Friday, January 18, 2013

Rapturous Research

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by Sean Pidgeon, a writer as well as a reference publisher for John Wiley & Sons.  Given his day job, it should be no surprise that he is much invested in literary research, but he was surprised to find that it had a formal name:  research rapture.  He did some online digging and formulated this definition:

…the delightful but dangerous condition of becoming repeatedly sidetracked in following intriguing threads of information, or constantly searching for one more elusive fact.

Sound familiar, writers? Pidgeon was talking primarily about writers of historical fiction, but I'm convinced it applies to any fiction, or at least to those writers of fiction who have a fondness for facts rather than pure invention.  I'm one of them.  Yes, I confess:  I am a research addict.

The Internet makes it far too easy—all those links, like breadcrumbs forming a trail to that one perfect fact that you really, really need for your work in progress. 

I'm still in the midst of writing the second book in my County Cork Mysteries. In it there's a murder at a manor (I swear I wrote the original version of this long before Downton Abbey premiered).  I'm writing about a real town, and I've seen the local manor—from the outside.  Now, this is not historical fiction, nor do I have to stick to "only the facts" about the place.  I don't expect to see the interior; I could, but currently it's a Catholic retreat house, and I daresay the interior in its current state would not fit well with my story.

It has not been difficult to find the history of the family that owned the place when they first enter into my story, in which the last descendant is still living there (not true in reality:  the last descendant died in 1983), going back to the 17th century.  This I derived from multiple websites, starting with that of the retreat house, and then wandering through sites that discuss Irish social history and others focused on architecture.

One of the most intriguing and relevant tidbits came from the Census of 1901 (also available online), which shows the details of the house that year.  For example, this was clearly the Big House of that townland:  where most residences in that townland had two windows in the front (a basis for valuation in those days), the Manor House had 17.  Where the other houses had mainly between six and 11 rooms, the Manor House had 25.

Equally interesting are the individuals listed in the Big House as of the census date.  There were three family members living there in 1901:  the widowed mother (the nominal Head of House) and her son and daughter, both unmarried.  All three belonged to the Church of Ireland (Protestant).  This family of three was attended by four staff:  a cook, a housemaid, a parlor maid, and a kitchen maid; all were Catholic. The cook and the kitchen maid spoke both Irish and English.  There was also a "Visitor" below stairs—a retired nurse from America. So there you have the sociological make-up of a family that belonged to "the gentry" of the day.  And that's the snapshot I needed for my book.

I went off on other tangents, of course.  For example:

--laws pertaining to ownership and registration of firearms in Ireland (strict)
--European Union regulations for establishments serving food (lots of forms to fill out)
--Laws pertaining to serving alcohol
--The number of surviving nunneries in County Cork (more than you might think).

Many of these diversion may result in no more than a line or two in the finished book—something like, "What about opening a restaurant?" "Forget it—too much paperwork." Others lead to questions that can best be directed to human beings rather than the Internet—things like, "how strict are you really about opening and closing hours?" (I asked—there's a lot of flexibility.)

Can readers tell if we can back up those throwaway comments with fact, or if we're just making it up as we go?

1 comment:

Sandra Parshall said...

I think the more you know, the more authentic your writing will be, down to the smallest details. Can't you always tell when a writer doesn't quite understand her/his topic? I become extremely annoyed when a writer makes huge errors of fact and his/her fans treat the errors as inconsequential.