Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Pleasures and Perils of Research - Part I

One of the perks of writing historical fiction is that you get to do research (if you don't like to do research, I strongly recommend against taking up historical fiction. Write mysteries or auto-repair manuals (for years, my husband kept pointing out that that great classic, "How to Repair the Small-Block Chevy Engine" has been in print forever, and sells thousands of copies every year, and why didn't I write something like that?) instead).

On the other hand, if you do like to do research, you often find yourself in the enviable position of being able to tax-deduct pictures of naked Scotsmen, which of course I must have in order to show the graphic-novel artist just what I mean by "high, rounded, lean, muscular buttocks." Ditto a number of Very Interesting Books, like THE SEX LIFE OF THE FOOT AND SHOE, which I found on a remainder table, and which was directly responsible for the character of Mr. Willoughby, since after reading the description of what a "lotus foot" was really for, I decided that plainly I must have a Chinese foot-fetishist. Or THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN FRANCE FROM 1650-1800, which gave me not only Monsieur Forez, the hangman (he was real, btw), and his excellent description of just how to hang, draw, and quarter someone, but also hanged-men's grease—which in turn caused me to write two whole scenes in DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, just in order to work it gracefully into the plot.

On the other hand…having a passion for research often involves one in the unexpected. Like the time I went to Finland on a book-tour, and accepted my Finnish translator's invitation to dinner. "My husband has been stoking the sauna all day," she announced. "It should be perfect!" And so the translator, the editor, and I all stripped off and spent a cozy half-hour toasting in the sauna together—after which we walked across the road (naked) in the dark and jumped into the lake (which was about 10 degrees. Celsius, but still). "You're the bravest American I've ever seen!" my editor told me. "No," I said, "it's just that I'm a writer; I'll do anything in order to be able to describe it." (Though in fact, the experience was so interesting that I ended up having a sauna installed when we remodeled the house (an ongoing saga that's been ongoing for the last two years, but at least we now have a kitchen again-- and a working sauna)—I use it all the time, and it's great! (We had moose for dinner, after sauna-ing. Very tasty, but I fortunately didn't develop an urge to eat moose all the time. Now the bear… that was tasty; marinated in wine and vinegar, served over greens with gorgonzola cheese. Finns are mostly not vegetarians, let's put it that way. I ate reindeer three times in two days. Nice with a crisp Sauvingnon Blanc).)

Anyway—I mentioned the remodeling? Well, we've been doing it in phases, and have now reached Phase III, which is my office wing ("wing" sounds rather grand; it's a loft above a modest lower room that serves as combination library/assistant's office (no, I don't have a research assistant—see "Part II: Hot Dogs and Beans," tomorrow—my assistant comes one day a week, to bring me bookplates to sign, do the family bookkeeping, and haul things to the post office. This last is an invaluable service, since without her, nobody would ever get anything from me; I have major Post Office Phobia, and am completely incapable of wrapping things up, let alone lugging them to the PO)).

I mention this because the most noticeable side-effect of research is books. Lots of books. And unfortunately, it is not possible for my husband to jack-hammer the floor of the lower office until I remove all of the books (and bookshelves) sitting on top of it. Consequently, the stock of Staples office-supply store has gone up considerably this month, as I buy more and more (and more, and more…) foldable storage boxes in which to put said books.

On the good side, this packing means that all the books actually get dusted (my husband bought me a whole package of dust-masks, in which I look like a duck-billed platypus), and I get to look at each one. This is very cool, because I become reacquainted with things like THE HISTORY OF UNDERWEAR, THIS OLD PIG (in case you were wondering where I got The White Sow—it's a book about antique varieties of pigs, with Highly Entertaining Illustrations), A DICTIONARY OF POLISH OBSCENITIES (that's for the contemporary mystery, which has a Polish-American detective. No, really; his name is Tom Kolodzi), HANDBOOK OF THE SANITARY TROOPS (a WWII handbook for the British medical corps), THE AGE OF AGONY (descriptions of 18th century medical practices; this is, btw, (I think) where I found the mention of using deliberate malarial infection to "burn out" syphilis, for those who've asked me about it), and my entire collection of ghost stories (including an entertaining one titled SEXUAL HAUNTINGS).

