Sunday, 6 December 2015

Author Mercedes Rochelle Casts Light on Research Then and Now

Today I'm delighted to hand the page over ~

by Mercedes Rochelle

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but research on my first novel began about 30 years ago, and even so it's hard for me to remember life before the internet. Due to a poor market concerning historical fiction, a bad experience with my agent and a very thin skin, I put my book on the closet shelf and forgot about it for 25 years. Well, I didn't quite forget about it; more realistically I'd say I lost heart and considered myself a failure. Life goes on and I started my own business. Who had time to write?

But wisdom sometimes comes with middle age, and when I turned 60 I decided to blow off the dust and try again. Was I in for a surprise! Without mentioning social media (the rude awakening), I was amazed to discover a whole new wealth of source material accessible without even having to leave the house. When I think of where I started, I'm amazed I got as far as I did, research-wise.

I was born and raised in St. Louis, and one big advantage I had was the accessibility to university libraries. I could go anywhere without being a student. I investigated the dark and dusty shelves in the history section, and found some amazing books. At random, mind you. It was hit and miss (mostly miss). I decided I needed to be closer to the center of the publishing universe and moved to New York City when I was 26. One of the first places I went was the Columbia University Library, pencil sharpened, with a roll of quarters in my pocket for the Xerox machine. I went through the turnstile and came to an abrupt halt. They wouldn't let me in! Only students were allowed; I couldn't believe it. I was kind of devastated.

Lucky for me, I discovered the New York Public Library. It sounded so unassuming, but I was quickly undeceived. Now HERE was an establishment worth settling down in. Any book I could think of, and more, were available as long as I was willing to wait the 20 minutes for someone to go fetch them for me. There was a long wait for copying, too, which someone else had to do. But I didn't care; I could finally do some serious work. Of course, I often only needed a paragraph or two in my book of choice, then off to the card catalog and another 20 minute wait. It's amazing how quickly I could go through a pile of books. I remember purchasing my first hand-held copier (with a 4" wide output on a strip of paper) that you placed against the page and pulled forward. The librarians were baffled, and it took a lot of begging to get permission to use it. For some reason they feared copyright infringement, even though they were all right with Xerox copies.

Then I discovered Edward A. Freeman's "History of the Norman Conquest of England" and I thought I had hit the jackpot. 
It was a revelation. Here was six volumes of definitive research. Once I moved to New Jersey and paid an annual fee to use the Princeton University Library, I found the second set of Freeman. It was a great relief and spared me many trips to NYC. I could prowl the bookshelves again on my own like the good old days. I think those were the happiest days of my adult life!
But there it was. I had to go to the library if I was to make any progress. I don't remember many used book catalogues from England. If I couldn't find a book locally, it wasn't to be had. Then I made my first visit to England. OK, I admit it, I felt like one of those early 19th century art collectors gobbling up great European paintings and bringing them to America. My long-suffering boyfriend and I searched every used bookstore we could find. We even had to drive 40 miles to the nearest American Express office to get a cash advance so I could purchase a "must have" set of Joseph Strutt costuming books with hand-colored plates. (Remember the phrase "Don't leave home without it"? It didn't apply in England in the late 80s). It was the AmEx office's first attempt at a cash advance and we almost didn't get the money. Then of course, 40 miles back to a very happy book seller. I think those three books cost me $700 at the time. I still have them.

Then we moved on to Hay-on-Wye and I was in hog heaven. I found my very own Edward A. Freeman 6-volume set, a red leather-bound set of Froissart, and a pile of other hardbound books too numerous to mention. This was before luggage had wheels. Oof, what a trip through the airport that was! I think we brought home the equivalent of a large child in book weight. I couldn't believe my good fortune. 

Nothing takes the place of holding those volumes in my hand and opening to my scruffy bookmarks, but now I can download those same books onto my hard drive and search the PDF files. Admittedly, PDF is faster and I will bounce over to Wikipedia when I need a quick answer. Still, I have a pile of books below my computer and I go to them first when I need do some serious research. I also have a pile of books on my Google Bookshelf, but I'm embarrassed to admit I forget what's there; ditto for many PDF books on my hard drive. Now that I have access to considerably more sources than ever before, I keep finding myself going back to the same three or four hardback favorites. I feel a little schizophrenic. 

