Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Story in My Mind - "Research" Trips

Me on Bunker Hill looking down towards Charlestown during a "research" trip to Boston in October 2011.'s been a long time since I've posted anything to this blog. You can all blame real life for that. Know that I *am* currently working on something that would be a bit more educational in nature and hope to have that posted soon, circumstances permitting.

But in the meantime, how about something a bit more fun and lighthearted? I'd mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts that I would like to foray into historical fiction writing someday and am already brainstorming/researching for character and plot ideas. Given that, I thought I'd take this time to share a bit about something that, time and finances permitting, I like to do with my story-writing projects: "research" trips.

Note the quotation marks. See, I seldom have the luxury or the connections that would permit me to go someplace to really formally research: accessing archives, academic sources, etc. Most of the "research" trips I've taken in the past have, in fact, just my taking advantage of any existent family vacations to glean what little I can that would be useful for my writing. What that means is that I very rarely ask that we go somewhere directly relevant to my story development - the onus is not on the rest of the party (who may or may not actually be interested in what I want to do) to accommodate me, but on me to keep my eyes and ears open anywhere we go. Vacations are a lot more enjoyable that way, I've found ;)

Since I've started dabbling in historical fiction writing - Hetalia fanfiction and otherwise - I've really only gone on two real "research" trips so far. (I've gone on more family trips than that, but not necessarily to places that'd be directly relevant to what I want to write.)

The first was in October 2011 to Boston, Massachusetts; at the time, I was working on my Hetalia piece Brother of Absalom, which was set before and during the American Revolutionary War. While my immediate focus was on Canadian history - and the Continental Army's invasion of Quebec from 1775-1776 in particular - I really wanted to milk an already-planned trip to Boston for all its worth.

A historical interpreter/tour guide dressed as a British soldier on the Freedom Trail in Boston; photo taken in October 2011 during a "research" trip.
The only time that I overtly looked at and did stuff for my writing was walking Boston's famous Freedom Trail, which took me to sites like Bunker Hill (pictured above), Paul Revere's house, and the site of the Boston Massacre. Otherwise, I made do with taking pictures of relevant art and artifacts in the museums, and dogging my hosts in Arlington (a suburb of Boston) for historical information about the neighbourhood. (That's how I found out, for instance, that the British had passed through where I was staying on their way to Lexington and Concord that fated April 19, 1775.)

Historical buildings near Covent Garden, London; photo taken during a "research" trip in May 2014.
More recently, I had the chance to go to London earlier this year - and for this trip, I was definitely very excited. My re-working of my older Hetalia stories to suit a broader historical fiction context meant that I had to do more involving 18th century London than ever before. So I was definitely looking forward to seeing what I could. This time around, to be honest, I didn't get to do or experience everything that I would have wanted - I had originally planned to visit the Handel House Museum to be able to get a glimpse inside a middle-class mid-18th century residence, for example, but ran out of time. However, the trip was by no means not a waste. It was amazing to see what I did manage to see - and experience what I got to experience.

1727-1728 Period room reproduction at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photo taken during a "research" trip in May 2014.
For instance: I broke one of the biggest "tourist" rules in the book and opted not to wear my very comfortable running shoes whilst out and about. Instead, I opted for a pair of black leather shoes with a chunky low heel. Those of you who are familiar with historical footwear should get where I'm going with this; for everyone else, know that I often try to - safely! - simulate as much as I could of what my characters might end up going through in order to write them properly. Now, I want to say that usually, those black shoes are very comfortable: they're my favourite for work/school wear, for instance. However, my relatively sedentary 21st century self was NOT prepared for the amount of beating they'd take on London's streets - especially any part of the streets and sideways were made up of cobblestones! So every night, I'd get back to the hotel nearly limping and with callouses developing on the soles of my feet, go to bed asking why I'd put myself through something like this...and then, upon looking at those black shoes up next to my running shoes the next morning, put them on again anyway. Lesson learned? My characters must have been many times tougher than me!

Historical interpreters drilling at Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario in May 2013. Not an official "research" trip, as they were 19th century interpreters, but I did get the chance to hold one of their replica 1867 rifles afterwards and get a feel for its weight.
I've built up a good deal more anecdotes than what I've already shared: both from my two "official" "research" trips, and from countless others where little gems pop up along the way (one instance pictured above). So what's next for me? Lord willing, Quebec City. This, more than any other place on the planet, is the central locus of my writing. Given that, it's hard to believe that, since this whole process started, I have not been there even once. I did go to Quebec City as a small child, and once on an eighth-grade school trip, but those times were different. Case in point, here's an excerpt from a travelogue I kept on the latter trip - and you'll see how it was anything but a research trip:

We were pretty much dead on our feet by the time we rendezvoused at the gate. That's when they told us: we were going to La Citadelle, which meant a whole ton more walking! Well, we got there, we were divided by our buses again, and were taken on a tour. It was really kind of boring. They kept on mentioning the Battle on the Plains of Abraham. I was really finding this annoying, and besides, who brags about LOSING?!?!

Um...yeah. Forgive me if I end up cringing whenever I think back to how flippant I was about my own country's history as a 14-year-old. Said teenaged self would probably have never imagined that I'd be where I am now: completely fascinated by the events of 1759 and desperately wanting to go back to Quebec City for a proper "research" trip. It's about time I did it justice, after all!

Image Credits

All photos (c) Kita Inoru