This blog follows how a romance novel set in the Borders of medieval Scotland is researched, written and hopefully *hopefully* published.

Join me on the writing journey and get inspired to try writing a little romance into your own life!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

About Researching a Distant Setting

One of the issues I've had with writing my novel, "Hollow Hearts and Hollow Hills" is the fact I have not yet visited the Border region of Scotland. I've read about it (the history, the people, the blending of cultures, the physical geography). I've seen tons of pictures. But the closest I've ever come to it (geographically) is London. Pitiful, huh?

I'm a strong believer in experiencing as much of the setting you write about as you can by whatever means possible. I cook and bake the region's food--scent being an important touchstone for many. I meditate on pictures and descriptions of the land.

So when I was recently writing a scene in which Tam Lin rescues a bird from a cage in the Fairy Queen's bedchamber, I realized I needed to not only know what the bird looked like, but also what its song sounded like. Honestly, I wasn't sure how to start except by throwing random words into Google. So, tossing in "birds + Scotland" I got the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. They have a lovely site including an alphabetical listing of all the birds in the UK.

Now, I was initially overwhelmed by such a selection, so I returned to my manuscript. I examined the words around the point where it seemed natural to identify the bird. I noticed that a bird's name starting with a "b" or an "s" would sound nice (I'm a sucker for alliteration and the like).

Before I continue, here's the site I . I started skimming the Bs. I knew what sort of song I was hoping the bird would sing (and an idea about the plummage) so I started looking at pictures and reading descriptions of calls (sometimes the site also offered a video clip or an audio clip--awesome!). I made a list of birds that intrigued me: the Brambling, Bluethroat, Blackcap, Bullfinch. On to the letter S! Scarlet Rosefinch, Siskin, Starling, Stonechat and Swallow.

Then I discarded any that we find either commonly in the US or ones that seem too similar to our own (like the Blackcap, Bullfinch, Starling and Swallow) because I want my setting to feel familiar and yet significantly foreign and alien. I found it hardest to part with the Swallow because of its agility in flight (and I want something about that to contrast with my bird's imprisonment--yes, I'm building a birdy foil for Tam Lin ;-) .

The Bluethroat was quickly tossed out because its migration pattern would just miss the timeline I've established to complement the original ballad. The Brambling has a "wheezy" call--not what I was going for (but I like the name). So I was left with the Scarlet Rosefinch (quite lovely, but two words), the Siskin (it just sounds unreal--cool!) and the Stonechat. The Scarlet Rosefinch also doesn't show up in the "right" area at the right time, so it was out (pretty or not).

The Siskin is adorable. Right time, right region, nice plummage and decent song. But I finally chose the Stonechat. It's on the "Amber List" (not doing so well as a species--although "not faring too badly in the UK") whereas the Siskin's "Green." Plus, I loved the little video clip they had of a male, and the variety in its call. They mention its habitual "flicking" of its wings. Imagine an ADHD bird in a cage... Beyond that, "Stonechat" just sounds "earthy" and "mortal." I liked that aspect of it, too. So, without being able to see one or hear one in person, the RSPB still provided enough valuable online information to help me make what I feel is a decently-informed decision. Yay!

So my point is this: Although I want very badly to visit the Borders, I can still add believable depth through creative research. Ain't technology grand? ;-)

How do you research your settings?
PS--Here's another pretty photo of our handsome winner...


RomanceWriter said...

Awesome that you are going for it even though you haven't visited there. I chicken out and set all my stories in Chicago. LOL. Though I think it would be great fun to one day take trips and then use those locales in my work.

Saoirse Redgrave said...

I've been to Chicago--You've got some great settings and potential scenes there! The stained glass at Navy Pier--imagine that lighting a lover's face... Plus, writing tales that are regionally intimate could give you a more powerful publishing niche.

What might I have with my current novel...? Angry Scots and picky SCA members, Rennies and Medievalists correcting any mistake I make! LOL. Eh, I'll roll with it. ;-) Besides, technically mine's "fantasy"... :p


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