(Why, yes, I do like parentheses. Why do you ask?)

So now I have a wall-high collection of neatly-labeled storage boxes (well, semi-neatly-labeled. You try writing "Revolutionary War biographies, Misc. Saints, and Rattlesnakes" upside-down on a box sitting on the floor). And I also have a useful barricade behind which to crouch and return fire with my Glock, should the house be invaded by drug-crazed burglars (they'd have to be either drug-crazed or librarians; we don't own anything anyone in their right mind would want, except books). But I do look forward to the distant, glorious day when I'll be able to unpack everything again, and lay hands instantly on CANNIBALISM, THE PLEASURES OF THE TORTURE CHAMBER, or THE RED FAIRY BOOK. (As I frequently remind my husband, the benefits of writing novels that don't fit into any identifiable genre is that all the books I buy are tax-deductible.)


  1. Bwahahahahaha! I was just off to bed and saw that you had posted to your blog. Now the vision of you and your Glock crouched behind the boxes waiting for the crazed librarians to break in is just too funny for words. *G* And _I_ am so glad that you didn't write "How to Repair ....Anything" and we got Jamie and Claire instead. *g* Nitety nite from Louisiana.

  2. I just love your collection! Someday, someday, I will be allowed free rein and not feel guilty for constantly bringing books into the house :-) is a wonderfully easy way to catalogue them - she says with confidence, having *finally* finished our catalogue. Forgive my ignorance, but if you declare yourself a writer on your tax forms, you're actually allowed to deduct books??? *must try this year*

  3. I've never posted before, but I just wanted to say I LOVE your books! And I just found out we have the same birthday too, (coincidence!) And another coincidence, as I'm (patiently) waiting for An Echo in the Bone to be finished, I search our local library for other interesting books to read. So I pull one off the shelves the other day and its by Sara Donati. Imagine my surprise when see your name on the book jacket! So I figure out the first title in the series, check it out, and settle in for another nice long read (one of many reasons I like your books is that they are so long, and I really hate starting and finishing books, I wish they would just continue on...)! Very random! And then, I was ecstatic to find out while reading Donati's series to find character overlap with your books. My husband thought I was nuts because I was so excited that I saw Claire and Jaime's name in Donati's book. Anyway, I can't wait for your next one, and I'm content to read something you've recommended in the meantime! Happy belated birthday, and Happy writing!

  4. Even when writing about the mundane you are brilliant.

    It is my secret desire to have a library filled with the quirkiest of books, the contents of which will cause my sons great embarrassment when, upon my death, they are forced to box and donate them and the recipient agency employees raise an eyebrow or two at the titles. I envy you.

  5. Well, I heard that my home country was mentioned on your blog, and just had to check it out! (thanks Marcie!)

    Your own sauna, eh? Wonderful! I remember your visit to Helsinki (even came to one of your signings *g*) and from what I remember the weather wasn't all that warm, so walking across the road to jump into the lake is brave, writer or no!

    I'm thrilled to hear Finland had such an impact on you that you now have your own sauna! How great is that?! :)


  6. I've never laughed so hard at anything having to do with remodeling a house. *g* Thank you for sharing your brilliant writing with us in this format, I'm enjoying your blog so much!

    I don't get to deduct much for work except the occassional calculator. Working for a CPA isn't nearly as exciting as what you do!


  7. I've been really impressed not only by your research but how gracefully you work it into the books, as opposed to the "As you know, John" way that some writers do it. I'm thinking particularly of things like the passenger pigeons and Louis' mistress' pierced nipples, as well as the scenes you mention.

    I have an entire bookcase in my house just of what I call my 'survivalist' books -- gardening, animal husbandry, building your own septic tank, and every possible kind of how-to book. I love nonfiction and my favorite part of the library book sales is the nonfiction table because of all the weird-ass stuff you can get books about.

    Not to mention Google and wikipedia...I love them.

