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Elizabeth Chadwick on the joys of researching!

March 21, 2011
Wow. Just wow. My absolute favoritest historical fiction author, Elizabeth Chadwick, is visiting us today with a guest post on the research she conducts for her novels... Welcome, Elizabeth! Y'all, come & see what she has to say!

Research is fun!

Whatever an author writes, be it historical or contemporary, he or she still has to do the research, but historical novelists intent on giving readers a real taste of their period have to put in the legwork, or perhaps I should say in my case, the wimple work!

Researching a historical novel is for me an inter-disciplinary process of several strands.

I don’t read Latin or Old French very well. I can get by, but I tend to mostly read primary source works in translation. I enjoy reading these because it gives me an idea of how people thought at the time, and there are always fascinating little snippets to be picked up on. The other day I came across the detail in a 12th century treatise on gem polishing, that the medievals thought rock crystal was actually fossilized ice.

I also read many secondary sources but these are more variable. Some of the more scholarly tomes can be a bit mind-numbing even while they are filled with facts I need to know. The difficulty is staying awake long enough to read them! However, to balance that, there are always books that are written in an interesting, accessible way, or contain juicy details. I was very interested to read that in the 14th century, women were advised to wear fox tails under their tight dresses in order to cover their bottoms and preserve their modesty! It was great too, the other day to find out a list of pet dog names from the Middle Ages. Jack was popular even back then, and Teri (short for terrier I guess), and Damask – perhaps for a particularly silky coated dog. As much as the politics, I love these sort of details because for me they bring the people to life. I believe it is essential for authors of historical fiction to read around their subject as much as they can. It needn’t all go in the novel, but the more research one does, the better the characters are going to perform in their environment.

Framlingham Castle walls
I visit locations whenever I can. Usually I sneak a break at the same time for the rest of the family, so we enjoy a holiday and I get to relax and research at the same time. A lot of the story in To Defy A King takes place at Framlingham Castle. It’s now a ruin, but the external castle walls still stand with their thirteen guard towers. The outline of the small hall where Mahelt lived when she first arrived there can still be seen together with its existing Norman chimneys. Parts of the newer hall where the family lived and entertained guests are now a museum and visitor centre. Framlingham’s wall walk is one of the most intact in Britain. When researching To Defy A King, I also went to Chepstow, which Mahelt would have known as a little girl and which still has the same castle doors that her father commissioned shortly before she was born. And I went to Settrington, a beautiful village in East Yorkshire where Mahelt’s marriage family--the Bigods--had a manor, and where in the novel, Mahelt and her husband Hugh consummate their marriage.

Framlingham Castle's Norman chimneys

Many places mentioned in my novels have either disappeared completely, or are in ruins, but I believe that the echoes of their existence can still be picked up, which brings me onto another aspect of my research, the Akashic Records. This is a belief that the past can be accessed by someone with the ability to tune in to the vibrational patterns of people, places and things, whether living or no longer with us. It’s not for everyone, and I always respect people’s choice whether to believe it or not, but it works for me. I find researching my characrters via the skills of Akashic consultant Alison King enormously interesting. For anyone wanting to read some excerpts, they are available on an especially set up blog here: But here, as an example, is a short description of Mahelt’s husband Hugh before their wedding and about the things he particularly liked to do. My questions and comments to Alison are in bold.

What sort of things does Hugh like to do in his leisure time before his marriage to Mahelt?
Alison: I’m hearing singing already even though I’m not there yet. I can feel the air in the lungs and hear the singing and hear all the background noises of eating and drinking. There’s the smoke of the fire, sheepskins on the floor, warm orange flames, and more songs. When they run out of songs they send out for more songs – ‘Who can remember another one, who can remember another one?’ So this goes on for hours and hours until they go to bed late in the night. It’s very dark. Some people are very tired and some are still humming. The beds are warm because they’re all near the fire and they all go to bed like cubs--all relaxed and curled up. There’s still that lovely atmosphere of togetherness in the room.

So anything else?
I can smell grass. The sky is so bright it’s dazzling his eyes. Big clouds but the sky is bright. It’s lovely. He’s standing somewhere on a hillside overlooking a lot of land. The feel of the air coming towards him all unimpeded and just this massive sky. There’s a feeling of being part of it and all the edges blur, the land and the sky, his vision, the warmth of the sun, the warmth of him, the smell of the grass in the air. Everything is blurred and he’s part of the whole. The feeling is quite a high. It’s a spiritual experience for him. He likes to do that (come out on his own) and get that feeling, to get everything else out of his system, all the bad things and the small things out of his system. To clarify and cleanse. (so me time out of the house basically). Yes.

Elizabeth Chadwick chopping leeks
Another strand of research I thoroughly enjoy doing is historical re-enactment with living history society Regia Anglorum. The society aims to accurately portray the peoples of the United Kingdom as they were between the mid 10th and late 12th centuries. Re-enactment is a vital part of my research because it helps me to bring the written words in text books into 3D and becomes a ‘show’ not ‘tell’ experience. I get an idea of what it must have felt like to wear the clothes and walk in the shoes. I get to cook food in cauldrons and in clay cooking pots, to spin and to weave (I’m not very good at those but I know the technique in theory!), to try out the swords and weapons and to talk to other enthusiasts who all have their own areas of detailed expertise. Not only that, but we get to do these things at some great castles and beautiful country sites, and we’re in demand for film work on a regular basis. It’s also fantastic to make like minded friends. I am now the proud owner of all sorts of medieval replica artefacts including a sword, shield and helmet, and some interesting examples of medieval pottery and glassware. Who wouldn’t enjoy such research!

Thank you for stopping by today, Elizabeth. I am loving the pictures you included with this guest post, they're just totally cool!! *grin* 

My thoughts on To Defy a King will post tomorrow. I'd have included it here, but then this post would be loooooooooong! (hint: it's good!)

About Elizabeth Chadwick:
Elizabeth Chadwick lives in Nottingham with her husband and two sons. Much of her research is carried out as a member of Regia Anglorum, an early medieval reenactment society with the emphasis on accurately recreating the past. She also tutors in the skill of writing historical and romantic fiction. Her first novel, The Wild Hunt won a Betty Trask award. She was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Award in 1998 for The Champion, in 2001 for Lords of the White Castle, in 2002 for The Winter Mantle, and in 2003 for The Falcons of Montabard. Her sixteenth novel, The Scarlet Lion was nominated by Richard Lee, the founder of the Historical Novel Society, as one of the top ten historical novels of the last decade.

Find Elizabeth online at her website, on facebook, and on twitter.


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