Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Anne Easter Smith | Research

March 4, 2008

I’ve just come off my first book tour and for the most part it was a blast! The weather was my only real complaint. What a thrill to meet readers and hear first-hand how my two books have impacted them.

As an historical novelist, the aspect of authoring that seemed to interest people and provoke the most questions was the research. “How much research do you do?” or “What percentage of your day goes to research and what to writing?” or even “Do you enjoy researching?” were common questions I was asked.

Yes, I love the research – especially when it takes me to neat places like Lisbon, Bruges, Edinburgh and London. I usually spend two or three weeks before starting to write in Europe—you know, if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium (and in my case that happened a lot for “Daughter Of York”)–and I have to confess it is tiring following in the footsteps of my characters. But without seeing the cities, churches, castles and landscapes that my characters would have seen, how can I give you a good idea of what it was to live there in those times? I need to look out of the third floor window of Louis de Gruuthuyse’s house in Bruges and see what he could see. I loved peering down through the leaded panes of his little oratory room window and at the high altar in the Church of Our Lady next door. He built a bridge over a side road between his house and the church so that he and his family need not leave the house to join the Mass! I have Margaret shown the room by Louis in “Daughter of York” when she visits him. I love those little details in other good historicals I have read, so I was determined to include them, too.

But it takes time and perseverance to find what you need. I spend hours in libraries and archives looking for letters, drawings of palaces and castles, and medieval maps of the city or town I’m in. I’ve met with town historians and university professors who have given of their time to help me. Then there was the time in Mechelen (in Margaret of York’s time it was more often referred to as Malines) when,one morning, I was snooping around the stage door of the theater there which is all that remains of Margaret’s palace and found an unlocked door; so I snuck in. Halfway up the stairs I was confronted by a woman who was most indignant that I was trespassing. When I apologized and explained why, she identified herself as the artistic director of the theater and took me into the Green Room, which was once half of Margaret’s great hall. How wonderful was that! It gave me goosebumps to be standing in Margaret’s home. It pays to be bold, I guess.

While at my computer in the writing phase, I never stop researching and find I cannot continue halfway through a paragraph if something comes up that I am not sure of: like whether I could say that my protagonist in the third book reminded her friend of a wren. I grew up loving those sweet little birds in England. But something nagged at me and I went into my Observer’s Book of British Birds and found out that the wren is actually an immigrant from North America. This is 1485 and Columbus has not yet sailed the ocean blue! So I had to use a sparrow instead—a native but not so perfect a species for my purpose. Boo! Also, things like how long a ride in a carriage would have taken from London to Canterbury, or where did the medieval road take you through. Sometimes I wonder why I chose this genre—surely it would have been simpler to write about today and what I know!

But no, this is truly where I belong—after all there had to be a reason why I spent all my daydreams as a child in a long dress, wandering through Gothic cathedrals, down narrow dirty streets, or through meadows of wild flowers searching for my knight in shining armor!

Anne Easter Smith, author of “A Rose for the Crown” and “Daughter of York

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