“L” is for “Location”: The Pleasures of On-site Research

The Alphabet Posts are back!  (And believe me, it took a few minutes to remember which letter I’m on. Ahem …)

For me, research is one of the most fascinating parts of writing a book. And for a (predominantly) historical romance writer, that generally means submerging myself as much as possible in the past, absorbing the details and attitudes of a bygone age, while trying to keep my connection to the story emotional, visceral, and real. So I read letters, memoirs, and journals, and familiarize myself with the lives and careers of historical figures who might have influenced the creation of my characters.

Model of H. G. Wells' Time Sled
Model of H. G. Wells’ Time Sled

Virtual time travel is wonderful, of course, and with the wealth of print and online resources now available, you can get closer to the past than you ever imagined. But even the best secondary sources can’t always recapture the experience you want to have as a writer and to convey to the reader. And that’s when on-site research becomes highly desirable, even essential.

The late Margaret Frazer attended a reenactment of medieval mystery plays, performed in the open air by a traveling troupe, as part of her research for A Play of Heresy, her last Joliffe the Player mystery. Deanna Raybourn, author of the Lady Julia mysteries, traveled to England because she needed to smell a moor for her third book in the series. And I’ve heard some Regency authors discuss the upcoming bicentennial of Waterloo and debate going to visit the battlefield to get a genuine “feel” for the last battle of the long-running Napoleonic wars.

Battlefield of Culloden, photo by Auz
Battlefield of Culloden, photo by Auz

Having once visited Culloden Moor, though not for research purposes at the time, I can attest that the old battle sites do carry a certain “vibe.” In Culloden’s case, it was a mournful, desolate one, enhanced by the overcast grey sky and the scrubby reddish-brown brush–the color of old blood–that covered the terrain. I was depressed even before I saw the stones marking the mass graves where Highland clans had fought and died for the Jacobite cause.

Magdalen College, Oxford University, photo by Romanempire
Magdalen College, Oxford University, photo by Romanempire

On a happier note, I’ve also visited Oxford University, though sadly my memories of it aren’t as vivid as they could be. I’ve seen Blenheim Palace and Stonehenge.  I’ve walked on the medieval walls surrounding York, which could come in very handy in one of my WIPs, set in Yorkshire. I’ve seen the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and a fascinating collection of cameos and intaglios at the British Museum. I’ve walked my feet off visiting the Tower of London, and seen–though not heard–the Tower ravens hopping about the yard. And I’ve been to Cornwall, though not, alas, as close to the north coast as my characters are.

Unfortunately, on-site research of this nature is a luxury. My first-hand memories of the UK were all acquired on one trip, years ago. Few of us have the means or opportunity to jet off to see every detail of our books’ setting for ourselves. So it’s pure serendipity when you find what you need much closer to home.

MemorabiliaWallIn my case, that turned out to be the Hard Rock Cafe. Because, as it happens, one of my WIPs is actually a contemporary–or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a “modern” historical–romance starring a British rock band, set in the 1990s. Up until now, my research process for this story has consisted of mining my own memories as a child/teen of the ’80s, reading interviews with actual British bands of the time, watching concert footage and old music videos. Not until last month did I realize that some of what I might be looking for–the ambiance and overall set-up of a theme restaurant/live-music venue–could be found at the HRC.

In retrospect, it seems strange not to have thought of it before–there have been several HRCs in California, though several have closed over the years. But there was still one within driving distance in Hollywood and that was where my companion and I headed one Sunday morning.

StefaniGownWhat we found exceeded our expectations. A collection of rock-n-roll memorabilia that included such items as Jim Morrison’s leather pants, one of Gwen Stefani’s evening gowns, guitars played by groups like Guns ‘N’ Roses and Steely Dan, and manuscripts on which original lyrics were scribbled; multiple TV screens broadcasting vintage music videos, including Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock-n-Roll” and the campy Jagger-Bowie ’80s cover of “Dancing in the Streets,” which I find impossible to watch with a straight face; a tiered seating arrangement that explained how HRC could conceivably fit several hundred people in their space even with live entertainment; and, of course, the stage itself, complete with speakers and standing mics. Best of all, we met some friendly, chatty servers who were more than happy to dish about the place and what it was like when a band was booked to play there.

GnRGuitarSo we stayed for a couple of hours, soaking up atmosphere, asking questions, and having a very good lunch on top of all that. We left well-satisfied on all levels, and are even contemplating a return trip in the not-too-distant future. When the answers to our research questions are just a short drive rather than a transatlantic flight away, it seems a shame to waste the opportunity.

After all, don’t we owe it to the Muse?

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