Thursday, May 29, 2014

Research for Hild?

From: Lauren

My friend Genevieve Williams (who is also a writer) saw you speak at SPL* and mentioned Hild, which I had heard about here and there, so I got it (on Kindle, sorry, I don't know if you get as much money from that) and I LOVE IT SO MUCH. I'm only halfway done, but I can't stop thinking about it and recommending it to people. 

I feel like I need to take classes in Middle English (?) as well as Irish and Welsh and whatever else—a feeling I love! I'm a small farmer, too, and you totally nailed the seasonality, the dependency, the interconnectedness of the animals and their byproducts (the sacrifices, the wool, the fat) and the plants and their byproducts (the herbs, the flax) and the humans and the household. Hild after the battle at Lindsey is the perfect antidote to the dudely wars in Banks' books. Her conceptualization of politics as weaving makes me glad. I am basically just constantly rolling around with glee in the feminine, feminist worldview. Nobody's perfect, nobody's a stereotype, everyone is complex and good and bad and wonderful.

I know I'm not a reviewer, but here are my literary comparisons, which you can use in the tally or not:  
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mists of Avalon—thematically, feministically (yes, that's a word now) 
  • GRRM of course, because he WISHES the first book of GoT was like this, but this is so much better
  • Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab's Wife—not thematically, but in terms of engrossingness (also a word), loveliness of language, and my evangelism about it to everyone 
Anyway I have no good conclusion because I just want to finish typing so I can go back to reading the book. Um, I'm supposed to ask a question! So ... how long did you research this book? Did you have to study other/old languages? Where did you do your research? 

Thank you so much. I love the book a lot. 
In a way, I've been researching this book all my life. I grew up where Hild grew up, in Elmet which is now in West Yorkshire. So the physical details of Elmet and Deira, that is, the rest of Yorkshire—the change of the air as winters turns to spring, the sound of the trees at different times of year—are part of my understanding of the world. But I'd never been to Hadrian's Wall, or Bamburgh/Bebbanburg, or Yeavering; that's all research.

So much else is research, too. Some of this was systematic and conscious: I'm writing a novel about Hild, I will need to know X and Y and Z. Some of it haphazard and follow-my-nose-is: Oooh, so this is how they made a sword... Both sorts led me in interesting and unexpected directions: Huh, so what data do we have regarding physical remains of domestic animals? Or Which trees/birds/flowers/mammals were common and which rare in which parts of the country in, say, 620 CE?

For at least fifteen years I've been immersed in Britain of the first millennium. (I found so little available on the 7th C that I had to reach further back and then forward and try to fill in the gaps).

Then, too, scholarship is changing all the time. What was known to be known in 1970 is pretty different to what scholars believe to be true today. And, of course, these scholars tend to disagree.

Sometimes I got lost in minutiae. I'd read three different translations of the same poem and find the tone of each so shockingly at odds with the others that eventually I began to teach myself Old English so I could decide for myself. It didn't take me long to realise that this was an idiotic thing to do. To reach the level of expertise I was seeking might take twenty years. I'm a writer, not a Tolkien-level philologist!

It was around this point—2007 or so, I think—that I started pestering people who knew more than I ever would: experts in everything ranging from weaving to weather to warfare. Many, I found, kept blogs. (Some now hang out on Twitter though far fewer than is convenient for me, tuh.) I began reading their blogs. I began commenting on their blogs. It became apparent that I needed a blog of my own. Gemæcca, my research blog, was born. (And, oh, I wish I could go back and change that to Gemæcce! But by the time I saw my mistake, the URL was set. But on the blog I get to think aloud and take the temperature of those more expert than me; see for example this post on York in Hild's time for how this works.)

In my research I use everything: folk tale, music, personal experience, seriously abstruse papers, tattered old textbooks. I get information from friends and colleagues, Interlibrary Loan, books I put on gift wishlists, subscriptions to academic journals. (In my opinion academic publishing is a racket: $185 for a slim hardcover that probably only cost a dollar to produce and for which the author is barely compensated—yes, I've seen a couple of contracts; they are terrible. And just about all the extraneous work usually done by others in the trade press—for example, permissions, indexing, copyediting—is done by the authors and/or editors of the book. The graphic design is often execrable and production values shoddy. There are signs this is changing; as far as I'm concerned that changes can't happen fast enough.)

In terms of note-keeping, well, I'm sadly inefficient. Online tools such as Evernote and Scrivener are great—or would be if all the things I needed were digitised. But they're not. So I have notebooks, and digital files, and maps with pins, and giant charts, and folders of scribbles, and spreadsheets, and printouts, and bookmarks, and boxes of 3x5 cards, and just about everything you can think of. In other words, I'm hopelessly disorganised. But somehow it works. Swapping from one medium or form to another keeps me from settling on a path too soon. My research is like a life: absorbing, frustrating, thrilling, inefficient, varied.

The writing, too, is not straightforward. But I think I'll talk about that another time.

As for sales, I don't get as much money from a Kindle sales as the hardcover—but I get more from an ebook sale than I'll get from the paperback. And sales have gone better than I expected. Trust me, I am not complaining.
* The Seattle Public Library, the Rem Koolhaas building downtown, where this photo was taken and this podcast taped

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