    I've never been to Finland but I've been to Iceland, where I had reindeer steak (absolutely fabulous), puffin (ditto), and a seagull type of thing known as a guillemot. I did not try the singed sheep's head, which was half a sheep's head, teeth and eyelashes and all, and the people were casually digging around in the skull with a knife for tidbits, which they ate off the knife. Eek.

    (Incidentally, did you know that not only the Vikings -- the ancestors of modern day Icelandic people -- but also the Basque set up colonies in Canada and married into the Indian tribes there? And that Vikings got into their 'berserk' warrior state by eating the fly agaric mushroom, which still grows readily in Iceland? and which is commonly depicted in children's books because it's pretty red with white spots? and that reindeers eat it? and that Siberian shamans would drink reindeer urine because the reindeer kidneys filtered the toxic elements out while retaining the hallucinogenic elements? and that's why Rudolph is a flying reindeer with a red nose?)

    Sorry, I'll stop...

  8. I am always struck with awe when I realize how many books you have to read in order for me to read the one you wrote. It's incredible the amount of knowledge you have to attain in order to pass just a portion of it on to your readers.
    I tip my proverbial hat to you, your writing, your renovations, your duck-billed dust masks, your assistant and of course, your sauna. :)

  9. My question is - how do you stay focused? Seriously, I'm afraid I would start reading and then totally forget what exactly I was researching until perhaps several hours later. *sigh*

  10. All the books I buy would be tax deductable, you say? I may need to change careers and become and unidentifiable genre author! LOL I can only imagine the looks you get when you check out at the bookstore, or what the pick line person thinks when pulling your online book order. I'd love to be a fly on the wall for that one. I'd also love to know who thought there would be a market for some of those books! LOL Clearly someone smarter than I.

  11. Well, I did at one point call my beloved editor in New York and tell her that I'd ordered two books through Doubleday, but by mistake, they'd delivered them to the bookstore (which was on the first floor of her building), rather than sending them to me--would she consider going down on her lunch hour, claiming the books (I was afraid they'd send them back if no one picked them up), and mailing them to me?

    She said of course she would--and called me back a couple of hours later. "Only for you," she said, "would I tell a bookstore clerk that I was here to pick up *two* copies of SODOMY AND THE PIRATE TRADITION!" (The second copy was a gift for the gay male friend who gave me MOTHER CLAP'S MOLLY-HOUSE.)

  12. Deniz--

    Yes, it's difficult to defend a major-league Book Habit to a loved one. [g] But the tax-deductibility argument at least reduces my husband to simple head-clutching about the amount of room the things take up, rather than hysterics over how much I spend on them.

  13. Jen--

    Thanks, and happy birthday! Sara Donati is the pen name of a electronic friend of mine. Way Back When, she'd noticed me mention that in the fullness of time, I'd be dealing with the Battle of Saratoga. She had a couple of characters who'd fought in that battle (though INTO THE WILDERNESS takes place about twenty years after that battle), and so had written a brief scene in which one character is telling another about some of his experiences at Saratoga. Just for a joke, she'd had him mention "a woman they called the White Witch," who'd come to tend a little boy who was sick; mentioning that the woman was accompanied by her husband, Colonel Fraser, and her husband's nephew. Anyway, Rosina showed me this and asked if I minded (she hadn't even finished the book at this point, let alone sold it); I laughed and said, no, why not? It wasn't as though Jamie and Claire appear as characters in that scene--they're merely being talked about as though they were real historical characters of the time. But that's it; the whole mention of them is perhaps two paragraphs. [shrug]

  14. Merrymags--

    Luckily (at least I suppose it's lucky), all three of my children share my fascination with offbeat books. Though my elder daughter did say (upon hearing about the "Scottish Buttocks" discussion), "Oh, great--another thing I can never tell my friend!", she's an OR nurse with a gruesome sense of humor and wouldn't be at all bothered by some of the nastier items in my collection. My son writes "heroic fantasy" (which he defines as "action, adventure, and the occasional decapitation"), and loves my collection of weapons/armor/warfare books, though he might avert his gaze from SODOMY AND THE PIRATE TRADITION. And the little one (she's 21 and a pre-med) is just beginning to develop a fascination with historical fiction--the more filled with hideous period details, the better.

