Jilly: Don’t Just Write What You Know

Research Isn't Just for HistoricalsWhat’s the best/most fun/most fascinating research you’ve ever done for a book or project?

Today I was planning to write about Derbyshire novels and the Christmas Week Short Story Challenge, but when I read Michaeline’s excellent post yesterday, about the research she’s doing for her Gilded Age historical, it made me think about my own book, and how many weird and wonderful things I’ve had to learn in order to write it. Of course, if you’re writing historicals, it stands to reason you’d want to read books and books first, to immerse yourself in the time period before you put finger to keyboard (here’s a post by Justine with just a few of her favorite research titles). It’s different for me. I’m writing a contemporary, set in a city I know well (London) and another place I’ve visited frequently (the Scottish Highlands). I never dreamed I’d have to spend so much time fact-checking.

Thank goodness for the interwebs. I lose count of how many times a day I want my characters to do something, and then I have to ask – is that possible? I don’t search for things to copy, I look for hard facts that will validate scenes I have already created in my head. Nothing in my book is real, but I want to be sure it could have been.

I just spent a happy half an hour browsing through my bookmarks. Here are a handful of the many questions I’ve asked myself this year, and some sites that helped me to decide whether to go further down a particular track:

Is there such a thing as an artists’ community? If so, where are they, and how do they typically work?

Answer? Wowzers, there are so many. Check out the Alliance of Artists’ Communities website that has links to more than 1,500 programs worldwide and lots of good advice for artists seeking a residency. None of them is at all like the community in my story, but they are so diverse that it made me confident there could be one, which gave me the confidence to go ahead and give my imagination full rein.

Could a gentle, arty man who wants to withdraw from the world undertake a pilgrimage to a remote, holy place like Mount Athos. and might he be able to stay as a lay brother with a view to eventually taking his vows? What might his life be like?

Answer? Yes, absolutely he could. Click here to learn more about Mount Athos, the oldest surviving monastic community in the world. Spectacularly beautiful. And, unfortunately for my heroine, Rose, women are not allowed to go there.

Do humungous, historic diamonds ever come up for sale on the open market, what do they look like, how much do they cost, and are they ever bought by private individuals?

I was very happy to discover that one of the world’s oldest and most famous diamonds, the Beau Sancy, sold for $9.7 million dollars (twice its reserve) at auction in Geneva in 2012. It’s very big and very, very sparkly. Nobody knows who bought it. Check out the story of the Beau Sancy here.

How much could a single photograph by a famous photographer possibly sell for, and what might it look like?

The answer (yay!) is that a million dollars doesn’t go very far these days 🙂 and there are a variety of photographers and styles to choose from if you have a few mill to invest. Have a look at the 15 Most Expensive Photos Ever Sold.

Are there small, exquisite former private residences in London that could be hired as the venue for a charity auction?

Oh, yeah, you betcha. Have a look at the stunning Leighton House Museum, in exclusive Holland Park. It’s the former home of the Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. It’s the only purpose-built studio house open to the public in the UK. Or check out Two, Temple Place – an extraordinary late Victorian neo-Gothic mansion built at Embankment in the heart of the city by William Waldorf Astor. It’s like a mini castle – stone crenellations outside, spectacular carved wood inside. No wonder they borrowed it for the grand finale of Downton Abbey. Take the virtual tour, and prepare to be blown away.

I could go on for pages about need-to-know information on kilts, Scottish names, antique sailing yachts, the history of pink diamonds, Edwardian jewelry styles, Art Deco Artifacts, enameling techniques, symbols of love from around the world, the list is (almost) endless, but you get the idea. And that’s just for this book. I have a whole other collection of links, press cuttings, notes and objects already tucked away for stories that are clamoring to be written.

How about you? What’s the most fun or fascinating research you’ve ever done, for school or a book or just because?

16 thoughts on “Jilly: Don’t Just Write What You Know

  1. I had a character (actually, many characters) who played professional poker. I’ve never myself played a single hand, so I bought a library of poker and psych books—13 of them. They’re still sitting here, waiting for me to write my second book with a professional poker player. After reading the books, I thought I understood the game. Then I watched some professional tournaments on TV, and decided I probably didn’t. It was fun, though. And you never know when I’ll need to refresh my card skills. 🙂

    • That sounds like a lot of fun, Kay. My husband watches those televised poker tournaments sometimes when we’re on holiday. I think he understands them. I have no clue, but I love looking at the colorful characters. I’d read your book for the personalities.

