Research is essential for authors. How many times have I heard that? And I’ve always heartily agreed, because reading something that you know isn’t correct – well, it jerks you out of the story, and that’s never a good thing. Right?
So I’m very glad that I made a last minute decision to check something out recently, and rather cross with myself that I didn’t think to do it earlier. Because if I’d left it, I’d have been kicking myself sooner or later – probably when some diligent reader pointed out that I’d got my facts WRONG!
One scene in my WIP takes place in Scarborough Castle. Now, Scarborough’s not too far from where I live. I can be there and back in an afternoon with plenty of time to stroll around. I’ve even been known to get the bus there. (That didn’t go down too well, as I was only supposed to be going into town for an hour or so, but the bus was just there and it was a lovely day, and who could resist?) Anyway…
Extraordinary as it sounds, I haven’t been to the castle for decades. I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s not exactly hidden away. You only have to look up and there it is, straddling the headland and making the skyline a rather more beautiful and interesting feature. Anyway, it’s so familiar that I somehow fooled myself into thinking I knew all about it, and that I remembered what it was like to go round the place. With my infallible memory and a little help from the website, I could describe a visit to the castle perfectly. Of course I could.
Wrong! Thank goodness for DH who willingly drove me there yesterday, and cheerfully accompanied me into the castle grounds – despite his long-standing and alarmingly savage allergy to ancient buildings and anything remotely historical. It was typical Bank Holiday weather, unfortunately, with drizzle and plenty of mist. Still, we weren’t going to let that stop us. If we waited for sunshine we might never go anywhere. We’re British, after all.
The first thing I discovered was that I hadn’t mentioned that you buy your tickets inside a gift shop. Well, I wouldn’t have done, as I couldn’t even remember there being a gift shop at the entrance. It was so long ago that I last visited it’s quite possible there wasn’t a gift shop at the entrance. In fact, it’s so long ago, it’s possible that the castle itself was still in the process of being completed.
The second thing I realised was that I’d somehow convinced myself that the toilets were inside the cafe, and had one of my characters heading into them. Thank goodness for my visit yesterday, or my character’s own visit would have resulted in a rather embarrassing scene, and possibly arrest. There are no toilets in the cafe. Phew!
But the main thing that struck me was simply this. You just can’t convey the atmosphere and flavour of a place unless you’ve actually been. You can Google it, and read about it, and look at maps and photos, but there’s nothing to beat actually being there. Yes, I know it’s not always possible, and I’m certainly not saying that writers should limit themselves to writing about places they’re able to travel to themselves, because sometimes the budget simply doesn’t stretch that far. Sometimes, it’s not humanly possible. But when you get the chance – when it’s right on your own doorstep – there’s really no excuse. Standing inside the castle keep, gazing out over the North Sea, staring in awe at the cannon balls that bombarded the castle during the civil war, imagining the terrible conditions endured by the Royalist troops during the Siege of Scarborough Castle in 1645…You just don’t get that feeling from a computer screen.
Besides, it’s a great reason for a day out! I enjoyed myself so much, I signed up to join English Heritage. DH didn’t go that far, but he did agree that he’d had a fantastic day, and got quite absorbed in reading the information boards and looking at the exhibits. Just shows you!
Oh, and on the way back to the car, we got to visit Anne Bronte’s grave, where someone had left some heather from the moors – a really thoughtful gesture that gave me quite a lump in my throat. All in all, it was a fantastic day. Who needs sunshine?
You can find out more about Scarborough Castle and English Heritage here.
Have a great week!