  15. Your children sounds wonderful. Isn't it the most amazing thing to watch them turn into adults? I have 21 year old son, also pre-med, a 20 year old son, who loves literature and history. He is studying to become a college professor in English. A 17 year old daughter who wants to work in any way with mentally impaired children and adults. And my youngest daughter is 16 and is undecided as to her future. I love being a mom, and I am so proud of them.

    Sounds like you are too.


    Your 17 year old would be able to write her ticket anywhere in the U.S. should she pursue a degree in Speech Pathology. The whole education system in this country is sorely in need of Speech Pathologists who are willing to work within it, not private practice. She would make a killing on salary, also, because there are so few. Click my name and go to my blog. I can give you more details of you're interested in facts.

    Excuse me, Diana, for using your blog to serve my own purposes. I simply couldn't pass up an opportunity when presented.

  17. Diana,
    Now, your house sounds more like mine. My husband is an editor at a newspaper and teaches journalism and editing at a local college. My children were both writing minors in college. Because Joe works at a newspaper he gets to bring home lots of books that are sent into the paper for review. We also buy tons of books, including all of your books. I also have all of your books on CD. Davina Porter is wonderful.
    So, needless to say, with a family of writers, we are over-run with books. My entire family room is wall to wall bookshelves, which are filled to overflowing, and piles of additional books on the floor.
    I think it gives the house a warm feeling to see all of those books.
    Anyway, of all those books, your books are my favorite. I lend them out but always make sure I get them back. The pages are dog-eared and, in some cases, falling out of the book.
    If ever these books make it to film (and I can't wait for that), I'll have to start a collection of those as well. Well, I can always add a wing....
    I would love to see Jamie and Claire on the big screen.

  18. aaahhhhh, that all sounds so wonderful. my dream is to use my (nearly complete) history degree to go into historical research. i don't have the talent to write on my own, i don't know why. i'm excellent at research, compiling notes, and coming up with ideas, but when it comes to the final product (be it literary or academic writing) i freeze up and can't seem to get it out. i'm hoping i can find a place doing research for the projects of those who can (authors, museums, movies, etc). any idea how one would go about doing that?

  19. Um, so, where do you _FIND_ these books (asks the girl whose MA dissertation was on Religion, Authority and the Public Execution in early modern England and who, if she ever bothers to get a PhD will probably continue in the death-disease-destruction vein...)? They sound absolutely fascinating!

  20. As a crazed librarian fan of yours, I promise not to invade your house in a mad search for offbeat books. (It may the threat of your Glock, though) *G*

  21. Rose--

    I pick them up just everywhere. I can't pass a bookrack (even the smallest railroad-station rack) without giving it at least a cursory look. The weirdest ones by far come off remainder tables, though.

    Besides that--I pick up a lot of strange things at RennFaire booksellers stalls. And the bookshops at the Visitors Centers at National Parks have amazing things in a historical vein--you find pamphlets written by the local expert/obsessive about the events in the area, stuff produced by and for re-enactors (which will tell you how to make a camp kettle--including an analysis of historical excavations to assure you what the correct dimensions are--or a camp "kitchen" (a fascinating earthen oven arrangement), what "poison balls" are (and how to make one), with helpful remarks on historical evidence indicating that this or that army used them, what a bedsack (issued by the British Army) looks like and how to stuff it with grass to make a field mattress, etc., etc., etc. And sometimes a title just jumps off the shelf at you, or someone mentions a favorite period author and when you go to look for their books, you find something even better sitting know--everywhere. [g]

    (And in all justice, the university library is a _great_ place to find such stuff, since they specialize in stocking titles that provide information, rather than what will sell to a fickle public taste.)

