The Importance of Research

By M.J. Porteus, author of Lorna Doone: The Wild and Wanton Edition

Lorna Doone: The Wild and Wanton Edition, Volume 1One of the challenges in adding to a period classic is to ensure that the additional detail you provide is as accurate as possible for that time. In fact, R.D.Blackmore wrote his most famous novel Lorna Doone about 100 years after the time period in which he set it, and although he used real places and events, he apparently didn’t get all his historical data spot on. It’s hardly surprising though, without having the internet at his fingertips, even though he will have had access to information such as during his time at Oxford. (By the way, what did we do before internet searches? Oh yes, I remember spending part of virtually every day in the local library for previous projects.)

Obviously if you’re writing about a period say, three or four hundred years ago, it’s no good having people describing something fashionable as “cool.” (In fact it’s no good using this word in that context even if you’re writing about the decades in which I grew up!) But the devil’s in the details: having a 17th century character saying that something is, for example, mesmerising, (or mesmerizing if you’re not in England) isn’t wise when the word did not come into being until 1829. That is, according to the wonderful Merriam Webster dictionary. And I promise you I’m not on commission! But it’s one of the tools I use to check whether or not a word is thought to have been used at a certain period in time. Of course there are differences of opinion between sources, and when you are looking back in time — well, even linguists cannot always be certain. A word may have entered the time’s vernacular long before it was written down in a document which happens to have been preserved.

I also immerse myself in writings from the time period — anything and everything both online and in books, and I find second-hand book stores to be invaluable (check out the towns of Tetbury or Hay-on-Wye if you’re in England or Wales) — to get a flavour of the lyricism of the language other than that of the original author, and to learn about current affairs, food, and attitudes to name but a few. For Wild and Wanton this includes finding words used to describe sexual acts and parts of the body. In fact you may be surprised to learn what words were in common useage in the seventeenth century!

In writing different scenes: if they are on a farm would there be a barn storing hay? If at the sea-shore in the south-west of England was there a risk of abduction by pirates? (Answers are yes and yes, by the way.) Clothing: no use having someone removing underwear if they didn’t wear it. And so on.

As to the language used by the original author, Blackmore (or maybe his publisher) is not the only one in his era to have used various spellings or versions of the same thing, such as Bridgewater or Bridgwater; naught or nought. I usually do a document search to see which one is used the most frequently and use that, or on occasions both as the original does.

I’m sure most authors (and especially Wild and Wanton ones!) do their level best to give you as much authenticity as possible. Of course even historians disagree about the past, so there’s no cast iron guarantee that we all get it right all of the time, but half the fun is in the writing, the rest is in the research!