      The hero of my book-after-next is a chef. I’ve got some great sources to quiz for info, but the manager of my favorite restaurant says you can’t really understand it till you’ve tried it hands-on. She’s probably right. She’s promised (threatened) to book me in for a few shifts in the kitchen. I’m a bit scared, they are seriously good in that restaurant, but I’m definitely going to take her up on it.

      • What a fantastic opportunity! I’d be intimidated, but I’d “girl up” and do it because it sounds so fascinating! My cousin is a chef . . . I don’t know if I’d like to do things in his kitchen, but I would love to observe. I could probably wash dishes (-:.

  2. (-: I love finding out new things. I dragged my kids and my mother to the underground office and warehouse area in Kansas City as research for The Djini and Ms. Jones. What a lot of fun! And, since I managed to control myself and keep the time down to less than an hour, they wound up thinking it was pretty cool, too.

    Really enjoyed your list! Of course, I had to click on the photography immediately. Some real beauty, and some real . . . not beauty. And then, as I scrolled down and looked at the photos that accompnay other articles . . . well, it was an interesting contrast. Nude Georgia O’Keefe vs. a butt covered in black spandex short-shorts. Both women with no face, but a definite message.

    • P.S. Looking forward to our short story challenge week! The story challenge, BTW, evolved in the comments, here: https://eightladieswriting.com/2014/11/16/jilly-wood-man-caves-brainwaves/

      And, the rules Jilly set out are:
      Story length – 500 words
      Must include : Derbyshire
      Plus at least 3 of:
      Extra kudos for using more than three.

      Were there any changes? We plan to put them up during Christmas week, and invite commenters to leave 500 flashes in the comments.

      • Short Story Challenge – that’s it, except I think there should also be extra kudos for Christmas references.

        I was in Derbyshire on Friday, doing family stuff. We had dinner in the pub and when I told my husband about the challenge, he immediately came up with a very fun scenario and we riffed on it for a couple of hours. I’ve been trying to persuade him to write it, but he won’t, so I think I’ll have to.

    • Underground offices and warehouses – that does sound like fun. Planning for a story very far ahead, I’ve told my husband I want to go to Wales for a couple of days to visit this place http://spaceguardcentre.com/ . I think he’d enjoy it, too, and there’s a very nice hotel/restaurant place within driving distance so I can tempt him with that. I’m also petitioning for a major side-trip from RWA 16 in San Diego. That’s going to take a bit more work 😉

      Photographs … I know! Looking forward to learning more about Bunny’s photographic adventures.

      • Isn’t it funny the things we find? There is a small town about an hour from my house that wants to be Japan’s spaceport. Can you imagine? A spaceport, practically in my backyard!! They haven’t managed to convince people yet, but they are in the top 10 potential locations, I think.

        One doesn’t imagine British people running a major asteroid detection thingy, then tersely shouting into microphones directions to the people who are trying to tie a nuclear bomb to the asteroid that’s endangering the earth . . . . I keep envisioning some guy in an admiral suit with a huge moustache. “Demmit, man, put that explosive device in place with your stiff upper lip.”

  3. Hello Jilly – I loved the glamour of your list. I’ve just looked up ‘when were fuses invented?’ – doubtless the first of lots of things I’ll look up this morning. Writing in the late 1950s is quite interesting from that point of view, because things not completely different but the details are often not the same. So, a case in point, they obviously had electricity, but, in this scene, the electricity has just blown and they are trying to see what is wrong – so, do they have fuses in plugs? For once, Google let me down, so I’m just writing it that they’re rewiring the plug.

  4. Very thoughtful piece, Jilly, thank you for sharing it with us.
    I’ve enjoyed many of your posts here and look forward to reading your next! 🙂
    Feel free to check out my writing about publishing: publishinginsights.org (shameless self-promoting)

    • Thank you, Sherry, nice to meet you and thank you for the kind words! I just stopped by your website – looks very interesting, I plan to return for a longer visit when I have a little more time.

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