  22. Like everything else you write your blogs are just amazing :) I just have to add that you have a _Brilliant_ mind!

    I also have to add that I am very greatful that you didn't write a "how to" book, (although i'm sure it would still be entertaining *g* ) and that we got Jamie and Claire to read about (and keep our minds occupied with)! although now that i think about it a "How to write Amazing books" might come in handy for someone like me, who enjoys writing but can't figure out how to end her "short stories" for school (yes still High School)! (and for anyone whos wondering NO! I didn't look at any of the Scottish Buttocks Pictures *g*)

    Anyway, Keep up your amazing work i can't wait very much longer for more *g* although I think I don't really have a choice eh? :)

  23. Diana-
    I wish my husband was understanding when it comes to my hoards of books! I have a bachelor's in history and a master's in education, so my house is full of all kinds of books. I am attempting to write one of my own, but until I do I don't think my husband will accept them as research material until I finish! Too bad. I love research, but the problem I come across is getting to interested in the research and neglecting the writing. Anyway- I love reading your books because of the way in which I learn all sorts of things while engrossed in a wonderful story!
    Amanda V.

  24. There is nothing better than BOOKS! I get a feeling of being connected with the world from nothing else so much as my BOOKS! And yes, I do wish they were tax-deductible since I spend so much of my disposable income on them, but's for pure pleasure! And thank you, Dear Diana, for the space to say hello to my favorite BOOK author!

  25. Miss Amanda--

    Well, that *is* a substantial danger--being sucked into the reearch, I mean, and never getting to the writing. I know quite a few people who've fallen into that particular trap and never got out.

    Which is why, when I began to write a book for practice, I started writing immediately--in spite of the fact that I knew nothing whatever about Scotland or the 18th century. [g] As I said to myself at the time, "The point here is not to learn everything about Scotland in the 18th century; the point here is to learn how to write a novel." So I decided to begin writing and keep doing it, along with the research, and if I wrote something that I later learned was wrong...well, I'd fix it. No big deal.

  26. I am an incorrigible bibliophile - I'll even admit it in public! Once of the most evil things a local bookstore chain did was put an outlet directly across the street from my (then) bank -I might as well have just had the my darned cheque direct deposited there!

    However, had I thought of books as being tax-deductible, I would have started writing a helluva long time ago. *sigh* I don't suppose the deductions are retroactive.

    Mind you, I have a funny feeling I could start browsing through your *ahem* eclectic collection and not be seen again. :)

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  28. I want to thank you for recommending book's from different author's. I especially liked C.C. Humphrey's "Jack Absolute" books. I read all three of them. Am now reading his earlier novels. Adrian McKinty's books are gritty but riveting. I tend to get in a rut with what I read. Refreshing. Also I read the Lord John novels. Wasn't sure I could give them a fair chance after the Outlander series. Just loved them. A question. Will the next Lord John book (Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner) explain how Jamie comes to view John as a very honorable man and friend? The stable scene in Brotherhood of the Blade was so intense. What takes place to bridge this gap? Was there something in the Outlander novels that I missed? Thanks again.

  29. Sharaf:

    Good question! Many of us have been wondering just that from the moment BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE first came out. [g]

  30. Hello! As much as I'd like to see Jamie's buttocks, it's really Dougal I'd rather see. I'm only on book 4, new to your story, but I miss his character quite a bit and think about him far more than I do Jamie. Hoping to see the darkheided laird in the graphic novel or movie someday! I tend to picture the late Kevin Smith from Xena-verse/Ares for him. Thanks for such a wonderful story and colorful characters. As for doing research for writing, I avoid it at all costs in my own, but then again I'm not trying to get published, only share it with friends, so I'm sure that makes a difference too. Long live Dougal .... if only in my dreams (grins)

  31. Max--

    Yes, you will see Dougal in the graphic novel. [g] Don't yet know what he'll look like, though--the artist hasn't tried him yet.

  32. Sharaf and Karen--

    I don't know. All I _do_ know about SCOTTISH PRISONER for sure is the title. [g] (Well, I do have a couple of small scenes written--but they may not be for this book; they might end up in a shorter piece I'm writing for a new anthology called WARRIORS (edited by George R.R. Martin and somebody else). But I'm mostly working on AN ECHO IN THE BONE and the graphic novel right now, so I know virtually nothing regarding the plot, scope, or time-line of SCOTTISH PRISONER yet.

