Wednesday, July 5, 2017

IN the Name of Research

RHYS BOWEN:
One of the fun things about writing books set in another place and time is the research I have to do. I know it's fiction but I am determined that everything should be right. I don't know about you, but if I come across something incorrect in a story, even if it's fiction, I can't go on with the book. If a character addresses someone with a title wrongly, calls the king "Your royal highness" instead of "Your majesty" for instance, then the spell is broken for me.  The narrator becomes an unreliable guide and I put the book down (I have been known to throw it across the room if the mistake is really bad!)
So every time I go to England and Europe I have a long to-do list of things I need to check on or check out. I can walk around castles and go to museums but my favorite sort of research is the serendipitous kind. I had several opportunities like this in the past six weeks: I went to stay with close friends in Lincolnshire. I mentioned I needed to find someone who was an expert on the Blenheim Bomber aircraft from WW2 as my character has to fly one in my new book.

:You want to see old bombers"?" Roger asked me. "We've got the WW2 aircraft museum at an old airfield near here." So we drove to it and found.a giant hangar housing a Lancaster Bomber, various other planes, parachutes, uniforms, armored cars and... Most important of all, details of crashes and how the plane broke apart, how pilots baled out, and letters they wrote home to wives and sweethearts. Everything I needed to make my book authentic. We visited the old control tower, the chapel, a workshop where they were rebuilding other WW2 aircraft and then went to the bookstore to find books that might have diagrams of the aircraft I wanted.  The woman serving in the store turned out to be a relative of the WW2 pilot whose family had started the museum.
"You want to know about the Blenheim, do you?" She asked. "You need to talk to Archie." And she brought a middle aged man across to me. It turned out he was THE expert. He answered every question I had had. Yes, the oxygen was incorporated in the helmet. And they wore a canvas flight suit over their flying jacket, and the pilot would have had to climb out through the cockpit roof and it did slide back.... My plane crash will be utterly authentic, thanks to Archie. And I have his email address in case something else comes up.  How fantastic.

Then I was looking for a new stately home for Lady Georgie to live in. We went to visit an elderly relative AND she has moved into this fabulous property...  Not the whole thing but has an apartment and shares the gardens and common rooms. So I got my property without having to work for it.

Sometimes my research leads me to a Lady Georgie moment (and you know how embarrassing things happen to her!)   I had to check out churches to know where to set Georgie's wedding. (semi-spoiler alert... in case she gets married, I mean) I knew which one I wanted, actually a posh church in Mayfair where my sister in law had married, and we went to take pictures. When we arrived we heard singing. A mass was going on (Catholic church). We tried to creep in to the back but instead an imposing gentleman in a black suit insisted on ushering us into a pew.  That's when we noticed everyone else was very well dressed, in black. We were in the middle of a posh funeral! And we could hardly get up and leave without being noticed. I was dying of embarrassment in my white jeans and T shirt and terrified that the mass would end and we'd be caught up in a crowd that asked us, "How do you know good old X?
We managed to tiptoe out as everyone stood for the final hymn and once safely outside I realized that crashing a funeral would be a fabulous scene for a future Georgie book!

So all those morons on Amazon who say in reviews that I know nothing, let me tell you how much research I really do! And how much I know

Does Accuracy matter to you, dear Reds? How hard do you work to get everything right? Have you had some serendipitous moments like this?

32 comments:

  1. What lovely pictures! I enjoyed reading about your research adventures and the serendipity of meeting just the right person to introduce you to Archie made me smile. Now I’m anxious to read your book!
    As a reader, I appreciate an author’s efforts to be precise and I’m grateful for the research you do that makes your story accurate [and those Amazon reviewers are showing their own ignorance when they say you know nothing] . . . .

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  2. Accuracy matters. I'm particularly peeved by cases where the research to get it right would have been so simple, and the author clearly didn't bother, or worse, ignored it in favor of some arbitrary thing he or she wanted to make a character do to force the plot along. If an inconvenient fact is going to make things too difficult, stop a moment to sort out who will be inconvenienced. If it's you, the author, rethink your plot. If it's the character, well dang it, difficulties are what make the story interesting. Use it!

    How hard do I work to get things right? That's basically my entire job. I do all the backstage prep work so the musicians look effortless onstage. But I'd rather tell you about one of our percussionists yesterday. According to the conductor's ideal image, our percussionist would walk down the aisle of the theatre, playing a marching cadence on a rope field drum--that is, a drum about as long as his femur, hung from a cross-body strap. He was supposed to continue playing, solo, as he marched up some steps to the stage, lit only by a follow spot. And he couldn't do it. He must have worked for an hour, practicing the pace he'd have to walk to cover the distance, the angle he needed to hold the drum, and every tiny detail about going up the stairs while playing, plus every possible rig we could think of that would allow him to both hold the drum steady as he took the stairs and take the drum off once the piece was over. None of it worked, but by the time we re-choreographed the opening, we all knew that it wasn't just because he didn't want to. It was because it couldn't be done. He entered from the side of the stage instead, the opening looked just as dramatic, and the music was perfect. By the time the audience saw it, it looked like a piece of cake.

