Confessions of a Research Junkie by Alana White
All right, I’ll admit it: I adore research. And since I am writing a historical mystery series set in Renaissance Italy with real-life women and men like lawyer Guid’Antonio Vespucci, artist Sandro Botticelli, and Florentine leader Lorenzo de’ Medici as main characters, I do a lot of digging, both when planning and when writing the manuscript. Happily, I love the thrill of the chase and the “aha!” moment when I unearth a gem buried deep in the pages of a Renaissance diary, letter, or tax record that sparks a scene, a character’s motivation, or a medieval means of murder.
Apothecary Luca Landucci’s A Florentine Diary is one of my favorite resources. On 25 March 1480 Luca recorded how on that day a religious painting was brought to Florence from a nearby Tuscan town for the spring celebrations. Luca’s note inspired me to “use” that real painting of the Virgin Mary as the one seen weeping in Guid’Antonio and Amerigo Vespucci’s family church, causing all manner of havoc, in The Sign of the Weeping Virgin. Subsequently, during a visit to Tuscany I saw the actual painting for myself, which then led to its description in the book.
In writing this series, I have chosen to stick as close as possible to my Renaissance characters’ real lives, within the realm of what I know. We’ve all heard the saying, “one picture is worth a thousand words.” While researching the Vespucci and Medici families, who were neighbors and close friends, I found that today most historians agree Botticelli’s favorite model, Simonetta Vespucci, and Lorenzo de’ Medici’s beautiful younger brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, were lovers. Giuliano was single and Simonetta was married to Giuliano’s best friend, Marco Vespucci (round and round we go with the Vespuccis and the Medicis!). Well. How to capture and reveal Simonetta and Giuliano’s relationship and, possibly, their feelings for one another?
At last, I saw it in Botticelli’s Primavera (or Spring) painted for Giuliano de’ Medici’s cousin: the emotion on Simonetta’s face as she gazes toward Giuliano on the far left side of the painting is filled with yearning, with longing perhaps unfulfilled. Sometimes, research and serendipity lead to magic moments.
But there is a flip side to this coin. Research is a time-eater. It provides the excuse we writers sometimes use to do anything but continue the hard work of writing our story. Which brings me back around to Lorenzo de’ Medici, who wrote in a poem, “Too much knowing is misery.” Well, it certainly can be. For once we writers have all this fascinating information at hand, whether the details of how autopsies are done, or the particular hue and design of a spectacularly lovely Renaissance dress, how do we keep the information at our fingertips, or at least nearby?
Organization is key. I keep several fat, hardbound notebooks, two of them by subject. Into them I clip any useful general tidbits I find on, say, Renaissance Italian sports. I copy maps and family genealogies and clip them into separate binders. As recommended by popular author and blogger Nathan Bransford, I started a Character Bible, and am I glad I did! Using my bible as a reference, I double-check a character’s description along with the role she/he played in the previous book. Information on poison and means of murder go into their own, separate folders. So—is this micro-management? My hope is that such tactics will help me write through the next first draft with fewer pauses or complete stops along the way, “hope” being the key word here, since I seem to spend a lot of time muttering, “Now, where did I put that notebook?”
How about you? Do you have any tricks or tips regarding research (or any material that is important to you, really) and how to harness it, if not quite wrestle it to the ground?
Thanks, Alana. It sounds like an addiction to research is pretty darned important for those who want to write historical novels. I find it hard enough to keep track of each character’s appearance, habits, background, and speech patterns.
For more information about Alana and her work, visit her website.
And please check out these great reviews for The Sign of the Weeping Virgin:
*STARRED* Kirkus Review ~ “One hopes that White’s clever tale, meticulously researched and pleasingly written, is the first in a series that will bring Florence and its many famous denizens to life.”
Publishers Weekly: “Fans of historical mysteries will thoroughly enjoy this chance to visit the Italy of 1480 in the company of real-life historical figure Guid’Antonio Vespucci, a Florence lawyer. Backed up by sure-handed storytelling and scrupulous research into the period, White creates richly evocative descriptions of Renaissance-era Florence certain to please the amateur historian and armchair tourist.”
Library Journal: “Intrigue and danger . . . White’s debut Renaissance mystery is overflowing with historical details and fascinating subplots . . . the author’s knack for describing settings is stellar. Ian Morson writes historicals with a similar tone.”
And don’t forget that any comment on any post this week on this blog gives you another entry for my giveaway of an NCW 2013 writing planner. See the details here.