As a writer of historical fiction, I am frequently asked about research. Specifically, readers—and aspiring writers—want to know if it is necessary for me to visit the sites I write about. On this point I always give a firm and unequivocal yes. And no. Contradictory, I know, but hear me out. Developing a historical novel means creating a dual setting; it means creating a specific time and place for your reader to inhabit. They are a tourist in your world, and you must give them a guidebook of essential details to help them get around. In order to do that, you have to know the neighborhood at least as well as they do—and preferably better!
In preparation for writing Silent in the Grave, I traveled to England. (Technically, I tagged along on a school trip as a chaperone—a maneuver I only recommend to the truly desperate or masochistic.) I had planned that Grave would be a Regency effort, light and sparkling and frothy as a syllabub with just a spot of murder to spice the pot. But once I began writing, I realized the book needed Victorian London, a city of foggy streets, shadowed by industry and populated by Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. The only difficulty was that I knew much less about 1886 than I did 1816. Luckily, I changed the setting the week before I was scheduled to depart. Once I knew my setting would be changed, the trip to London enabled me to experience that setting through new eyes. I sat on the same park bench that Lady Julia Grey shared with a London prostitute; I walked past her house on Curzon Street; I chatted with a raven in the Tower. And just as importantly, I was able to purchase maps and historical guides only published in England—books and ephemera that were indescribably valuable in establishing the London of Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane.
On the other hand—and you knew there would be another hand, didn’t you?—when it came time to write Silent in the Sanctuary I was desperately pressed for time. (My publisher may have gotten the idea that I was just a bit further along than I actually was…) With a deadline looming and the dollar falling, I had no choice but to press on and write the book without a trip. I relied instead upon mountains of research books and the blessed expanse of the internet. I found floorplans to Cistercian abbeys, photographs of jubilee towers, and moon tables for 1886 so that I could write with confidence that the moon was full and streaming its silvery light into the windows of Bellmont Abbey.
I have repeated the pattern in subsequent books. For Silent on the Moor, I told my husband I needed to smell a moor, and we packed our bags to spend Easter week of 2007 in Yorkshire. (And a very good thing we did. It turns out that moors have a very distinctive smell, and that it is very difficult to hold a proper conversation upon one.) The book I am just beginning to write, The Dead Travel Fast, is a compromise. It opens in Edinburgh, a city I have visited twice, but the action quickly moves to Transylvania, and I am forced once again to rely upon research and my own imagination.
And in the end, I think that is the most important travel tool of all. All of the scrambling over pyramids or sailing down the Danube will never convey the atmosphere of a place to a reader. Only a writer’s passion for a setting can do that, and while travel is broadening and inspiring, it is no substitute for the journey of imagination.