scenes taking place in jails such as the Central Keep of Granite Hedge. To show you what I mean, here's a short excerpt from The Call:
A few steps later the row of cells was broken by a narrow corridor to the right, ending at a heavy door. Lendil could only assume this corridor opened onto the central courtyard. To the left was another set of the strange barred grates set into the wall, and ahead more cells and the guard post.
A shadow moved beneath the door. Hurrying them down the side corridor, Lendil peered cautiously around the corner. The shadow resolved, and the door swung open, bathing the hallway in soft golden light. A guard carrying a lantern stepped out into the hall, stretched, and turned to look back into the room.
“Countin’ your tier again, am I?”
An indistinct voice mumbled something in response from within the room. It did not sound complimentary.
“Right. Lazy bastard. Wot are you gonna do if I don’ show up one o’these nights?”
"You’ll show up,” the second voice insisted.
"Maybe I won’t, just so I’ll know your blo’ed ass ‘ad to do somefin’ for a change.”
“I’ll damn well tell some other youngster to do it! S-H-I-P!”
“Well ‘at’s just mean, innit? You knows I can’t spell, so how’s I—"
“Seniority…has…its…privileges!” the voice inside yelled belligerently.
The guard spit and disappeared around the corner.
The beauty of this scene is that it draws on my own experience as a rookie correctional officer (or "guard"), working graveyard shifts and having to deal with the reality that there are some guards who lean rather too heavily on their own seniority, shirking their own responsibilities onto others. Again, it's an experience few readers will have had in life, though they'll have little trouble imagining what it must be like. And those who have worked graveyards in a prison will knowingly smile along with the telling.
Doubtless, you'll have noted the distinct broken Cockney in the dialogue above, which brings in yet another element of our R&R: the study of regional dialect! In the style of many classical fantasies, we felt the wide variety of regional dialects found throughout the United Kingdom and Northern Europe as a whole add perfectly to the setting of our story. Spoken dialects such as cockney, RP, Estuary English, Northern Irish, Brummie, Scottish, and many others, are something I have long had a love for, and oft practiced myself, mostly as an entertaining hobby. In writing, however, it was important to show each character using terminology and pronunciation of certain words in a way that would showcase their own particular manner of speech.
Was I concerned that those intimately familiar with such dialects might find my portrayal of them inaccurate? Of course I was, and still am! But rather than let that stop me, I took a side-quest into the land of YouTube University, where a bevy of kind souls have taken the time to break down what constitutes a Cockney dialect, or Glasgow Scottish, with tips and tricks on how to sound authentic. Curated for just such curious souls as me. Had I the time and resources, I would much rather have journeyed to the UK and spent a year traveling from region to region, mingling among the people in common places and taking diligent notes as I went. And while such a journey might be in my future, Lord willing, I now have a very reasonable assurance that the majority of readers will enjoy what they read, and hopefully someday hear in the audiobook narrations!
There are numerous other examples of writer's R&R I could mention here, drawn from our own experiences. The fermentation of ales and meads that make frequent appearances in our story certainly comes from my own love of the craft, which I have enjoyed for nearly 30 years. In fact, our production tours of breweries and wineries have yielded some wonderful little storytelling details! The same might be said about the occasional feast scene, for we Bishops love our feasts! But one more that deserves a closer look is that of medieval craft.
Doing things ourselves has always been a driving force in our family. But more often than not, when we have a choice of whether to use modern methods or those of antiquity, we enjoy veering toward the old-world methods. And there are few places better than renaissance festivals and SCA reenactments to get your feet wet in a variety of possible arts.
While many folks enjoy such faires for their marketplace atmosphere of levity and good food and drink, we take particular joy in meeting the artisans themselves and getting into the particulars of their crafts. We have met shipwrights, metalsmiths, weaponsmiths and armorers, leatherworkers, jewelers who pour their own metals into hand-carved moulds, bowyers who craft their own yew bows and hand-fletched arrows, clothiers, chandlers, and so much more! If there's a craft you're interested in, there's a great likelihood of finding an artisan who would be tickled to share their love of it with you. And the cost? Very, very little.
Whether you're a writer struggling with authenticity issues like we do, or merely a lover of learning, we encourage you to get a little more R&R in your life. Rest and relaxation, certainly; but when it comes with a new experience to lean into, to learn from, and to share that experience in some way with others, that can take R&R to a whole new level. So get out there! Learn something new, traveler! And then come back and tell us of your journeys! We'll be here, sitting around a hand-made feast table, enjoying a mug of homebrewed ale, with plenty to share.
What enriching research have you done in your writings, or just in general? Let us know! Feel free to post them, either in the comments beneath the blog itself or in whatever forum you find it posted. If you just have feedback, questions, or comments on this article or any of our others, share them, too!
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Happy adventures, travelers!
Jason and Rose Bishop
Creators at Legends of Cyrradon