The Research Question: Will I Ever Get it Right?

My problem with the book isn’t the writing, or the pictures, or the story. It’s a tiny detail, so small to be of almost no significance, but it is wrong and it bugs me like you wouldn’t believe.

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We have a book in our children’s collection called Mouseton Abbey, and it drives me insane.

It’s a sweet book, the pictures are all made up of knitted mice dressed in cute outfits having adventures against the backdrop of their illustrated abbey. There are ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ mice, and the whole thing is an entertaining parody of Downton Abbey.

My problem with the book isn’t the writing, or the pictures, or the story. It’s a tiny detail, so small to be of almost no significance, but it is wrong and it bugs me like you wouldn’t believe.

The Housekeeper’s name is Miss Swiss.

Housekeepers are never Miss. Nor, for that matter, are cooks. They are always Mrs, regardless of whether or not there is a Mr Swiss on the scene.

Why? I don’t know. I could look into it, but frankly, I’m spending enough time on the internet at the moment researching the different suburbs, or quarters of Rome, mapping the Allied advance through Italy during the second world war, and trying to get a handle on how the black market operated in Rome in 1943-44.

Research for one’s writing is a funny thing.

There is so much I can tell you about occupied Rome. For instance, the occupation happened on the 10th of September two days after the Italian’s announced that they were switching sides of the war, and 45 days after the Italian’s deposed their long-standing dictator, Mussolini.

Food was scarce in Rome in the initial days after the occupation due to the looting that occurred while the city was in chaos. A ration system was in operation, but with the southern part of the country in the hands of the allies, certain products became near impossible to obtain. Salt and sulphur both came from Sicily, which was in the hands of the allies, and so matches with their sulphur tips became scarce, which was a problem because gas was only available for short periods three times a day, and so you needed three matches a day to light your stove to cook.

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Reading the facts is one thing, trying to keep track of them an entirely different story!

There was no coffee, but people attempted substitutes, one of which was barley, roasted and ground (an apparently very unsuccessful imitation). No milk, half a pound of sugar per person per month, 150g of bread per day and no tea.

But even though I can tell you that the curfew was originally set from 9pm-5am, and that by January it had shifted to 5pm-6am (with shops and cinemas and cafes closing at 3pm), there is still so much left unknown, so much room for tiny, inconsequential Miss Swiss type errors.

This is the conundrum of the writer.

Will I ever get it right? Will I ever do enough research to make this story plausible? What if I’m found out? What if someone loves the story, the characters, the writing, but can’t forgive the fact that the wrong tree was flowering in chapter three?

And then there are the truly great works of fiction that inspire and cause despair all at once. I just finished reading the incredible Wild Island by Jennifer Livett. Historical fiction done to perfection, however I read in the afterword that she’d been working on that novel for forty years. And Hannah Kent, when she was researching Burial Rites travelled to Iceland and spent months translating documents from ancient Icelandic into English to use for her research. Is that what it takes to be truly great at this genre? Because I would rather not spend forty years per book, and I don’t speak ancient Icelandic (or for that matter Italian, which would be much more useful for my novel).

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At what point do you say enough is enough, and just write the thing?

My Strategy So Far:

I’ve collected diaries and memoirs, watched documentaries and movies, spent a heck of a time on the Australian War Memorial website, talked to them briefly on the phone, nagged my arts-student sister for pointers, and have been gathering about myself people who can read over my manuscript (when it’s fit for human consumption) to give me tips on different topics. I feel like slowly, slowly I’m creeping towards a credible story.

But still the fear is there that it will not be enough.

What is your pet peeve as a reader? And for the writers out there, how do you approach the research question? Advice, tips, and complaints welcome!

Next Week on the Blog

Actually, this month I’ll be taking a break from my weekly blog posts. A new little member of the family is due to arrive any day now, so my hormone-saturated brain and I will spare you our mumblings and I’ll spend February putting in some quality time with my little people. I’ll be back in March with an update on the family and my manuscript (currently halfway through first edit. Lot of slashing happening, a lot of re-writing on the cards). I’ll have three little darlings under three at that point, so if I have managed to come up with some winning methods of balancing the motherhood/writing lifestyle I’ll be sure to share. Or — and this is the more likely scenario — if I’m a raging, weeping, sleep-deprived, under-achieving mess, that could be quite fun to read about too.

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Glamourous and serene motherhood goals for autumn.

To make sure you don’t miss this, or any of my posts, you can subscribe to the blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Enjoy the last month of summer everyone, I’ll see you in autumn!

Chapel of Secrets

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

In a small Scottish village, not far south of Edinburgh, is an ancient stone chapel steeped in a history of legend and myth.

The village of Roslin, Scotland is nothing very special in itself. It consists of a narrow stone-fronted main street, a small patch of village green and surrounding sweeps of beautiful, wild Scottish countryside. But the Rosslyn Chapel is another story entirely. Construction on the chapel began in 1446, and through a long association with the Freemasons (and an alleged association with the Knights Templar) the Rosslyn Chapel has grown about itself an aura of mystery and legend. There are rumours of a hidden underground vault, secret medieval chests, and whispers of the Holy Grail. Throughout the interior of the chapel are ornate and elaborate carvings rich in symbolism and hidden meaning. There is an especially famous and beautiful pillar in the chapel called the Apprentice Pillar. Legend has it that the master mason didn’t believe that his apprentice could carve the beautiful column without seeing the original. The master mason went by himself to view the original pillar and found on his return that the apprentice had already completed the column, and so killed him in a fit of rage by striking him on the head with his mallet. They say, as punishment, the Master mason’s face was carved into the opposite corner so that, as punishment, he would forever have to gaze on his apprentice’s work.

Perhaps most intriguing of all the secrets and symbols of the Rosslyn chapel, is the code hidden in the 213 symbols carved into the cubes on the ceiling. This code was broken in 2005 by Scottish composer Stuart Mitchell. He decided, after 20 years of pondering, that the cubes formed a piece of music. The key to unlocking the mystery, said Mr Mitchell in an interview in The Scotsman , ‘lay in the discovery that the stones at the bottom of each of the twelve pillars inside the chapel formed a cadence of which there were only three types known or used in the fifteenth century’. After deciding that the cubes, or rather the pictures on the cubes, were the basis of a musical score, Mr Mitchell found further clues in the chapel about the nature of the piece of music. Carved into the pillars are musicians all playing different instruments used in the playing of the piece. He put the music into triple time and named it The Rosslyn Cannon of Proportions.

I do wonder though, if Mr Mitchell had been a geologist instead of a musician, would the code have read differently for him?

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In the same interview, Mr Mitchell stated that in his search to crack the code ‘he found a lot of symbolism and decoys to throw people off.’ What if what was decoy to Stuart Mitchell, held great significance to someone else? What if the code, steeped in mathematics, as is music, plays a gentle medieval chant quite incidentally? After all, people can play beautiful pieces of music just by playing the notes formed by a picture of birds sitting on telephone wires (see here).

So if you are travelling to Scotland any time soon, stop by the village of Roslin, check out the mythical chapel and have a look at the ceiling. Perhaps, if you’re a bit of a savant, you won’t need twenty years to interpret the message coded in the cubes. Maybe you’ve already been there and have your own theories? I’d love to hear them if you do! Let me know your theories about this or any other piece of puzzling architecture in the comments below, and if you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!