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    1. Sorry I missed the concert! :-( I'm sure it was fabulous, Gigi!

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  3. I can't always gauge the authenticity of a setting or story, but what appalls me is the tremendous number of grammatical errors in books. All I can think is that copy editing is no more since many of the errors are basic and glaringly obvious. Since the NY Times is eliminating editing to a great extent, I'm assuming that it's simply following the trend in publishing in general - or perhaps it's "alternative editing."

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  4. Of course accuracy matters. The problem is that, as a reader, how can you tell if something is accurate unless you already have at least a passing understanding about what you are reading? I can read an enjoy the Molly Murphy series but could I say that everything about the early 1900's New York is accurate just by my own knowledge? Not even close. I rely on the idea that the authors I read have done their research and know what they are doing/writing about.

    I know that I strive to be accurate in my music reviews. There's nothing I hate more than screwing up some little fact I include in the review that I worked hard to come up with. Admittedly though, I don't have to do anywhere near as much research as Rhys or any other writer would have to do in order to do my pieces versus their books.

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  5. The story has to plausible and credible for me to read it and enjoy, so accuracy does matter.

    Great pictures, Rhys, and it's nice that you were able to visit these places in person (sometimes tip-toeing in) and meeting experts/asking questions for your research.

    I know some other Reds have done most of the research for their books on-line (thanks Google). Maybe they have some stories to share?

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  6. Great pictures, Rhys, and thanks for providing such a fun window into your research! I always feel transposed into other time periods and places in your books; they definitely feel authentic. Research does matter and obviously those reviewers on Amazon have no clue what they're talking about.

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  7. Finding Georgie Moments! I love this, Rhys! The research I did in Beaufort, SC for You'll Never Know, Dear, was a lot like this. Half deliberate, half dumb luck. YES, research matters. Not for accuracy but for believability.

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  8. I remember writing a story once and finding all these photos of houses of the period--which was great, but what I really wanted were house plans--so I could visualize the characters living in that space. To me, accuracy begets believability--not that I want or need detail piled upon detail--research is the background structure that allows your characters to come to life and the action to move forward. And anyone who accuses you of not doing your homework, Rhys, is indeed a moron with no imagination.

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  9. Lest we ever wonder who Georgie is based on! This is hilarious, Rhys!

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    1. Hahaha, Hank! I thought the same thing.

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  10. What great moments, Rhys. How fun talking to Archie and crashing a funeral? Well, there's that movie about wedding crashers, but I think funeral crashers is something new for me.

    I try very hard to get the details right, but I know some of it I just have to fudge. I'm working on my first historical now (1942) and I'm finding myself doing a lot of research on whether certain phrases were in use for that time period. And movies-actors-actresses, because my main character loves movies.

    Do inaccuracies bother me? Depends on how big the inaccuracy is, I guess. I can let little things slide, but if the book is set around the English aristocracy and the author can't get the titles right, well, I'm probably not going to be happy.

    Mary/Liz

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  11. Many serendipitous moments. It seems we often get what we need, even when we are not aware of that requirement. You're such a tease, Rhys! All these juicy details for your upcoming projects.

    I very much appreciated your research for In Farleigh Field, which was wonderful. How could anyone gripe about any of your work, but most especially that one? It defies sense.

    Bad review writers on Amazon are exercising their own demons, declaring a kind of petty fiefdom. Off with their heads!

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  12. Accuracy is a huge issue for me, particularly when medicine and nursing are involved. It isn't so much the technical stuff, because that changes faster than you could write it down. It is more about the interactions, the responses to some issue, that sort of thing.

    If I have no experience in the field, as in British aristocracy, then it matters not a whit to me. I don't know any better. However I am pleased to think the author sorted all that out for me. Thank you Rhys, for working so hard at that.

    My biggliest complaint is poor grammar, inconsistent punctuation (pick one form and stick to it), and editorial misses. I will ponder over a sentence again and again, trying to figure out just what the author meant to say, which is a waste of time. I'm not talking about Oxford commas,but if you use them, be consistent.

    Right now I'm reading and loving Hank's SAY NO MORE. I haven't spent one moment editing, and I love the way she announces a change of scene/voice; I don't have to figure out whose talking now!

    The last book I threw across the room was by Andrew Greeley. He used "arguably" forty times in the first few chapters, and, arguably, that was 39 times too many. This sort of laziness eats at my soul. But then he wasn't a very good writer anyway, no loss. And he had a worse editor.

    In re bad reviews on Amazon, I neither read nor write them. If I don't like a book, I don't review it. I admire anyone who can get into print in the first place, and I can't think they would pay attention to me anyway, waste of bandwidth. However, if I don't review your book, it is because I haven't go around to it. I do give it stars, rarely 5 but often 4. That is because I toss three or less star books back in the pile, have no time for crap.



