Monday, February 22, 2010

Medieval Underwear, and Other Topics of Research

I spent the better part of an hour yesterday wandering about the internet in search of information about what forms of underwear were worn in various periods of history. No, I'm not a pervert; it was research for a book I'm working on.

My approach to research, at least in my first novel The Last Protector (available for purchase; just click one of those links to the right) is a simple one: I just make stuff up. It's an approach that works pretty well in fantasy and SF (not so well in historical fiction, of course, which is why I avoid that genre). I'll recommend it without reservation to any aspiring authors who might be reading this.

Alas, I don't always take my own advice. I'm currently working on a story set in a place that the inhabitants at least believe is Camelot. Which means I have to do some research. Not a lot, since the first thing you discover when researching the "historical Camelot" is that there is no such thing. Or there are dozens of them, which is the same as saying there aren't any. Nobody really knows if there was a King Arthur, let alone when or where he might have reigned. So researching in that area was pretty easy; I listed a dozen or so popular options and then picked the one that best fit the rest of my story (which, in this case, meant the one where the supposed ruins of Camelot were such a minor archaeological site that the Ministry of Transport built a four-lane motorway right over them).

Other research was a bit more daunting. At one point, I found myself wondering if there was any chance that a set of bagpipes that had been put away for twenty-five (in a cool, dark, dry place, with the reeds sealed in a baby-food jar) could still be revived and played. Luckily, there's a huge group of experts out on the Bob Dunsdire piping forum. Not only did they tell me just how the pipes would have to be stored (and whether the bag seasoning would survive that long); they also gave me loads of insight into how pipes changed over that twenty-five years (mid 1970s to the beginning of the new millennium). It was a most profitable, and most enjoyable discussion.

Sometimes, research results just dropped into my lap, courtesy of Mother Nature and Global Climate Change (tm Al Gore Enterprises): while we may argue about the precise location of Camelot in both space and time, we do tend to agree it was somewhere in England. And I needed to know a bit about winter weather in England--how cold does it get, for how long, and how much snow might be expected. In particular, do they have anything as brutal as a Chicago winter? Fortunately, Mother Nature obliged with a once-in-a-lifetime cold snap and winter storm, so I was able to get my characterization of "extreme winter weather" from the BBC's daily reports (and no, it's not up to Chicago standards--ten centimeters of snow, about four inches, brought things to a halt; and there were warnings of severe cold, which meant sustained temperatures below zero degrees C). Thanks, Ma Nature... and to those of you in England who suffered through the storms, sorry 'bout that. We do apologize for any inconvenience.

And then there's the matter of those Arthurian undies. Suffice it to say that I found about as much reliable information about what Guinivere wore under her royal gowns as I did about when, where and whether Camelot actually existed. In other words, a lot of speculation, a lot of inference, and very little actual historical fact. It appears they didn't publish the Victoria's Secret catalog in pre-Victorian times. Sigh... a lot of work for what will probably end up being all of two or three paragraphs. I think I'll just go back to my primary research technique and just make something up.

Or I could just put everybody in kilts. That would solve the underwear problem, right?

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