How much is enough?

I refer, of course, to the age-old question:  How much research is enough?  How much do I do?

The answer is equally inexact:  I never stop. 

For the past weeks, I’ve been researching–and this is above and beyond everything I already know and am researching about the politics, society and military matters of a place–a small city in Austria. 

So what do I look for? 

Spatial awareness is always vital, I find.  I like street maps dating to within a decade or so of the date I’m writing about, so I can work out the exact route my character(s) would have taken.  I like etchings and plates too, coloured or not doesn’t much matter.  These can give a sense of the flora of a place, the texture of the buildings, how tall they were, what kinds of roofs they had, what kinds of windows and doors. 

Were there mews, or arches from the street to the rear stables?  I like to know the local building materials, the local architectural quirks, how they built their roads, what the planting season was and what they were likely to be growing. 

I read journals too that will give me details about modes of transport, how long journeys took, what the roads and inns were like, what the weather was and how they coped or didn’t cope with it.   

Then I need the surrounding events:   Were there any significant fires in the city?  What were the local employment figures?  The local industries?  Had the town or village survived any recent trauma, like a battle, nearby?  How would this have marked the place?  Had the place been under siege, were there cannon balls or musket balls lodged in the fabric of the buildings? 

And it goes from there…there are always portraits, which can tell you a great deal.  For England, there are watercolours of many interiors–this was a popular pastime in the early 19th century and so we can see exactly how they laid out their rooms, the colours they chose, the fabrics, everything. 

And of course, I pick the brains of anyone who has lived in a place, or travelled there…I ask endless questions.  And I listen.

Then, an hour or two spent with an architectural dictionary is always time well used…it allows me to write of a thing accurately. 

And so, how much is enough?  However much will allow me to write it accurately, to paint a scene for my readers so that they too are standing in the street on a dawn-washed cold morning in mid-October beside a boy as he waits for a lone tabby to scuttle past him.  A boy about to break into another house…about to…

No.  That would be telling.  

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This entry was posted in Writing.

8 comments on “How much is enough?

  1. So true, so true. It’s always a challenge, that, to write about a place you’ve never been to – especially in a time past.

    I took a similar (if not quite so detailed) route to find out what Batavia (the city) would have been like in 1629 or thereabouts. The Dutch National Art Gallery website was an invaluable resource for paintings and etchings and maps. And that was enough for me to paint in words the few scenes I needed. (At least, I hope so.)

  2. The devil’s in the detail, as everyone says but us since we have to avoid tired old cliches, don’t we?
    Why are the seemingly simple things so complex? Like…raising a wineglass. Did they lift it via stem or bowl? Did they button a dolman starting from the throat and down or waist and up?
    And as for trying to draw a cavalry sword in close order formation? Don’t even go there. My next task is to get the damned thing back in the scabbard without looking down or giving the horse’s ribcage a close shave.
    But I couldn’t do what you do. And I’ve just realised – my next story-but-one has the characters on board a transport ship for much of the time.
    Help…I get seasick in the bath.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I can ask a chap some of your questions–he’s taken part in most of the large historical re-enactments as a cavalry officer–he’s done the Zulu wars, the charge of the Light Brigade, some of the recent Napoleonic reenactments like Austerlitz, etc. And does films too. So he’ll have not only theory, but reality…

      As for the seasickness, they were all seasick at some point or other, so I’d use it. Nelson suffered from seasickness. The smells alone of the wet hemp, the animals on board, that many unwashed bodies would be enough to do for most people at least some of the time.

  3. Actually, I can write what I feel they would have done, based on the premise that all history is a matter of opinion, so no worries.
    And I think I might just go to Portsmouth, stand on Victory and imagine the sea sweeping over the bows, the ship pitching and tossing in the face of a Biscay gale…
    Sorry – got to run to the bathroom (!)

  4. Rowenna says:

    Such a fabulous question–I keep a running tab of things I need to look up while I’m writing, a separate word document composed entirely of questions, and the funny thing? A good half of them do not matter for the piece I’m working on. They don’t. The story barely touches them, but I still want to find out, you know…is this indicative of some sort of problem? Thanks for sharing 🙂 And, if you don’t mind sharing more, how much research do you do up front vs how much you discover you need to do in the writing?

  5. M M Bennetts says:

    Well, you will have seen my bibliography. So all that information is just tucked into the head or onto the Bookroom shelves. But what I haven’t discussed and probably won’t even try to collate is the site visiting. The hundreds of period houses I’ve visited, a few of which I’ve lived in, the special permission granted so that I can play the historic instruments, the hours in research libraries reading the magazines and newspapers from the period…and then there are the academic conferences…and the hours (read months of hours) spent studying the paintings.

    But, for example, a long time ago, I made reference Hookham’s Library in May 1812 (which scene is now gone). So I searched out everything on that–an interesting place Hookhams. Yes, it was a lending library, but they also sold ladies’ hats. Ha ha.

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