For me, research for writing is not so much a labor of love as a break in the flow of my storytelling. For FLAVIA'S SECRET, I was researching ancient Rome, ancient Romano-British food, society, class, fashion, the city of Roman Bath and the baths themselves. I did the same kind of research on ancient Egypt for my historical novel BLUE GOLD, too, beginning first with a visit to the children's library for lots of clear explanations and lovely picture-books, then more deeply into research and source material.
Pictures and personal observation are what I find most useful in all my research. There are gestures that are particular to a certain age and I need to be aware of those but in general I believe people have not changed so much in 35,000 years. When I'm researching for a book, days are taken up with observation--noting people's gestures, the sounds and rhythms of their speech, the pervading scent of a place, the number of steps to a particular church. My husband is a keen photographer and takes pictures not only for himself but also for me: not only the battlements and arrow-slits of a castle for a medieval such as A KNIGHT'S VOW, but strange shots of dustbins and public telephones and kiosks and then, teasingly, candid pictures of myself, sunhat jammed over my eyes, head down as I take copious notes.
We repeated this in Rhodes as I researched the Dodecanese islands for my early romantic suspense book, NIGHT OF THE STORM, and my novella, "A SECRET TREASURE." The heroine of "A SECRET TREASURE" is an intelligent, sensitive young woman and keen cook in a high-pressure situation so I approached my research through Eve's eyes, noting how stark the contrast between shade and sun at midday, between the bustle and crowds of Rhodes Old Town and the pine-fretted quiet of Ancient Kamiros, where fragile orchids grow along the edges of the paths, learning how delicious grilled meat can taste, liberally sprinkled with fresh lemon juice and rigani, or how thorny and close-packed Greek heathland is.
With historical fiction there are also other issues of research. How much research to do, to start with? What to put into my romances and what to leave out? For my novel A KNIGHT'S CAPTIVE, I needed to know about the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. I researched in primary sources such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in secondary sources. As my account is a romance, I did not feature the battle itself but its aftermath, particularly as it concerned my heroine and hero--the human cost. When I set my novels is important--I need to know what happens around that date. Sometimes I may put my characters directly into a historical event--again, as I did in A KNIGHT'S CAPTIVE, when I place Sunniva and Marc at the coronation of William of Normandy. Again, I drew on primary sources for this but told it from my characters' POV and how it impacted on them. That is what I ask as I write a scene. "How does this affect so and so?" That determines what research I use.
As research tools I use books, pictures (for my medieval novels especially pictures from contemporary manuscripts such as Books of Hours), and the internet. The web has some wonderful source material on it, such as Netserf and the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
With research, the temptation is to use every scrap of my notes and then my writer's day is one of choice, because to put everything in would be fatal. My fiction is suspenseful, romantic, active: to stem the flow with a stodge of travelogue or straight historical source material would be a huge mistake! Usually then I spend a significant proportion of the next day taking out what I put in--a task which often inspires me to try even harder as I aim to get the most out of what I really love doing: writing.
(All pictures from Wikimedia Commons.)