Researching the Noble Dead

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Today I’m taking a break in order to bring you a post from our special guest, Barb Hendee! Barb and her husband and writing partner JC live south of Portland, Oregon, and about a hour from the coast. Barb’s fiction has appeared in numerous genre magazines and anthologies. JC’s poetry, non-fiction, and short fiction have also appeared in many genre magazines. Although they have worked together as a writing team before, the series and books of the Noble Dead saga are their first novel-length collaborations. We’re thrilled to welcome Barb here today!
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One of the most common questions that readers ask JC or me is, “Have you done a great deal of research for the Noble Dead books?” The short answer is, “Yes and no.” We’ve purchased and read a ridiculous amount of books in the last ten years . . . on vampires, medieval fortresses, Eastern European myths, etc, but for the most part this research has proven to be a “jumping off point” for the actual stories we end up writing.

“How does that work?” you ask.

So, here goes . . .

1) Inspiration for Story Ideas

Research into myth and legend can be a wonderful way to generate story ideas. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to avoid Internet research (which would be a topic for a different post) and just focus on the books we’ve used. Two books we’ve leaned upon heavily are Matthew Bunson’s The Vampire Encyclopedia and Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death.

One evening, back in early 2000, I was reading through Bunson’s book for fun, and I came across the entry for “Dhampir.” The beginning of the definition read, “The name given by Slavonic gypsies to the child of a vampire.” That caught my attention. I went on to read how dhampirs were believed to be skilled in detecting and destroying vampires. Apparently, charlatans in medieval Serbia and Yugoslavia would pretend to be “dhampirs” and convince villagers that their village was beset by a vampire. The “dhampir” would then stage an elaborate show to rid the village of its vampire—and charge quite a fee for the service.

I read this entire entry aloud to JC, and he just stared at me for a minute, and then we started talking. That concept was just too good to leave alone. Questions began flying. “What if we make the charlatan dhampir a woman?” “What if she really is a dhampir and just doesn’t know it when the story begins?”

So, we “got” the basic idea for our story by doing research, but then it branched off into our own creation.

I know many of you are just going to groan at this, but Time Life published a series sometime in the early 1980s called The Enchanted World. The various book in the series have titles like Night Creatures, Ghosts, Spells and Bindings, Magical Beasts, and Giants and Ogres. These books are not deep (smiles), but I have to tell you, they are awesome for generating story ideas. The one on ghosts alone is priceless. Of course, you don’t want to just “copy” something and add a few new frills, but these books provide an amazing wealth of possibilities for creatures or beings to play around with.

2) Political Systems

When you’re writing a big fantasy novel, most of your readers are going to care about the political system—even if you only pay it lip service. In some of the Noble Dead books, the political system is intricate to the plot, and in some, it’s merely a back drop. But remember that our canvas is large, and our characters are traveling between countries (and later between continents), so each country must have its own system. You can rely on almost any decent history text to get an idea for how historical systems have worked in our own world. We’ve used a variety of systems from a straight monarchy . . . to a monarchy combined with a powerful council of businessmen . . . to warlords fighting over territories. But my favorite system is one that JC came up with after reading a book called Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth. He was doing research for a country we created called Droevinka (Magiere’s homeland), and he wanted to keep the “feel” of a medieval dark, dripping world seeping onto the pages.

So, this is where he first read of the idea of “electing” a head of state for a specific period of time. Here is a passage right out of Sister of the Dead where Wynn is explaining it to Leesil:

“Droevinka is divided among noble houses, each one headed by its own prince in a bloodline claimed to be noble. Most are descended from the peoples who migrated here or invaded this territory in the far past. Many of the houses are named for their original people, and they all serve the Grand Prince. A new Grand Prince is chosen every nine years by the gathered nobles. For over a hundred years, no one has claimed the title of king.”

Now, of course this type of system is wroth with potential for backstabbing and civil war, but the idea is to take something you’ve read that makes sense and make it work for your own world. I think this helps create a sense of reality even in a fantasy world.

3) Details for Fantasy Worlds

Again, the idea here is do research in your area of interest and then feel free to simply use it as a springboard. But of course there are areas where you want to adhere to “fact” in your story, such as how far a person or a horse can travel in a day. For Child of a Dead God, JC and I put a lot of research into how the ballistae would work for the sea battle we mapped out.

But for those of you who’ve read the Noble Dead Saga, you know we also use castles and keeps in almost every book

If you’re going to be using castles at all, there is one book that I cannot recommend enough: The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann. I think we would be lost without this book. There are diagrams and schematics of castles and detailed discussion of weapons throughout this book. JC designed the layout of the sages’ guild in Calm Seatt after examining a typical squat, four-towered keep in this book.

4) Details for Fantasy Stories Written in Earth History

Now, I’ve been focusing on conducting research for a fantasy world, but the rules will change if you set your story in our own Earth’s history. Juliet Marillier has a wonderful fantasy series set in old Ireland, and so her research would be used in a different fashion from what we do for the Noble Dead Saga.

In this case, you have to have your facts straight—unless you’re writing an alternate history. But if you’re writing historical fantasy in Earth’s history, you need to know “when” things happened.

