Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Research -- The Joys of "Being There" by Kathy Fischer-Brown

As a writer of historical novels set in the 18th century, I find doing the research is as interesting as writing the book itself…if not more so. In this modern age, it can be done easily, without having to leave the comfort of one’s chair. Digitization of more and more old, formerly hard-to-find source books, blogs and specialized websites have taken much of the drudgery out of what used to be a time-consuming chore. 
Old Sturbridge Village
But even with a wealth of available information, nothing is quite as stimulating as “being there.” The acrid smell of black powder smoke settling over a field in the hot glare of autumn sun, along with the crack of musket fire; the boom of cannons belching fire; the feel on your face of the dry heat of kitchen fires on a sultry summer day; flies swarming about the kitchen through open, distorting glass windows…all provide a unique entry into the world I try to recreate in my novels. When attempting to capture these sensory details, books and journals, letters and maps fall short, leaving too many of these tangible elements to the imagination.
Recruits drill at Saratoga National Park
When I was a child of ten, my family visited Williamsburg, Virginia, and I fell hopelessly in love with the place and the era it represents. The clothing, the smells and sounds affected me with a deep sense that, if just for the short time we were there, I had traveled back in time. Over the years, we made similar visits to other living history sites in the Northeast and Southern U.S. As an adult, I took my children to Mystic, CT, Old Sturbridge, MA and many a re-enactment rendezvous. The magic I’d experienced as a child had not released its hold on me.
During the weekend of September 19-21, a fellow historical writer friend and I attended the 237th anniversary of the “Turning Point of the American Revolution” at the Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, NY. Being transported to an earlier period in time was magical, marvelous, and informative.
We spent all day Saturday and part of Sunday traveling by car around the park, stopping at the numbered points of interest along the route to marvel at the scenery from the heights overlooking the Hudson River Valley and beyond. At other tour stops, we met members of the various re-enacting groups representing both the American and British camps. While other tourists milled about, we sat around pungent campfires and chatted with women toiling with the laundry in wooden buckets using water carried up the heights in pails, with a rifleman who was more than happy to answer our questions and explain how he cleans his flintlock after a long day on the battlefield. We also watched a group of raw recruits go through the paces of loading and firing their weapons...with a little help from the drill master.
British Camp follower at Saratoga National Park
As interesting as it was to spend time with the “Americans,” the British encampment provided opportunities to delve into the sort of stuff not taught in history classes. Here we met a Royal Navy man, a Hessian soldier, Loyalists, and bevy of camp followers and their children. One of the women introduced us to an assortment of vegetables common at the time. We even sampled carrots and beans not found in our local supermarkets.
I don’t know about anyone else, but after watching numerous movies and made-for-TV-series set during this period, I wondered how those woolen breeches worn by the British army stayed so white during their mucky slogs through the wilderness. “Chalk,” explained the young man portraying a Loyalist Indian agent. Who’d have imagined that? He also showed us some his equipment, which included an actual sword (and explained how it differs from reproduction swords) and an ingenious device he called “the Bic lighter” of the 18th century.
In addition to the clothes and the sights, smells and sounds from the past, we experienced that otherworldly sensation of walking among ghosts on hallowed ground where so many bled and died, where a future traitor achieved his finest hour, on a tract of land that has been preserved for today and for those of tomorrow who can—if just for a short while—step back in time.

~Kathy Fischer-Brown
Cover art by Michelle Lee
cover art by Michelle Lee