The Fell Gard Codices

The Rewards of Research

November 10th, 2012

I’ve mentioned here that as part of my process for Fell Gard I’m researching the Middle Ages. It’s ongoing open-ended research; the Middle Ages are a vast topic, even if I restrict my main focus to Britain and France. What I find, though, is that there’s a specific joy that comes with the research, and (I think) a specific reward for the story that comes out of it.

I knew a certain amount about the Middle Ages before I began my reading and research, but much of what I knew was essentially political history and narrative history. The story of Thomas Becket, the story of Charlemagne, or Eleanor of Aquitaine. You pick up a certain amount about daily life and society in learning these things, but not as much as one might think. My research for Fell Gard, conversely, has been all about daily life and how people thought and their expectations of the world. I was surprised how difficult this was to grasp.

What I found was not just how complex the Medieval world was, but how many barriers there were to understanding it. It was disorienting. I expected to find a different culture and way of life, but the process of learning about the Middle Ages was made particularly difficult by a number of habits — for example, unconscious anachronism. By which I mean not projecting one’s own time upon a past time, but projecting a slightly different past time onto another past time. Reading about, let’s say, knights in the tenth or twelfth century, and thinking about knighthood in the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

Add to that the general difficulties of trying to grasp a foreign culture: a different economic system, and economic network supporting it; a different set of values (for example, money was not to be saved, but spent to demonstrate largesse); a specific set of institutions and officials at the village level — which of course varied with the village and its location. It’s all tremendously fascinating, especially when it can be illustrated with literature from the time. But it is, as I say, disorienting. It takes a lot of reading to understand what it is that you’re reading. It’s work.

What comes in the end, though, is, as I say, a very particular joy: the joy of things making sense. The feeling you get when you read a history and find that what you read fits into a conceptual framework you hadn’t realised you’d managed to put together. The feeling of things beginning to cohere; the feeling of apparent contradictions resolving, of facts that didn’t appear to work together suddenly dovetailing. The feeling of things that you already knew turning out to have a supporting substructure; the sense that your understanding has been expanded.

For Fell Gard, as a story, that becomes especially valuable: that substructure is what supports the characters. It explains their beliefs and desires and hopes. It explains how they interact with each other and see each other. It establishes the setting, out of which character emerges.

Obviously it doesn’t all come from research. Some of that is sheer imagination. Some of it is extrapolation: working out how such-and-such a custom would be different in a world with magic/goblins/dragons/whatever. But there’s a real help in having a grasp of a certain historical model — to which one can add or subtract as one wishes. And a certain kind of joy in finding that the model has become clear in one’s head. I know there are errors in my understanding, there are things I don’t even know that I don’t understand, there is much yet to learn. But I have a core I can build from. That is a reward of its own.

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