Cannibalizing History-Part Two:
The Traveling Writer
My love of research has taken me to a tithe barn in
England and a sheep-shearing festival on the Hudson; to the palaces of
James IV in Scotland and a “black house” on the Isle of Sky (where my
friend Robin and I nearly suffocated in the peat smoke).
As a traveling writer, I carry a small tape recorder
so I can read educational signs aloud, dictate observations, etc. It’s
faster than jotting notes and easier than dragging around a laptop. You
tend to get stares from people who overhear you mumbling to yourself, but
once they learn you’re a writer, they accept your odd behavior with
In writing my first novel – The Spiral Tattoo (as
yet unpublished) – I read countless descriptions of brochs (tower
houses) from Dark Age Scotland. I looked at photos of ruins and drawings
representing historians’ best guesses of what one might have looked like
in its heyday.
But only when I visited Scotland and actually walked
around inside a couple did I really “get it.” I realized I’d have to
rethink both the far-too-luxurious digs I had created AND a good deal of
the action that took place inside. (How could a hundred people sit down
for a fabulous feast in a chamber that’s only thirteen paces in
When it came time to create the world of Heartwood, I
had to take a refresher course in primitive. The earliest critiques likened Darak’s hut to Doctor Who’s spaceship – bigger on the inside
than it was on the outside. Going back over the notes of that Scotland
trip (as well as others to Neolithic cave dwellings) helped me to create a
village that Bronze Age families might conceivably live in.
If you’re going to write about living in another
age – fantasy or historical – the best way to make it real is to
experience as much as you can – whether that means tramping around a
battle site or squatting beside a rotary quern.
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