But back to the research. I wanted to see the famous scenes of 11th century Scotland, especially where the battle of Dunsinane was fought. This presented a problem. At the time, there was no parking lot with a clearly defined path to the summit for visitors. Or if there was, I couldn't find it. We cleverly purchased a Geological Survey map of the area, only to discover that there was a Dunsinane Hill and a Dunsinnan Hill not ten miles from each other. Which one was it? Forget about finding Burnham Wood. So we duly drove to each location, though I wasn't entirely sure which hill among the many hills would bear signs of a castle. Or thousand year-old occupation. Or something. We didn't see any people if we had been brave enough to ask. Here's me feeling rather baffled:
One thing's for sure: I didn't find anything. Nor did this seem like a proper place to hold a battle... especially one by land and sea as I had read. It wasn't until this very year that I found corroboration; in "Bloodfeud" by Richard Fletcher, the author stated, "Its site is not known: Dunsinane, properly Dunsinnan, is a later improvisation." I moved on to Dunfermline (resting place of Robert the Bruce), allegedly founded by Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland. At least there I was gratified to see the remains of his famous tower... or at least, all three feet of them. 

It just confirmed to me that I should have seen something at Dunsinane. Later, I saw a plaque on an archway in Forteviot (Strathearn) where Malcolm was rumored to have built a palace. When I traveled over to Edinburgh Castle (also allegedly founded by Malcolm), all I saw was St. Margaret's chapel (the oldest building on site and supposedly built by him for his Anglo-Saxon wife). I asked the girl who was working at the castle for more information about the chapel, but she knew absolutely nothing. On the way back to London, I stopped by Stamford Bridge, hoping to glean some local history. All I found was a marker and a little pamphlet in the local market (mostly full of misinformation). I'm pretty sure that's changed by now, since they even do battle reenactments. 

Well, you get the idea. Researching travel destinations was pretty primitive in those days, so we got in our car and drove. I haven't been back to Scotland since that fascinating and frustrating trip, but I can guarantee that the next time around I will have mapped and marked every single place to within a square meter.

Harold Godwineson, the Last Anglo-Saxon King, owed everything to his father. Who was this Godwine, first Earl of Wessex and known as the Kingmaker? Was he an unscrupulous schemer, using King and Witan to gain power? Or was he the greatest of all Saxon Earls, protector of the English against the hated Normans? The answer depends on who you ask. This is the story of three cultures, Saxon, Dane, and Norman, and a self-made man's efforts to please four kings and promote his family.
Thank you very much, Mercedes. Read more about Godwine and my thoughts about the book HERE
You can find Mercedes on her WEBSITE and BLOG
Buy her books HERE


  1. Wow such determination. I am sure that today it would a much different experience for you. Still, it sounded like great fun. Good luck with the book(s) and thank goodness libraries and the internet. Cheaper than air fares, hotels and so on. :)

    1. Amazing how much life - and the world - has changed in a relatively short space of time. We are the last generation, apparently, who remember life before the internet. Scary thought!

  2. I'm a big fan of libraries and librarians. Thanks to online catalogues even a rural librarian can find source material for interlibrary loan. I live in Seattle which has an excellent public library along with the libraries at the University of Washington. I work in the 19th Century U.S. so there are digitized copies of newspapers.

    The web is a great place to meet people, particularly historians and historical societies. This is a situation where you want to "talk to strangers."

  3. Absolutely, David! This is how I 'met' Mercedes - through an online history group. Nice to hear that public libraries are thriving in the US, something which unfortunately cannot be said for the UK. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment - much appreciated.

  4. I loved reading this! Thank you Annie and Mercedes for taking me back in time. I too remember having to tread the pavements to libraries, trudging home laden with a bag full of heavy volumes in order to complete a project for school or college. The internet has made things easier in some respects, though it is often still necessary to double-check facts. Plus there is something satisfying about finding that snippet of information yourself after reading through pages and pages of text! Shared and tweeted.

  5. Thanks Elaine - glad you enjoyed the trip down memory lane. One brilliant bit of progress that helped me was the moving on line of all the Anglo-Saxon charters a few years ago, most helpful, particularly once I'd moved up North from where everywhere is harder to get to!