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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Confessions of a Research Geek

Some people think research is really, really cool. Nancy Northcott is one such person. Like the Noodlers, Nancy is a former Golden Heart finalist (twice). She's also finaled in the Orange Rose and the Maggie Award of Excellence contests and won the Put Your Heart in a Book, Molly and Emerald City Opener contests, all with books set in historical periods. Her undergraduate degree is in history, and she spent a summer studying Tudor and Stuart England at Oxford.

I love research. I really love it, and not just as a cover for procrastination. Opening a book for the first time, visiting a new place, or meeting someone with an interesting job always holds the potential to reveal some previously unknown, fascinating tidbit. I may--or, more likely, may not--ever use the tidbit, but I like knowing about it anyway.

Loving research can lead to some risky habits, like ordering unknown, out-of-print books on obscure subjects over the Internet. Sometimes those blind orders turn out to be gems, and sometimes they’re triggers for “Geez, what was I thinking?” On balance, though, the gems have outweighed the clunkers, and I try to keep such risks relatively cheap--$10 or so with shipping and handling. I also spend a lot of time reading titles on bargain tables.

The research habit can turn vacation trips into opportunities. No matter where I am, I tend to leave the local booksellers happy. It’s not as if I can get a book on slang of the Lake District here at home, right? My vacation journal doubles as a research reference, but I’ve learned not to depend on that alone. After madly scribbling notes on the Warwick Castle map while the master archer demonstrated, I resolved never to be anywhere potentially useful without a pad, one sized so I could write on it with one hand and no extra support. And extra pens in case one runs dry. And a camera. Mine doesn’t take panoramic photos, so I buy the disposable panoramic cameras before we go.

All those docents standing around in the house uniform are fountains of knowledge just waiting for someone to tap them. Ask one of them a friendly question on a day that’s not busy, and you may make an instant friend. While some of them aren’t talkative, many are. They rarely see people who show genuine interest in these sites and who seem to care what they’re looking at and why it matters, as opposed to just wanting to say they’ve “done” the places. A word of caution, though--do not, ever, under any circumstance, try to engage guards in conversation. Some of them see educating visitors as not their job or, even worse, a distraction from said job.

The downside to this fondness for research is that not everyone shares it. Have you ever tried to corner someone to discuss swordsmiths in Anglo-Saxon England? The menu at medieval banquets? The rigging of sails in the wooden navy? If so, science fiction or fantasy readers, medieval re-enactors, and ship fanatics would love to meet you. Fortunately, so would writers. Anyone else may edge warily away from you, looking for someone to fling into your path as a diversion.

Even the most devoted readers don’t want to know every single fact about, say, food preparation in the Middle Ages. If you’ve spent the afternoon reading about medieval banquets, how much do you put on the page? Probably a tiny fraction of what you’ve learned. All that reading wasn’t wasted, though. The more we know about a time and place, the better our “feel” for it, the more texture we can give our readers.

So, any lovers of research out there? If so, in what meaty area of research can you really lose yourself?

To learn more about Nancy, visit her website, She’s building reference lists there for writers and curious readers.

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At 4:34 AM, Blogger Margay said...

I loooooove research! Perhaps too much. I blame it on the philosophy instilled in me by my stepfather - that you should never stop learning. So I tend to do a lot of research on various topics whether I use them for stories or not. For instance, when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I did a lot of research on that for my own personal knowledge - ditto when my younger daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and, just recently, Asperger's Syndrome. I may or may not write about them some day. I haven't decided yet. but when it comes to stuff I will write about, I get lost in history - I love to read about other times and customs.

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I really love Louisiana history, and I especially love when I find a little interesting tidbit I didn't know before. I found some great books about the history of Mardi Gras and throws that I plan to put to use some day. I've discovered part of Louisiana declared its independence from Spain and was its own nation for a short period of time (I put that as a background for one of my historicals).

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Hi, Margay--I'm sorry your family has had all these medical problems. You could probably write a book about all that after all the research you've done. Do you have a favorite historical period or an unusual custom you'd like to share?

