Top Ten Ways to Research (and why they can make or break a book) by Kathryn Erskine

1.  Books

Sure, it sounds old fashioned but there are millions of them from archery to Zen, kid books to scholarly, cookbooks to NOOK books.  In researching the Middle Ages, I read treatises on weapons and battles, medieval medicine, standards of living, even a fourteenth century book on housekeeping (did you know you can kill fleas by burning turpentine in your bedroom at night … probably not so good for the humans, either).  I learned the prized wood for an English longbow (yew), a great remedy to ease breathing (mullein), and medieval fast food (meat pies–yum!).  Art books can show clothing and lifestyle and can help verify that eyeglasses were indeed available, at least for the clergy, by the mid-fourteenth century, as seen in a 1352 painting of a cardinal in Italy.


2.  Internet

With caution, of course, but the internet can bring you information not otherwise available.  When trying to discover how Hadrian’s Wall would’ve been depicted on a medieval map, rather than my Michelen map, I eventually found that the Bodleian Library at Oxford University scanned the oldest known map of the United Kingdom, circa mid-fourteenth century (perfect!) and this Gough map is searchable online.  Guess what?  Michelen, and everyone else, apparently borrowed the Hadrian’s Wall depiction straight from the Gough map!  And where would someone likely have found a map in the Middle Ages?  Probably a library, aka scriptorium, at a priory, especially a priory a mile away from Hadrian’s Wall that kept a history of the area from 1272 to 1346, the year in which my novel is set.  The Lanercost Priory Chronicles are accessible online, too, a fascinating history of the area as seen through the eyes of Medieval monks.


3.  Interview Experts

Not only do experts have great information that might be just what you’re looking for or make you realize you’re on the wrong track, both of which are valuable, they LIKE talking about their field of expertise.  That’s why they went into it.  So, for example, you might need to find a Medieval scholar (thank you, Josh) found through another Medieval scholar (thank you, Rebecca) who can discuss with his colleagues (who are experts specifically on disabilities in the Middle Ages — wow!) how someone with albinism might have been treated.  And even if there’s only some evidence of public reaction to a member of royalty who might have had albinism, they can give enough guidance that you can feel confident you’re being as authentic as possible.


4.  Field Trip!

Nothing beats learning about a place like actually going there.  How can you go to the Middle Ages you might ask?  Well, you can go to Hadrian’s Wall and the museums along it and see the Roman latrines, walk through castles and cathedrals and crouch under a pew like maybe your character does even though he didn’t have tourists staring at the crazy lady … well, anyway, you can even go to Lanercost Priory, where, if you’re lucky, you are given the only book of the priory’s history, now falling apart, to read while you sit in the courtyard at sunset, and learn about details of life in those very walls.  Wow!  And may I just say that so many museums are not the stuffy “DO NOT TOUCH” places they were when I was a kid?  They are FUN.  Even if there’s something you can’t actually touch, like the fourteenth century bronze Tusculum whistle at the Museum of Scotland, I could see it and count the holes and appreciate how small it would look in the hands of a large Scottish soldier.


5.  Try it!

Really, this is what I tell aspiring writers and school students, along with the cautionary “only if it’s legal.”  If it’s not, you can always ask an expert (see #3 above).  There is something about experiencing what your character, or anyone, has done to make you appreciate and understand it.  It lets you use your senses to drink in the experience that reading about it might not.  Walking through a sheep field you see the pitfalls you have to avoid –rocks, ruts, sheep poop– and smell the aroma and feel the weight of not small creatures leaning against you and hear how when one starts bleating, all the others follow.  (Honestly, they’re like sheep!)  They have that sweet “Will you be my friend, or at least give me some food?” look in their eye that you really need to see for yourself.


6.  Observation

You can do this anytime, any place, whether it’s watching archery at a Renaissance festival or watching the way people walk or move or ride a horse.  Listening to teens and tweens at a mall lets you hear the language, know what’s important to them, and feel their energy.  Watching a couple interact at a restaurant or a mother counseling her high schooler as his eyes glaze over although really, he should be listening to me, I’m his mother!  Oh … well, there’s participant observation, too, but there is plenty of plain old observation that can give you great fodder for how people react in situations, authentic emotion, nonverbal ways of communicating, gestures, etc.  I love having young people do pantomimes so they can see the power of “show, don’t tell.”  Kids as young as third grade can identify what flirting is without saying a word.


7.  Eat, drink, and be merry!

Eating and drinking items from a particular culture or era can be enlightening, not to mention enjoyable.  Eating is one of my favorite forms of research.  It’s a visceral way of experiencing the era, the people, the place.  Scent is a powerful memory trigger, as is taste, and is a great tool for writers.  Just these words — fresh baked bread, warm chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon buns — can make your mouth water.  For the Middle Ages middle class life, eating is somewhat limited (pottage–yuck) but it does teach you the importance of onions — anything for a bit of flavor, please.


8.  Music

Music not only puts you in the mood but also sets the tone, literally, for that era or culture.  Since there’s not a lot of early Medieval music, I’ll point to the playlist I made for another book set in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era.  These songs give great insight into how people were feeling and the zeitgeist of the late ‘60’s and early 70’s.


9.  Movies

Like music, movies can create the ambiance but with visuals, too (e.g., The Lion in Winter, Gandhi, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).  They can be a jumping off point for more ideas and more research.  Even how a movie was directed or its political bent can tell you something about the culture or the era.  And the fashions … oh, my.


10.  Experience


This is all about you.  Your experience, your memories, how you felt about things, how you feel about life now, your emotions — knowing how it feels to be scared or angry or confused, what spring smells like or an onion, to be cold and wet, hear a noise you don’t expect or how hearing it when it’s quiet and dark makes it feel even louder.  They say to write what you know.  We all know our own experiences and emotions.


Wishing you a summer of fascinating experiences!


Kathryn Erskine is the acclaimed author of many distinguished novels for young readers, including Mockingbird, winner of the National Book Award; The Absolute Value of Mike, an Amazon Best Book and ALA Notable Book; and Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Kathryn lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and two children. She blogs at