For example, I was doing a vampire short story set in the twelfth century, and I wrote a “hearth” into a fortress, and then I paused and wondered, “How soon did the concept of a fireplace with any type of chimney come into play?” Of course after doing minimal research, I ended up re-writing that section of the story.

For the other series of books I write, The Vampire Memories, I had some characters take a train from the east coast of America to San Francisco in 1862. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized the track hadn’t been completed yet. I did some checking, and it wasn’t completely ready for use until 1870 . . . so again, I had to alter my time line. Trust me, someone will notice those details.

So, I guess my final advice here would be that in creating your own world, do the research and then use it as a springboard. This takes more creativity, but fewer adherences to historical fact. In writing historical fantasy (set in the past of our world), know your facts. This takes less creativity, but some serious research and constant questioning of oneself.

Onward! Happy writing.

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22 comments to Researching the Noble Dead

  • Barb, thanks for joining us at Magical Words. Welcome. It’s always cool to read about another writer’s research methods, but it’s even cooler when you give book suggestions! Thanks! I’m not writing vampire fiction, but how can I turn away from the lure of “Vampires, Burial, and Death”? As if I don’t have enough to read. 😉

  • Thank you for posting here!

    Your topic is a good one. Many times a novice writer will think that unless they are writing Urban Fantasy or Historicals, then they don’t have to research real life stories. That cannot be further from the truth. A lot can be learned from the past that can apply to our Epic Fantasy, Space Opera, or Pirate Adventure. That is not to mention the TONS of inspiration reading up on such topics can bring.

  • Hi Stuart and Mark. Oh, thank you for the kind words. I’ll pop in throughout the day if anyone has questions.

    JC might pop in too. I meant to have him write this piece with me, but he started remodeling our guest bathroom (including laying in a new floor), and he was immersed in that project.

    It did come out very nice (smiles). I love the new floor.

  • I am *such* a *huge* fan! That is one of the best things about this site, the chance to interact with my fave writers. Thank you for being here. And for the suggestions for new research books. (Stuart, my TBR researh pile is huge too!)

    Our readers might like to know (Okay — I’m nosy) — How did you go about presenting the idea for the Noble Dead series to your agent? Did you use a specific blurb line? Present it with a proposal and partial? And did that presentation differ from other proposals in any significant way?

  • Oh, Faith, we had a strange path to publication. Through a miracle we’ve yet to understand, Jennifer Heddle at Roc took a look at an outline and sample chapters (for Dhampir) that we’d sent to her, and she wanted to see the entire book. We had a deal on the table before we went agent shopping.

  • Julia

    Thanks for a fantastic post! I love the examples you give about how research serves as a springboard for your writing.

    I wanted to mention another source for research which readers might find helpful: The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon. I’ve found it especially helpful with regard to clothing styles, as she includes photos of many garments — courtesy of some fine folks at the SCA.

    I’m currently looking for more information about small homes and kitchens in the Middle Ages. (I’m working in an alternate world, so historical precision is less essential.) I’m doing well with food itself, but not with the details of what a kitchen would look like. Do you happen to have any suggestions? Thanks!

  • Thanks for an interesting post, Barb. Always interesting to hear how others do their research. There are so many sources out there; each of us is bound to find something that others haven’t known about. Great suggestions and references. Again, thanks. And welcome to MW.

  • Julia, I looked through a few of our books and I could not find anything specifically related to kitchens, but I looked online, and this article seemed promising:

    http://www.katjaorlova.com/MedievalKitchenEquipment.htm

    Check this out (smiles). You may have seen this one already–and it may be too late regarding the time period you’re working in, but it seemed fun!

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for posting, Barb! And for showing me yet more things to fix in the second draft of my WIP. My castle setting is riddled with hearths. Great. Also thanks for suggesting the book – I could really improve my knowledge of medieval architecture.
    A question: Do you have a bit more leeway in the historical accuracy if you write in a completely different world? Not in regard to dates and suchlike, but in the way of life. Or is that just my lazy side saying that?
    One of the hardest subjects to research I’ve found so far is the management of medieval horses. Not the riding or the equipment but the day-to-day activities involved in taking care of them. I’m a horsewoman and horses are heavily involved in my stories. Often, I’ve found that horses pay a key part in fantasies anyway, and few things annoy me more than fantasy authors who don’t know anything about the horses that carry their heroes to victory. As you said, someone is going to notice the little mistakes. Little mistakes – such as making a horse lap water like a dog, which they don’t, for instance – really jerk me out of the narrative.
    Okay, the horsy rant is over. Sorry everyone. But I’d still suggest reading at least a summary of Xenophon’s “On Horsemanship” (there’s a good one on Wikipedia).
    Thanks again for posting, Barb. This was very, very informative and helpful!
    Unicorn

  • btyler711

    Thanks so much for the post Barb! I’m new to MW and to writing fiction so this was really great to read. Also thank you to all the other contributors here at MW I have found this website truly enjoyable. I write daily as an attorney but legal writing does not lend itself well to fiction. Unless of course you all consider everything attorney’s say to be fiction! So thanks again for all the great information and references I’m sure they will help me in my fantasy adventures.

