KATHY LYNN EMERSON’s new Mistress Jaffrey Mystery is set in 16th-century Cornwall and comes out on 1st April in the USA. Here she highlights the importance of meticulous period research.
Learning how to avoid using incorrect details is one of the trickiest parts of writing historical novels. Short of time-travelling back to the period in question and living there for a year or two, no modern author can avoid the occasional slip, but a handy rule of thumb is “if you can’t find out for sure, don’t guess.”
How do you find out? Research, of course. I do a great deal of the old-fashioned kind: reading hundreds of books and articles written by experts. I also seek out people with hands-on experience that I lack. In writing MURDER IN A CORNISH ALEHOUSE which involved both scenes at sea and dealings with pirates, I had the great good fortune to be acquainted with a fellow writer who is an expert on both. James L. Nelson has impressive credentials but one item on his resume made him ideally suited to give me advice. As a young man, he spent a year as a boatswain aboard a replica of The Golden Hinde, a ship from exactly the period I write about.
I won’t go into all the errors Jim saved me from making, but there are a couple that stand out. I envisioned my characters having to climb a rope ladder to get on board a merchant ship from their smaller boat. Nope. They’d have climbed boarding steps, what Jim described as “shallow shelves sticking out” from the side of the ship.
As for the pirates, although I was writing about an attack from the point of view of a character (Rosamond, Mistress Jaffrey) who knows nothing about ships or ordnance, as a writer I needed to have specific details at my fingertips. I knew my pirates were hoping to capture the ship, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that they would fire anything but cannonballs. Thanks to my expert consultant, I now know the cannonballs were fired to knock down masts or yards but rather than risk sinking their prize, they then used small cannons loaded with “all sorts of metal junk” to inflict as much damage as possible on the crew before boarding for hand-to-hand combat.
Thank goodness I asked!
visit our website for more information on MURDER IN THE CORNISH ALEHOUSE and earlier titles in this series.