Saturday, January 15, 2011

RESEARCH---Going to Another World

Being a history buff, I loved researching SHADOWED IN SILK. But after writing 2 historical novels, and currently on my 3rd, I sometimes despair. The world is full of couch history experts like me.

Like every writer, I’m prepared for when my book comes out, and hoping a reader won't stop mid-sentence to say, “Hey, wait a minute, that detail's wrong.”

My daughter, the history major, gave me this advice. When writing a university paper, a student must use at least 2 primary sources-–meaning first person experiences, in other words, autobiographies. If primary sources aren’t available, get as many different versions of that particular person or angle in your story as you can.

She also said to be wary of on-line resources. Websites are great to stimulate ideas, and to find where you can get those first-person accounts. Just be careful to back any on-line research with other sources.

But for the best research, I find the good old library is best.

The hero of my story is a major in the British Cavalry during England’s rule over India. To understand the myriad of details that went into the life of that kind of officer, I read the autobiographies and biographies of military personnel from that era.

From those first hand experiences I discovered specifics like the galvanized bathtub my Major Geoff Richards would bathe in---what his uniform was like, his tent when he was away on maneuvers, and one of my favorite details, what it ‘feels’ like to sit on a cavalry charger as it jumps over irrigation canals in Northern India.

My heroine, Abby, was researched by reading autobiographies of famous British women in India, as well the experiences of lowly female missionaries. Details such as how they sailed to the subcontinent, the calf-length skirts they wore, the vinolia soap they used, how they ran a home. I even read British Raj cookbooks written by English women.

How else would I have learned a favorite of British children growing up in India was a chappati spread with marmalade?

And I poured over the autobiography of that famous author MM Kaye as she grew up in India, and who later went on to write the epic Far Pavilions. However, the 3 years it took to write my own India novel, I stayed away from reading MM Kaye’s fictional works that were set there. I didn’t want to unconsciously pick up on her style or wording in any way.

I lost count of all the books I read. My guess is somewhere around 30. But there were books on Indian women’s lives, Indian weddings, Indian flora, cooking . . . the various religions there, as well as the history of Christianity in India . . . the political climate through reading biographies of Gandhi, Nehru and other politicians.

But after all was researched and my story written I wanted to make sure.

A friend who’d lived in India and Pakistan read the novel with the intent of finding mistakes. And still wanting to be sure, I found Dr. Shirley Hereford, a charming Indian woman with a PhD who teaches literature at an all-girls Indian university in India.

Perhaps I did too much research, as a non-published author at the time with no deadline. After reading my story, Dr. Shirley said that she was astounded I’d never been to her country. I seemed to know the place so well. But then, I had been there, through the eyes of others.

Since finishing the book I have travelled to that colorful and mysterious place. When I came home from India last January, I added one or two fresh impressions to the story, but not as much as one would think.

It had been the research that made the place and time of my story come alive for me.


Carol J. Garvin said...

I'm in awe of the amount of research you did for Shadowed In Silk! And how wonderful it must have been to visit India and confirm things for yourself. It doesn't seem likely anyone will ever find a discrepancy to point out.

Historical novels aren't what I write, but even contemporary settings... local or distant... need to be accurate. I write within local settings that I know or can verify, or I create fictitious towns so that I can focus on the characters. The research I tend to do is psychological in nature -- how certain personalities develop; how a person would react in a particular situation.

Christine Lindsay said...

Thanks Carol. I do love a contemporary novel with pschological journeys. And you are so right, whatever era we write about, whether it be now or 300 years ago, all of the setting and characters must be thouroughly researched.

Rachel said...

And having had the privilege of reading it, I can say you made the world of the British Raj come alive.

Caroline said...

Your book sounds fantastic. And I love the two major words in your title: Shadowed, silk. Great, interesting words. Can't wait to read the book.

Want to schedule an interview on my blog for later in the year?

Christy LaShea said...

Hi Christine, I found your site via the International blog you're on. Thanks for your tips for research. I'm writing a 1930's historical set in Georgia and needed some direction on how to understand my characters.