J's time machine - it's a work in progress.
After reading Mike’s charming Monday post, I had this little fantasy in which I went to the garage, cobbled together a time machine out of leftover fencing and lawn mower gas, and zipped off to the thirteenth century to do a little experiential research.
See, I’m a bit jealous of you contemporary and fantasy writers. I’d sure love to be able to do research by wandering down to the aquaponics shop, or better yet, just make something up to explain magic or shapeshifting or human flight.
With historical fiction, the one thing you can’t do is just make something up, and until I get that time machine off the ground, secondhand experience with a dash of firsthand evidence is all I’m going to get.
But here’s the thing about Mike’s experience that cuts across genre: authority. What gives me the right as a pesky writer – a pesky and obscure writer – to have access to certain information? And who in their right mind is going to take time out of her or his busy day to accommodate me?
The first time I approached a Special Collections desk in a Major Research Library to ask to see a rare book, I was sure the librarian was going to take one look at me, laugh, and point me toward the door. I was not a professor. I was not a scholar. I was not even a Real Writer. I didn’t feel like I had any right to that book, even though it had information that would fill in key gaps in my worldbuilding.
Special Collections - I'd live here if they'd let me.
I hesitated for a long time with the call slip in my hand, even with library and archival training of my own under my belt. At that moment, I felt like I needed a note from someone else giving me permission. I felt like just wanting to know – just needing to know – for some kids’ book about the middle ages wasn’t good enough.
Of course I handed over the slip and got the book without any drama at all, just like Mike’s WIP will be enhanced by his trips to various comic book emporia. As writers, and especially as writers for kids, we have a responsibility to get things right, to present rich and detailed worlds inhabited by complicated characters. That means we need information of all kinds, and that means we have the authority to find things out. Authority is not something that’s given – it’s taken. Anything given can be taken back.
For my part, I think I’ll put the time machine up on blocks and stick to books. Authority is great and all, but I’m not sure I want to arrive bright-eyed in 1294 and bounce up to guys like my rebel leader, Madog ap Llywelyn, and say, “Hey, can you tell me a little about how you plan to feed these guys all winter? What’s in your bag? What do you plan to put on that cut? And hey – what about your underwear?”