  • mudepoz

    Love it. If anything can toss me out of a book it’s not researching a subject. I’m not talking about being in the fantasy world, but dazzling with BS because they didn’t check their facts. Ugh. Primroses are NOT roses. Okay, that’s just my latest grump.
    Unicorn, is that write what you know:) I discovered my own little playground is the location of many sea monsters, a werewolf, ghosts galore, many serial killers (currently the North Side strangler, but previously Ed Gein and Daumer)and two cities proclaiming themselves the UFO capital of the world. I love it here. If I could write…

  • Barb, welcome to MW, and thanks for the helpful post. You’ve got a few references here that I’ll be researching more thoroughly at the soonest opportunity.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thanks for the nice list of reference books!
    But I’m amused by mudepoz’s comment, because for me it stumbles across the tricky issue of properly researched vernacular, which I believe David discussed in a post a while back (?). Primroses are not roses. Much to my dismay, because growing up my mother taught me to call wild roses primroses (and I never saw a “real” primrose until I was in my mid-20s). It’s still hard for me to switch. Briar rose sounds really pretentious to me for some reason. Ah, the hidden things we THINK we know.

  • Conducting reference is a wonderful thing! It can keep me from having to actually write the book for months at a time! 😉

  • Julia

    Barb, thank you so much for the link! I hadn’t seen it, so I’m looking forward to reading through it.

  • Hello everyone. Barb said I should come out of my warren/cave and into the daylight over here, so here I am for a brief stop and rest from coding our new web site to come.

    Unicorn: you have a bit more leeway in the historical accuracy if you write in a completely different world? Not in regard to dates and suchlike, but in the way of life. Or is that just my lazy side saying that?

    I think it might be summed up as the difference between realism and verisimilitude. When writing a tale in a fully made up world, you want to consider the latter, not the former. The difference is the verisimilitude is using what is rational and logical based on our real world to gauge what is possible in world that might have little changes. On the issue of your horses, imagine a world where the smallest horse is the size of a Belgian, and they range upward from there. Obviously issue of tack and riding technique would still apply, but there would be differences that need logical and rational extrapolation. The same principle is applied to anything you do with a made-up world.

    There is a point where you can begin to fudge a little bit, and then a little bit more. Once you’ve established authority with the reader, a level of trust in the basic details your present, it is less necessary to do so latter. For instance, magic is a complicated, dangerous, and comparatively weak process for effect in our world. But once we’ve shown this on one process of spell, ritual, or artificing, when we get to different such instance where details change for a different result, there’s less justifying we have to do.

    In the area of currency is another example. We have presented no less than 11 different countries or regions, all which would have different currency by different names in their own national or regional langauge. I looked into some of the common western terms, found ones with decent flavour and accuracy, then modified them just slightly, and in whatever language/culture is represented in English in our prose, the common old world terms were always used (with a few exceptions).

    You have to know when enough is enough when it comes to research… even when writing an historical work and more so in an work of purer fiction.

    As to horses “lapping” water, I’d never even thought about it until you mentioned it. And you’re right of course, but since I’m not truly into horses, I would have never noticed. And there are situations, conditions, and moments where I could see a horse of some kind testing water before drinking… as in lapping it with its tongue. It’s all in the details of the story, not the research, in how to use what you research. There are times where a little trick like I just now mentioned creates a tiny little thing that has immense momentary impact upon a reading… especially when you break a rule to a controlled effect.

    If I’m watching that horse and paying attention to how oddly it just acted (by the term used for what it did) and author hinted that it was out of the ordinary… I’m instantly on the edge of my seat, turning the page quickly to find out “what the heck is going on with that weird horse?”

  • Wolf: Conducting reference is a wonderful thing! It can keep me from having to actually write the book for months at a time!

    Oh yes, and that trap never goes away, and we’ve all been there at one time or another. It’s the first of the two greatest hidden traps in research, then second being what (not) to use… and more importantly… why! It’s snared me a few times even in recent years, and was my bane in the earliest days.

  • Oh, Thank you, thank you, thank you! I can now take my collection of TimeLife books out of the closet and put them back on the shelves without shame! I actually have several TimeLife collections; WONDERFUL idea generators!

    I’m with Unicorn regarding getting horse behavior (or dog, elephant, etc.) right. If it’s called a horse, and is used like a horse, it should act like a horse. Okay… tell me it’s a magical horse and I’ll gladly suspend disbelief, but don’t assume I already know that. You said it was a horse!

  • Another invaluable reference if you write about medieval medicine is “Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs” by Claire Kowalchik. This book not only tells you the modern medical uses, but how they were used – or misused – in the past.

  • Thanks everyone! This was fun to do.

  • Unicorn

    JC – I’m late again, but thank you for such a complete answer to my question. Of course, it’s probably only horse-mad people like me who notice horses lapping water. But someone’s going to notice those little mistakes, in all the more technical areas of the work, be it castles or currency or whatever else.
    And thanks everybody for suggesting the books!
    Unicorn

  • Your welcome, Unicorn. We all have our little pet peeves based on things we know by a reasonable amount. And as writers, we’re even more prone to those little things catching our eye more than with just everyday readers.