Mo, how cool about part of Louisiana being its own country for a while! I didn't know that. Its French influences have given it a flavor distinct from the rest of the South, but I don't know a lot of the historical particulars. My American History classes were more general. Because I teach the 1920s, I've studied some about New Orleans' contributions to jazz, going back to Reconstruction era, and find that whole story fascinating. I don't know much about Mardi Gras, though. What period do you use for your historicals?

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hi, Nancy!!!!!!
It is so great to have you here at WNP. (Nancy and I became acquainted years ago, over some contest or another that we probably both finaled in. I can't remember now exactly, but I know she is one of the people I count on seeing at the RWA Conference. Will you be in SF, Nancy?)

Picture my hand raised about loving research. Research was one reason I was afraid to start writing Regency Historicals but now it is my favorite part. There is nothing like traveling to the locations to get that authentic feel. I'm pining to go back to England!!

I think you and I may be clones!

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I so wish there had been no need for you to research MS and Bipolar Disorder and Asperger's Syndrome. May all your future research be of the happiest kind! Hugs to you.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Hi, Diane--great to see you, too! I think the contest was PYHIAB and the meeting was at the NJRW party at national. I could, however, be confused. That tends to happen at times. I'll certainly be in San Francisco and will look forward to seeing you there.

I'm also pining to be back in England. Alas, but the dollar went a lot farther the last time I visited. I don't remember the pound being over $2.00 since my childhood.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Margay, that's so many challenging conditions to hit your family. I hope you all are faring well. There is so much more information available to patients now. I, however, run the risk of freaking myself out if I spend too much time on sites like WebMD.

Mo, that's so interesting about Louisiana.

I'm getting ready to immerse myself in research about Alaska since my next book is going to be set there and I've unfortunately never been able to visit there. Oh, if I could only win a trip there right now. :)

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Nancy, what has been the most interesting and unexpected historical tidbit you've run across in your research?

At 10:03 AM, Blogger jo robertson said...

Hi, Nancy, popping over from Romance Bandits to say I, too, love research. Minored in history in college and love to read up on the details of other times and cultures.

What a great post! I especially love early California history, which is fortunate because my husband's an expert in that area. People usually think of California as historically significant from the Gold Rush onward, but it has an interesting and diverse history prior to that time.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger EilisFlynn said...

Nancy, that's why I could never write historicals. I would get swallowed by the research and forget what I was writing in the first place! I've never been to Europe (let alone the United Kingdom), but one of these days ... and then I'll have to ask you where the best place to do research is!

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Anna Sugden said...

Another Bandita popping in - cool post, Nancy. And big smooches for discussing England with such love. So often we get pushed to one side for Scotland and Ireland!

I love research (probably too much). I can't tell you how much fun I've had researching my hockey romances *VBG* - including meeting the inspiration for one of my heroes!

What a disappointment that Chick Lit is no more - no excuse to research shoes (not that that stops me!)

My only problem with research is that I get so wrapped up in the research, I forget that there is a reason I'm doing it - to write a book!

One of these days I hope to write a WWII romance and look forward to doing all the research for it - such a fascinating period, especially for us Brits.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

Trish, I wanted to honeymoon in Alaska and see the tundra, but the dh had little interest in that, so we ended up in San Francisco. Which was, of course, wonderful! It's hard to pick the most interesting tidbit. A food reference (Sara T. Paston-Williams' book The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating) informed me that the London "Season," which I'd always associated with the Regency, actually started in the 17th century. The same book contained the intriguing information a forerunner of the pressure cooker was in use by 1660 and that marmalade goes back to about 1450.

Jo, when I think of early California, I think of Spanish missions, caballeros, and Zorro. I suspect there's whole lot more to it!

Eillis, that "swallowed by research" trap is so attractive, isn't it?

Anyone else have a tidbit to share?

At 11:48 AM, Blogger Gerri Russell said...

Great post, Nancy!

I, too, am a research geek. So easy to get distracted by the need to research something rather than write. Just last week I found myself in a mountain of research about how paper was made in the Medieval period...something I will most likely never use in any book I write, but it was interesting.

I really do love reading research-heavy fiction!