    Happy 5th of July everyone. We went to a minor league ball game last night, had warm beer and cold hot dogs and a frabjous time. I'm tired this morning on my second post op day, but all is well in the pain arena. Stay turned. Film at eleven xox

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    1. You went to a ballgame the day after your surgery? You are intrepid! (spell check wants me to say "in traffic")

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  13. Accuracy matters. Having said that, sometimes I can let things slide, and sometimes they really bother me. Usually, if I don't know better, things slide by without me noticing. But if I know for sure, it really upsets me.

    Another WW2 book? Follow up to Farleigh?

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  14. I'm always amused when a reader sends me an email to complain about a grammatical error that I fully intended because it fits the voice of the character. If everyone spoke the Queen's English I imagine our stories wouldn't be very interesting!

    I always do a mix of hands on research and digging into things online. There's no substitute for doing a ride-along with the cops, going to the gun range and shooting a 45 or visiting the morgue, all of which I've done. All of those experiences have contributed to my books in some way (not to mention, they were fun!). But with the web, you can learn a lot about other people's experiences in far flung places, which can also be extremely useful.

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    1. Ingrid, thanks! It answers one of my questions. I wondered if the grammatical error was intentional.

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  15. Oh, Rhys, I loved reading this post and how you came about doing your research. The funeral crashing as a Georgie moment is so brilliant. I can hardly wait to see it in a future book. And finding the WWII aircraft museum and Archie, just priceless. But, all of these different encounters and experiences show how deeply dedicated you are to accuracy, and your readers are most grateful. I know when I read a book by you, Rhys, that I can rely on the historic details being authentic, and that's a huge burden off of the reader. In books where the research and historical details seem spotty, I as a reader can never quite relax into the story.

    Oh, and you mentioned Lincolnshire, where I'm assuming that last fabulous picture was taken. Do you know the author Karen Maitland? She used to live in Lincolnshire, and some years ago she sent me a book of hers that I was having trouble finding in the U.S. She included a postcard of Lincolnshire with the book, and I have it displayed on one of my bookshelves. My two favorite books by Karen are The Owl Killers and Company of Liars, such amazing books.

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  16. Rhys, what fun! I love those serendipitous adventures, and I'm having lots of them in the research for the new book.

    And speaking of titles, I have some English title questions for you. (I'll email you when you've had a chance to get over your jet lag.) I've never been very good figuring out who is called what. Most of my knowledge comes from reading Lady Georgie, and I do trust you to get it right!

    And I can't wait for the next Georgie book.

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    1. Oh Deb, you wrote some English titles.. silly me was thinking, Great Expectations? And then there were none? Tom Jones/... oh Titles! communication Coralee..

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    2. I think Debs means titles as in Lady Petunia Snodgrass and the Countess of Uptown
      Rhys

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  17. Accuracy matters, but not to the extent that I'd ever write to an author, or in a review, that there was an error because something was the wrong color, or done the wrong way or whatever. I do expect things to be kept in their proper time frame, though.

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  18. Exactly, Ingrid. It's what the character THINKS is true, not what IS true. Grr.

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  19. Me too, can't wait for Georgie! and we will all get such a giggle when we read the funeral scene...

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  20. Rhys, your Lady Georgie books are my second favorite series After your Constable Evans series. I always enjoy the sartorial descriptions in the Royal Spyness /Lady Georgie series. Love the photos above. Would you say that half of your research is conducted at the library and the other half of the research finding through your travels? On another note, I never review on Goodreads. I review on Goodreads. Looking forward to reading Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service in August.

    Diana

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    1. Less than half in the library these days. Some online... Usually background stuff, some done in person, some through historical societies etc.

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  21. Why did I think of a scene from Midsomer Murders when you mentioned walking into a posh funeral?

    Diana

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  22. Rhys, your funeral crashing story was my laugh of the morning, you scamp! I so appreciate the research you do - especially when I can now anticipate a fabulous scene in an upcoming Lady Georgie book! The librarian in me demands thorough research but the writer in me argues, "But it's fiction!" The struggle is real.

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    1. When I read fiction, I have to remind myself that the writer can change anything. I try not to be picky about the research.

      Loved the Jean Plaidy historical novels. I had to read this dry, boring history book for my History major in college. It left out a piece of important information. When my professor was discussing the history from the dry boring book, I remembered something from Jean Plaidy's interesting historical fiction and I asked my professor if this person was real and he said yes. This real person was mentioned in Plaidy's historical fiction though this person was Not mentioned in the dry, boring history book. LOL.

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  23. When I was growing up in a small town in West Virginia in the 1950s, there was a middle aged couple who made it a practice of attending every funeral in the area, whether they knew the deceased, or his/her family, or not. I suppose it was some sort of a weird hobby, and as far as I know, no one ever called them on it.

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  24. Jenn, did you research London via the library before you wrote the Hat Shop mystery series?

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