The joy of research, post #I: Breathing life into the archives

When writing a novel involving places that actually exist, you need to get the details exactly right or the boat won’t float. And the details aren’t just in the names and locations. It’s the sensory data that pulls the reader in.

I’m currently in the process of writing such a novel. The story takes the main character on a treasure hunt from the dusty archives of Barcelona to the ramshackle seaport of Lisbon and finally to the humid jungles of South America.

Suffice it to say there’s lots of research is involved in such an undertaking. But that’s not to say it’s drudgery. Quite the opposite, actually; the joys will be familiar to many fellow travelers, trip planners, and history buffs.

The details of the various locals matter, big time; I’ve needed to get a sense of the atmosphere of these places to portray them on the page. Take for example one of the books early settings: The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The building houses the world’s biggest repository of documents about the Spanish Empire’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery.

I had to be there to breathe in the mustiness that hangs in the air. I had to smell the dust from the ancient, historic parchments flanked by soaring pink marble columns. I had to feel the stale air settle into my lungs as the leather of an old journal’s binding cracks under my fingers as I open it. I had to watch other researchers trawl through yellowing documents, handwritten by real people lost to time. I had to wander the opulent library as historians pore over documents in hope that the faded ink scratches will yield insight.

The majestic old archive in Seville was, as in so many cases, merely the starting point of a larger and greatly enriching journey.

Some call book research “work”. I call it the fun part.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | June 22, 2012
Category: Adventure Travel, Europe, Travel Writing

3 Responses to “The joy of research, post #I: Breathing life into the archives”

  1. DEK Says:

    For myself, the library work is the happy part of the project. The writing and everything else is one degree or another of drudgery. When I am hip-deep in old books the game is afoot and the blood is up and there is treasure hidden in the pages. That may, of course, just be me. Your results may differ.

  2. Marco Says:

    That is exactly why I applied – and succeeded – for a Phd research scholarship… being paid a little to do what you like is also a very motivating “part of the fun” 🙂

  3. James Ullrich Says:

    Marco: Well done!