Sunday, August 16, 2009
The Things We Do for Research by Suzanne Adair
Suzanne Adair writes am ystery/suspense series set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Her first book, Paper Woman, won the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society. More recently, Camp Follower was nominated for the 2009 Daphne du Maurier Excellence in Historical Mystery/Suspense Award.
Check her web site or blog for more information.
The Things We Do for Research by Suzanne Adair
Writers of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers dabble with ligatures, poisons, blades, and firearms. They read up on sociopaths and schizophrenics. They pester cops, hack hard drives, sketch plans on cocktail napkins for invading countries, study how to build bombs and organize cults, and verify procedures for manufacturing street drugs.
What fun! And to think that my ex-husband labeled me weird, obsessed, and admitted that my interests scared him. Poor fellow.
So why do we pursue these activities and risk being labeled odd birds? Well, one of our goals is to suspend our readers' sense of disbelief so they'll buy into our fictional worlds. No getting around the fact that world building requires a chunk of research. You must make sure that things work right, or readers will dismiss you.
On the Guppies discussion list several years ago, a subscriber confessed that she'd had her husband duct-tape her mouth, hands, and ankles, then close her into the trunk of her car so she could determine the difficulty of escape. (Note: That's a fate she'd planned for her protagonist in her manuscript.) My initial thought was, "Wow, I never would have trusted my ex to do that." But as I recall, she rewrote the scene because she learned just how difficult it was for a human being to escape duct tape. Do you think she was weird?
The things we do for research are unique and amazing. In my case, early into the first draft of Paper Woman, I realized that I take modern technology blissfully for granted. You know, stuff like indoor plumbing, central heat and air-conditioning, refrigerators, automobiles, cell phones, even the grocery store. Convenience and accessibility underpin my culture and shape my values and reactions. But during the Revolutionary War more than 225 years ago, very little was convenient or accessible. Danger and scarcity shaped decisions, especially for the middle and lower classes.
How well could a woman of the 21st century comprehend that from reading books and interviewing subject matter experts? Rather poorly, in fact. If I intended to create believable fiction about people who lived a couple of centuries ago, I had to get inside my characters' heads — learn what clothing of the era felt like, which everyday challenges people faced, how their world smelled, tasted, and sounded.
That's why I originally became a Revolutionary War reenactor. My family and I — yes, obsessed as I am, I dragged my family into this hobby — spend a typical reenacting weekend at the site of a historical battle, camped in white canvas army tents with no mosquito screens, dressed in eighteenth-century clothing made of natural fibers such as wool and linen. Our menu is limited by what meals we can prepare over a wood fire. Food sometimes gets eaten scorched; the temperature of an open fire isn't as easy to regulate as the temperature in an oven. Running water? Sometimes available. Flush toilets? If we're lucky. Heat or air-conditioning? Ha ha ha!
This is undoubtedly what prompted one interviewer to tell me, "Honey, you really suffer for your art!" My "suffering" is temporary, a mere forty-eight hour sample of what our foremothers and forefathers dealt with 24/7. My hat's off to them. They were hardy folk.
But the peculiar payoff from hands-on research is the world-broadening effect it has on the researcher. At almost every weekend event I've attended, I've encountered an experience that no one could accurately anticipate from reading a book or interviewing an expert. These experiences have supplied me with a far deeper understanding of the trials faced by eighteenth-century people.
For example, learning to load and fire a musket with powder only, no ball. (Note: Reenactors use only powder. Otherwise, there'd be litigation issues and arrests.). Nothing I'd read prepared me for the noise of the musket, how hot it gets after firing, the weight of it, or how long it takes to reload. One time, I fired a ball in a secluded location, so I could feel the difference in the musket's kick when fully loaded. My smugness over hitting a pine tree at human heart level quickly vanished when I realized the musket ball could have ricocheted and killed someone. How often did that happen in skirmishes 225 years ago?
How about learning to start a fire from flint and steel? (Note: This is an exercise in hyperventilation.) Not until I'd fumbled this feat a few times did I comprehend the impact of natural variables, such as wind and humidity, on establishing a fire when you don't even have the convenience of matches. Try starting a fire with flint and steel on a windy, wintry night.
And learning to move in a petticoat. Imagine the difficulty of doing so when sweat plasters your shift to your upper thighs beneath the petticoat, or a brisk wind provides the "Flying Nun" effect while you carry firewood, or your petticoat becomes soaked with rain. No reference book could have prepared me for how quickly a sudden breeze whipped my petticoat into the campfire at one event. Did you know that being burned was one of the top causes of death for women in the eighteenth century? (Note: Every year, a few reenactor women have to be extinguished after their petticoats catch fire.)
Not all my moments of enlightenment have been so blatant or instantaneous.
My family and I reenact on the Crown forces side. For every battle, I watch the three most important guys in my life don scarlet coats and line up on the battlefield with their weapons. Across the field from them is a swarm of guys in blue coats. So I get asked the inevitable questions at booksignings and reenacting events, sometimes shyly, sometimes with indignation. Why have I chosen to portray a loyalist, rather than a patriot? A loser, rather than a winner? A villain, rather than a hero?
Initially, I sought the Crown forces camp because the protagonists of my first two books are neutrals. Since school age, I'd had the patriot point of view drilled into me, and I felt I needed the other point of view to create balanced, believable neutrals on the page. But I remained in the Crown forces camp because I absorbed another truth while there. Soldiers who fought for King George the Third in the colonies didn't see themselves as villains or losers. Neither did many colonists see them as such. History is, indeed, written by the victors, and there are two sides to every conflict. I don't forget that when I develop my characters. The pièce de résistance from my research has been raising two sons who have learned to pause and value the other side of an argument.
Research gives me a panoramic, three-dimensional perspective. It enables me to texture my stories differently from those set in contemporary times — and those stories should be different. How believable are fictional worlds in which historical characters are, beneath their period clothing, merely people with their hearts and heads in the 21st century?
My blessings upon you the next time you unroll the duct tape, take fencing lessons, leave another message on the answering machine of an elusive crime reporter, or read up on Charles Manson or Jim Jones.
Thanks for stopping by Meanderings and Muses today, and a big thanks to Kaye for having me as her guest.
What's the wildest thing you've done for your own research?