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

All that reading wasn’t wasted, though. The more we know about a time and place, the better our “feel” for it, the more texture we can give our readers.

Very astute, Nancy, and that's where research pays off! Off to take a look at your website now...

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Oh, Nancy, I too love research! I often get so caught up in the research I leave little time for the actual writing *g*

Some of my future research projects include: Pittsburgh, funeral homes (I plan on bugging our fellow Romance Bandit Jeanne about that one *g*) Karma and reincarnation. I can't wait!

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

I've hopped around with the Louisiana historicals. I really like the late 18th and early 19th century, when the territory switched between France, Spain, France, then became part of the U.S. My first novel was set in 1811 and the heroine was an orphan raised by the Urseline nuns. Another novel was set in West Florida in 1810 (the parishes above Lake Ponchartrain that belonged to Spain and which declared their independence). I like late 19th century, too. I set a historical, the one that finaled in the 2003 GH, in 1893 after a hurricane devastated the coast.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Anna S., I find the Battle of Britain fascinating. The RAF's endurance against daily poundings just astounds me. A few wiser decisions by Hitler would've turned the tide in his favor. Good thing he didn't know that!

I give H.M. The Queen credit for not only staying in London with her family but learning to drive an ambulance.

Gerri, did you ever find the answer to that paper question?

Janet, I'm glad you like the research thing. If the site doesn't have what you're looking for, drop me a line and let me know. I'm still building.

Beth, it's a good thing you have such a handy source on the funeral homes! The whole karma and reincarnation concept intrigues me and is on my "someday" list (I've progressed toward it slightly by reading the history of India). Let me know if you find anything especially cool!

Mo, your books sound wonderful. I love stories built around little-known historical facts!

Another obscure fact: In medieval London, narrow streets had only one gutter, which ran down the middle. Only the wider streets had gutters running along both sides.(From A. R. Myers' London in the Age of Chaucer)

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Nancy, my Bandita friend! What an interesting post. Yes, count me in as fellow research nut. And I love actually visiting the places I'm writing about - I've learnt so much from the guides at the stately homes. They love to talk to someone who's genuinely interested. And often that leads to information you won't find out anywhere else. I heard a lot about the families who lived in some of the houses (not the NT ones, the ones still in private hands). That stuff is gold dust for someone like me who is writing about aristocratic families for a living. Off to England and Scotland next year to do more research and I'm hoping to visit Waterloo. That will be fascinating for a Regency writer!

I'm about to launch into a major research binge into the East India Company. My hero's backstory in this current book involves working for them and it's a subject I don't know an awful lot about. Although ask me in a couple of weeks and I'll be able to bore you stiff for hours on the topic, I'm sure! ;-)

Margay, sorry to hear about all the health troubles in your family.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Oh, meant to say I'm talking about how I research stuff in my latest website updates, if anyone's interested. Yes, it IS a shameless plug but it's sort of a relevant shameless plug ;-)

At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Judith said...

Fun post, Nancy! Some of my most memorable associations about research: my friend Jacquie plunking down a huge pile of books at a little museum bookstore in Silverton, Colorado and saying "I restrained myself." The (docent?) laughed, thinking she was joking! And, during my two Regency tours of England, the way we'd descend on the giftshops in all the attractions and, especially in the smaller ones, practically wipe out the supply of books. Only other writers can understand!
Diane, I can relate to your initial fear about research and then finding out how much fun it is!

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Anna C., visiting Waterloo will be so cool! I'm extremely envious. I'm assuming you know about the Osprey series of military reference booklets? They're not cheap but are packed with information.

One of my most fun geek-out visits was at Ham House in Richmond, which I visited alone because the dh had taken the boy off to a toy museum. The docents were incredibly helpful. This was weekday, so they weren't busy. One woman was talking to me about the paneling in the room and said, "Just pick up the rope, dear [by which she meant I should push the rope hanging across the door forward until it was taut], so you can step farther in and see above the door." She was a fountain of information.

