Wednesday, September 25, 2013

That Pesky Research

 by Dina Sleiman

Historical research is tough. Even tougher than finding the right information sometimes, is knowing the right questions to ask. For example, in my first medieval novel I assumed they would have cards and coffee. But when I actually thought to check on those issues, I found out my setting was 50 years too early for either of them to have made their way to England. On the coffee issue, I just changed the drink. On the cards issue, I had a crusader bring them back from the Holy Land.

My latest medieval creation has a fun acrobatic twist. I can't tell you how many times I've read about medieval "acrobats" in historical text books. So, I never thought to ask if the word acrobat actually existed at the time. But right before sending out my final version of Dauntless Love, my daughter's skepticism about the acrobats prompted me to do a little more last minute research. And...I found out the word "acrobat" actually did not exist in English at that time. They would have been called "tumblers" or possibly "aerialists" if they worked off the ground. When used in military training, acrobatics would have been referred to as "agility skills." Mind you, since they spoke Middle English in 1217, I'm fairly lenient with myself on using words from as late as the 1600s when the language stabilized. But "acrobat" wasn't around until the 1800s.

In my last minute research I also found this cool video of medieval "tumblers." If they claim to be "acrobats," don't you believe them!

So let's talk historical research. What are funny mistakes you've seen or made? What are the questions you never even thought to ask?


  1. One thing my authentic Regency gown, stays, and chemise taught me is a lady of that era could not don a ball gown or the appropriate undergarments without assistance. Lower class gals like servants wore a different type of stays which they could manage themselves, but ladies wore the kind that requires a maid. I've read several books where the heroine eschews help and dresses herself. Well, now I'm well-convinced that isn't all that feasible. Lacing the stays yourself and managing hooks and eyes behind your back is not realistic.

  2. In my 1930s English mysteries, I thought for sure they'd have ice boxes even if they didn't have refrigerators in some places.

    Nope. No ice boxes. Evidently it's cool enough there to keep food in the larder, and they went to the market daily for fresh food.

    Certainly couldn't do that in Texas in summer!

    I managed to excise the ice box references in my galleys.


  3. Fun post, Dina. I love research and I always pray I'm not missing something glaringly obvious. I don't think the average reader reads to find mistakes, so hopefully there's a bit of grace out there if or when we do make one.

  4. I recently made a biggie in my current project when I had my heroine disembarking from a steamboat in 1887 and then my research showed that the last scheduled steamboat into Winnipeg was in 1885.

    You'd think it'd be a little thing, but I had originally chosen 1887 due to an actual historical event.

    So now I can't decide if I should change my storyline, or have my heroine arrive by train. The latter would be easier, but that means more changes down the line.

    Sometimes 2 years can make a big difference when you're looking for historical accuracy. *sigh

  5. Yeah, those English people are hardcore, DeAnna. When I was there in the early 90s I was shocked by how few conveniences they had compared to Americans. Although, of course, they did have refrigerators by then.

  6. Anita, I did one like that once. I had Dandelion using a pier to board a ship, but they didn't have piers at that time. They used row boats. Roseanna, my editor caught that one.

  7. Okay, ladies, now here is my most embarrassing published mistake which all my crit partners, me, and my editor all missed.

    There were no potatoes in medieval England. They can from South America in the early 1500s. Who on earth would have even thought to question potatoes in Britain? I mean, Shepherd's pie, Irish potato famine. What's more British than meat and potatoes? Other than of course, tea. Which also made a pretty late arrival in the British isles.

  8. Heh heh . . . I got called out for having potatoes in my medieval books, too, but the stories are set in a fictional place, and I say if I made it up, they can have potatoes if they want! :D

  9. Yeah, I wish I had that excuse, DeAnna.

  10. This is why I admire you Historical writers! You really have to research every detail to make sure the spell doesn't break. :)

  11. Sometimes I think I should write contemporaries. It was really annoying to write settings BEFORE MATCHES!

    but no, I won't. The one contemporary I wrote had so much research involved that it wasn't much easier.

    I think I have yet to discover my huge big historical inaccuracy. Will have to depend on future critics for that!

  12. Angela, "the spell" is a good way to put it. I think it is much easier to create that spell for readers than for other historical writers and experts. LOL.

  13. Okay Deb. I'm going to give you a very special secret for writing books before matches. Are you ready? Stick to two simple phrases. "She lit the fire." or "She lit the candle." You just don't mention how she did it. Et viola!


Share This Post

How Our Giveaways Work: The Official Rules

We, the ladies of Inkwell Inspirations, would love to give free stuff to everybody. Since we can't, we will often have a giveaway in conjunction with a specific post. Unless otherwise stated, one winner will be drawn from comments left on that post between the date it was published and the end of the giveaway as determined in the post. Entries must be accompanied by a valid email address. This address is used only to contact the commenter in the event that he/she is the winner, and will not be sold, distributed, or used in any other fashion. The odds of winning depend on the number of entrants. NO PURCHASE, PLEDGE, OR DONATION NECESSARY TO ENTER OR TO WIN. ALL FEDERAL, STATE, LOCAL AND MUNICIPAL LAWS AND REGULATIONS APPLY. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.