    I really _don't_ plan out books ahead of time, you know. What fun would that be? [g]

  33. I'm sure you're starting to get tired of answering that one [g], but you can't blame us for being curious. It may not be a cliffhanger on the level of the one in DRAGONFLY, but it's a cliffhanger all the same, and not at all obvious how it's going to be resolved. Oh, well, I can wait...

  34. Just found your new graphic novel info exciting. The pic of Claire is beautiful. I see her not quite so soft and a little more "golden", but that may come with age as you said. A graphic novel - GREAT idea; BTW-I have been an Outlander junkie for years; liked Donati's Wilderness; but cannot do without Jamie & Claire! Love 'em - And YOU have inspired me to start blogging (sounds kinda nasty)...Tah,tah Dahlin'

  35. Oh what a pleasure to read your blog and find that not only do you write remarkable books but that you are remarkable too.
    The idea of tax deductable male buttocks will stay with me now and lighten my darkest moments.
    Thanks for sharing the fact that your research often colours and navigates your story-telling.

  36. Gillian--

    I have a tax-deductible, gold-plated astrolabe, too. [g] Still, not quite in the same class with the buttocks.

    I don't suppose every writer of historical fiction does it the same way, but given the odd way I write--in disconnected chunks--I find that the research and the writing feed off each other in a very useful way. Something I stumble over in the research gives me the kernel of a new scene--something I need to know in the progress of the scene sends me to another book, and in looking up the distribution of wood hoopoes, I discover what loa-loa worms do, and...

  37. I'm so glad that you've discovered the joy of 'sauna'. I'm a Cornish Celt, married to a Finn (Viking sort) and we love our sauna.

  38. Well in an attempt to get some sleep, after the dog woke me to put her out and the cat jumped on top of me to demand petting, I remembered to look up the word "caul" which I heard in on the way home from work on a Drums of Autumn tape (no, not the IPOD) because I did not remember it from reading the book. With all that said, this is an interesting little tidbit just thrown in. Is it from research or experience? I found it formerly was believed to bring good luck. The mention of the third sight is very interesting. Thanks for the mind stimulation. Good night.

  39. We have loads of books too and my cleaned up shelf is nearly full again by now. But that’s only because my parents also read many books. Even my father reads your books. :)


  40. So I posted to the wrong spot. New for me to blog. I'm excited about the graphic novel. The illustration of Claire is close, but I pictured her hair more like Alicia Minshew who plays on All My Children. She has a website The hair in the photo is a little tame for her normal light brown out of control locks. I drew a picture of Jamie (I've illustrated a couple of childen's books) that I'd love to share but I don't think I know how to do that. He's got Diana's eyes and cheekbones, but of course he's very masculine.

  41. I have seen many blogs trying to answer the question your grafic novel is going to answer. What the author sees Jamie,Claire and the others looking like. I think that Claire is close; but in your novel I pictured in my mind's eye Claire having curlier hair. I do not see it as frizzy, although in the Highland humidity it is possible. But, I see our lady Claire as NOT plagued with frizz.
    I was trying to think of an actress with lovely cork screwed curls. Ms. Braveheart used to have this style of hair. As for Jamie good luck! All of us devotees must have visions of him too hard to put into words. Fine boned, strong, alabaster skin, chisled like a Michelangelo, 6'7 like William Wallace, and a sensuality that exudeds from him. His hair; long, short, growing out. I pray the angels are with you there! Good luck.

  42. BOOKS!
    My house is full of them too, albeit none on sodomy and pirates, per se. I do have a great many on the history of garments and costumes and items for personal adornment, some of which are full of strange contraptions that people used to stuff themselves into or strap to themselves. Come to think of it, it wasn’t much different than what I see in fashion magazines now…
    Anyway, a co-worker once helped me move my things to a new apartment. I had made one trip already with the breakable glassware and was reusing the large, sturdy cardboard box to carry some of the thousand or so books I had at that time. My co-worker thought the box would be light and nearly threw out his back. He said, “My god, what is in here woman!?!” “Books,” I said. He fell down laughing and told me I was the only person he knew who would box up their books and mark the box “FRAGILE.”