Judith, I should travel with you and your friend. And a strapping guy to carry all those books. If I buy three books when I could have bought five, I feel extremely virtuous. *g*

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

Hi Nancy! Add me to the growing list of research crazies. I adore it. Probably why I like genealogy. If it's got interesting trivia, I'm there. Castles, weapons, funerary cutoms and gravyards are right there at the top of my list of favorites. my DH just rolls his eyes when I buy yet ANOTHER book about graveyard art - not that there are many. And I can so relate to going to a museum or historical site and "restraining" myself and only buying 3 or 4 or 5 books.

I too haunt the bargains tables which so frequently have deliciously obscure and interesting research books. I need a library room is what I need. Ha!

Anna C., I'm going to swing over by your post too, you shameless posting Bandita you. (just kidding on the shameless part!) Grins.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Nancy, I didn't know about the Osprey books! Groans with gratitude. Just what I need - more books to read. I've been to Ham House. Isn't it amazing? All those 17th century textiles in pristine order! Wow! I must have had the same guide - was it in the little cabinet of treasures with all the miniatures on the walls? She told me about the rope trick too. As you said, I think they're just so delighted to have someone who wants to know minutiae and isn't just wandering through staring into space. One of my best experiences was at Syon Park in West London which is the London residence of the Duke of Northumberland. It was a cold, rainy afternoon just at the start of the season and I basically had the place to myself. I hooked up with an old family retainer and he told me all sorts of goss. Great stuff! Including what it was like when they filmed Gosford Park there!

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

I, too, love research. I loved researching the medieval times when I was writing time travels in that period. What fun. And I would love to know all the details of how they prepared their meals, although I'm sure most readers would not.

Right now I'm enjoying reading about true crime, but overall I think I like it all! I was at the doctor's office the other day and there was a man waiting for his wife and it turned out that his daughter was a new sheriff in town. I couldn't stop asking questions. She was only 24. Point being, I think I find most people's lives and what they do interesting and worthy of many questions. :)

Thanks for coming today, Nancy, and for the great blog!

At 3:08 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Ha, Nancy! You sound just like me! We've even been to the same places and studied the same things! The master archer at Warwick was fascinating. I wanted to show him how he could increase his rapid-fire techniques but I had the sense to know that wasn't a good idea.

I had those wonderful experiences with the docents too. My traveling companion could never resist telling people she was traveling with an author who wrote about England, and she'd come along to see if I got it right. Everyone wanted to show me everything, in Chester, Sudbury, Kedleston, and especially Haddon Hall.

When I got home I realized I'd learned far more than I had expected, but not nearly as much as I needed to know, so I must go back someday, alas...

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Berta said...

I research everything, and the internet is very dangerous for me. Like a beagle that's gotten a whiff of rabbit, I run all over, often forgetting my initial query. So I totally get the research bug!

Nancy and I spent time trying to figure out how late 17th century ships sealed their gunports and secured their cannon. That was so much fun!

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Carol Burge said...

Great post. I'm one of those people who love research, too. I look FORWARD to it! Anything to do with history is fascinating. Everyday life, fashion, food...just anything and everything!

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Jeanne, we put a small addition on our house several years ago, mainly to add storage space. The addition included floor-to-ceiling bookcases along one wall. Our contractor said he'd never had to pour a footing to support a bookcase before. During this process, I learned that the load a filled bookcase puts a square foot of flooring is rougly quadruple what it's designed to support.

Anna C.--you didn't know from Osprey? Wow, do you have some fun reading ahead. They have loads of color illustrations! I figured you'd be all up on it, having lived in London. I envy you the old family retainer. I've yet to strike that kind of mother lode.

Teresa, thanks for having me! I like it all, too. I don't read a lot of true crime, but I do read a great deal of mystery and suspense.

Hi, Dele! LOL on the master archer! You were probably right not to offer help. It would cut into his image as resident expert. It does sound as though we have a lot of common interests. The dh has written several books about British children's literature, and we've found that people generally will extend themselves for someone with a real interest in a subject. Because he was an author, he got a private tour of a great house because we'd arrived on a day it was closed (not realizing it was open only one day a week) and we had only the one day. He also had a behind-the-scenes peek at another country house, and a park ranger once let us stay past closing, invited us behind the ropes in the house library, and pulled a first edition off the shelf to show him.

