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L.T. Suzuki

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Blogs by L.T. Suzuki

Researching Historical Fiction with Diana Gabaldon
12/8/2009 8:57:48 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

A summary of what I learned at a workshop hosted by best-selling author of the "Outlander" series, Diana Gabaldon.

Since I first began attending the Surrey International Writers Conference back in 2002, I’ve always made it a point to sit in on sessions pertaining to fiction writing. And one thing this conference consistently delivered on was a wonderful selection of authors, editors and agents. They made themselves available to host workshops or be involved in panel discussions that touched on practically every aspect of writing and publishing.

One author I’ve had the good fortune of learning from over the years has been conference regular, best-selling author of the “Outlander” series, Diana Gabaldon.

In the past years, due to the timing of various sessions, I’ve only been able to listen to Ms. Gabaldon share in her knowledge and writing experience during panel sessions. This time, I was able to take in one of her workshops. As the last piece I plan to write will be a historical fiction, it was the perfect choice. Ms. Gabaldon was offering a workshop entitled: I’ve Done My Research, Now You’re Going to Pay!

With my mind and heart set on learning as much as I could from this talented author, the first challenge was to arrive at the room she was scheduled to appear in before the workshop started. Of course, the idea was to get there in a timely manner so you don’t miss out on any of her lecture, but once you locate the meeting room, there’s the matter of jockeying for a seat as Ms. Gabaldon’s sessions are often filled. Latecomers are relegated to standing in the back of the room.

I managed to find a chair in the back row, near the exit door. Perfect, so I’d be able to discreetly slip out for my Blue Pencil session with the best-selling author of Arthurian legend, Jack Whyte (see Oct. 27th Blog post to read Mr. Whyte’s critique of the opening chapter of the last installment in the Imago series).

Ms. Gabaldon was in fine form and good spirits in spite of recently recovering from a bout with the nasty H1N1 virus and rushing to and from other events requesting her presence while in the Lower Mainland. She started the workshop revealing the relevance of the workshop’s title; explaining that some authors of historical fiction devote so much time and energy to research, sometimes even years, before they commence writing that there is a temptation to pack all the researched information into the story whether it is relevant or not! (Hence the “Now You’re Going to Pay” portion of the workshop’s title.)

The idea behind researching is to, as Ms. Gabaldon so eloquently put it, ‘attain a level of accuracy and historical reality’. (In my way of thinking, somewhere along the line there is a chance your book will be read by a history buff/book critic/lover of historical fiction type who may very well become quite vocal if there are discrepancies in the telling of “factual information”. I’d rather not take this chance. It is so easy to lose one’s credibility in this business, so care must be taken to present accurate details specific to the time, location and people you are writing about.)

In Ms. Gabaldon’s case, she tends to write and research in tandem. But is there such a thing as researching too much? According to this author, one can never do enough research, however, there is a limit to what is useable (relevant) to the story and the characters. The information incorporated into the book must play a part in the storytelling process. Even if the detail is mundane, it must at least give the readers a sense of daily life. What the individual researcher/writer chooses to include comes down to personal opinion, but Ms. Gabaldon reminded us that the information or details to be included should help to ‘pull the reader into the story and give it a sense of authenticity’.

There were times when this author discovered unusual bits of historical facts that ended up in her story because Ms. Gabaldon found it fascinating and it added another layer of dimension to the story. One case in point was when she discovered that a substance called Hangman’s Grease was basically fat rendered from the bodies of executed prisoners! It was sold and used as a remedy to ease rheumatism. Another bit of historical fact that made it onto the pages of one of Ms. Gabaldon’s novels was a physician who was also an executioner! In France, the field surgeons of old providing medical care to those wounded in battle were often executioner/torturers! It sounds odd, but when you think about it, who understands the workings of the human body better than one who’s specialty it is to kill prisoners, often torturing them first to extract information or a confession.

So, where does one begin their search for historical info?

Where googling on the Internet can reap immediate results and provide much in the way of information, Ms. Gabaldon warned about the degree of accuracy, or the lack thereof, when it comes to gleaning historical fact from the net. Part of the problem with this mode of information gathering is that anyone can post anything on any topic. There are no controls in place to separate fact from fiction or to alert the researcher that the provider of the information was biased in what was presented as fact.

With this in mind, Ms Gabaldon prefers to do much of her research the old-fashioned way: at libraries and museums. Surprisingly, the most accurate sources of information for historical facts are books written for children. According to Ms. Gabaldon, reference books, encyclopedias, etc. are checked and rechecked for accuracy as teachers, parents, and others working with young, impressionable minds scrutinize them. For this reason, publishers of these reference books are pressured to produce information that can withstand such critical review and close scrutiny.

Researching can branch off into many areas, so where does a writer even begin? Ms. Gabaldon suggested that when you are writing about a specific locale during a particular era, it is important to take into account the dialect and common expressions used at the time, as well as the customs and cultures of the peoples in whatever country you are researching. Other things to consider include apparel worn at the time and how it was made. Ms. Gabaldon gave as an example the common misconception that in early Scotland kilts of specific colors and pattern (tartans) were worn in association with particular clans. In reality, it came down to who the local weaver was and what materials were available to dye fabrics in that particular region.

Ms. Gabaldon went on to explain how in her research she discovered wool was originally soaked in boiled urine to waterproof this material. The women relegated to this task had songs they’d sing to help pass the time (and probably made this exercise more appealing than it really was) while treating the wool. Though as distasteful as this sounds, it gives the reader the immediate sense they have entered a world of the past where such activities were commonplace. She also found that interesting bits of historical fact could actually be used to ‘jumpstart a passage’ that might be lagging.

When asked by a workshop participant how does the writer know they’ve provided enough information, Ms. Gabaldon advised that it is a matter of personal taste and opinion. ‘One must rely on intuition’ to guide them, something that improves the more you write.

Unfortunately, because I had a Blue Pencil session scheduled, this was when I had to slip out for my appointment. As much as I wished I could have stayed for the entire workshop, what information I gleaned from Ms. Gabaldon will be invaluable when I’m ready to commence research on my last work of fiction. I walked away with the satisfaction of knowing I had enough to get me going and keep me busy until I see this author again at next year’s conference!





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