I've never seen Haddon Hall, and I'd love to. But, like you, I always have more to see than I can cover. We consistently overestimate the distance we can drive in a day. You'd think we'd learn!

Berta, I love the beagle imagery! You're also the person who provided me with the answer to how men's pants were constructed in 1674 and sources where I could find out more. In fact, you could say we became friends because of wardrobe research. United in research geekdom. *g*

Just FYI for everyone else, Berta has won prizes for her historic costumes and did a program on the subject, complete with costumes, at Moonlight & Magnolias one year.

Carol, I'm with you--anything and everything!

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Christine Wells said...

Hi Nancy! What a great post. I enjoy research but not as much as I enjoy writing, so it's a balancing act for me. I don't have time to let myself really wallow in research. I have to be disciplined about my approach.

I can say, though, that I have been led down the garden path by research before, ie, based a story idea on some fascinating find, only to realize a while later that I was trying to shoehorn my hero and heroine into a plot that matched the research to the detriment of the romantic conflict. The reasearch always has to fit the story, not the other way around! But those fascinating details can be so seductive.

And hey I'm ALL for research junkets, ahem, I mean serious research trips.*g*

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I know what that's like, Christine. I've been disappointed many times when I discovered an accurate portrayal of my hero wouldn't be very romantic, or at least not like I'd thought it would be.

But one thing I've learned in researching medieval history is that the historians themselves were not overly concerned with accuracy. It really is true that history is often re-written by the winners of the battles. And perfectly good guys can look really bad when told about from the opposite side. This is particularly true for people who found themselves on the wrong side of the Church's ambitions.

And many things have been passed down for centuries, and we still believe today, such as the notion that nobody in the Middle Ages ever took baths. Wrong. They loved baths, and considered them a great luxury. There are dozens of references to bathing. They also washed their hands before eating. Yet many of us learned in grade school about how filthy people were then.

So I've learned to pay attention to my own thoughts on the subject, to question the sources, to try to read between the lines to find details they didn't think were important enough to mention back then.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

I had to pop out for a friend's booksigning, but I"m back now.

Christine, I sympathize. Sometimes those fascinating trails do turn out to be dead-end garden paths. Often without even a fountain at the end.

Dele, I think medieval history very much fits that saying, "History is written by the winners."

At 7:56 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Great post, Nancy, and all of you! I am furiously making notes even as we speak. Nancy is right. The Osprey books are fantastic! I LOVE research! If I could I would LIVE in a library. I wrote a paper on Jack the Ripper and as a result I have or have read almost everything written about him. I tend to go overboard when it comes to buying books about a subject in which I am interested. There are simply not enough hours in the day for me to read the research books I want to read. Wow, on the weight books add to a shelf.

And I too tend to look a marauding Hun when I enter museum bookshops or giftshops. And I collect postcards. I have albums of postcards from the places I have visited and the places my friends and family have visited.

At 7:57 PM, Blogger doglady said...

And in case anyone has missed it. Lost in Love got a request for a full from one of the Golden Heart judges! I am on cloud nine!

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Doglady, yay on the request! I hope it sells.

I tried to keep post cards (and interesting old calendar photos) but had to give them up due to not being organized enough. I envy your efficiency!

Delle, I just realized I misspelled your name--not once, but twice! I do apologize.

At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Judith said...

Mo H. wrote: I like late 19th century, too. I set a historical, the one that finaled in the 2003 GH, in 1893 after a hurricane devastated the coast.

Mo, I was one of your judges! I loved that story. I'm still waiting to read the whole book!

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Sorry I'm just getting back to chat a bit more and to thank Nancy for being our guest today. It's my birthday, so I was out playing today. Went to lunch with friends, then to see Prince Caspian and eat dinner with the hubby. This has been an interesting discussion, and it makes me want to Alaska even more. And back to Colonial Williamsburg, which I LOVE! Talk about a place where I could spent my last dime.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

doglady, that's awesome about the request! I hope you get a sale out of it. We'll all do the happy dance for you.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

Trish, it sounds as though you had a great birthday! I hope so. Thanks for having me, to you and the entire posse!


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