Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Siren Song of Research by Connie Berry

I love research way too much. When I’m writing a book, I have to watch myself carefully because if left to follow my inclination, I’d waste precious time researching everything from the weather to popular colors in Edwardian England to the makeup used by women in ancient Rome. Most of it never makes it into the book because it’s irrelevant—a bad practice when you’re on a deadline. Research has to be strategic. 

Nevertheless, the siren song of research still tempts me toward the rocks because you never know what you might find, right? Like picking through a garage sale or flea market, the prospect of finding something truly valuable keeps me scrolling. Usually, however, the fascinating titbits I find have little or nothing to do with my book. I just love information.

Today I thought I’d share with you one of the fascinating but useless bits of research I uncovered during the writing of my first book, A Dream of Death, set on a fictional island in the Scottish Hebrides. This research may have been useful in another place and another time (another book), but it had nothing to do with my actual setting or plot. It involved Stirling Castle. 

Of all Scotland's castles, Stirling Castle wins the prize for the most eccentric resident. Sometime around the year 1500, John Damien, a penniless adventurer of either Italian or French origin, arrived at Stirling Castle, claiming to be an alchemist on the verge of discovering the key to turning base metals into gold.

Fortunately for Damien, King James IV—arguably the most successful of the Stuart monarchs—was keenly interested in the new "scientific" discoveries of the Renaissance. He was even more interested in possessing an inexhaustible source of gold to fund his frequent military campaigns. And wealth wasn't the only blessing John Damien promised. Not only would he produce the most sought-after object of the day, the Philosopher's Stone—that mythical and magical substance needed to transform lead into gold—but he also offered the king an even more precious prize because the Philosopher's Stone, when mixed with wine, was said to produce the Elixir of Life, curing all illnesses and granting the drinker eternal life and eternal youth.

Not bad, right?

With these tantalizing possibilities in mind, King James IV provided John Damien with a hidden laboratory in the castle, along with such luxuries as damask fabric for his clothing, tapestries, a fine bed, plenty of "aqua vitae" (whiskey), and all the equipment—flasks, cauldrons, glass beakers, and ingredients—he would need to conduct his experiments.

When years passed by and no gold was produced (surprise, surprise), court gossips began to accuse Damian of fraud. Sensing that a spectacular demonstration of his powers was called for, Damien announced he had discovered the secret of mechanical flight and would fly under his own power from the castle to France. On September 27, 1507, he strapped on a pair of bird-like wings and leapt off the towering ramparts of Stirling Castle. He dropped like a stone. Lucky for him, he landed (so the story goes) on a soft dung heap, breaking only a thigh bone. Damien blamed the failure on the fact that hen feathers had been mixed in with the eagle feathers he called for—and as we all know, hens can't fly.

In spite of this, King James IV, a remarkably tolerant sovereign, continued to fund Damien’s research until the king's death at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Hope springs eternal.

What piece of useless but fascinating research have you uncovered in the writing of a book? Here’s my real question: how do you discipline yourself so you don’t waste time searching for the straw that will become gold in your plot? I need to know.


KM Rockwood said...

Did you know that the original spelling of the name is Stewart, but was changed to Stuart by Mary Stewart who became Mary, Queen of Scots) when she married the Dauphin of France (who became Francis II) and moved to France. Because the French pronounce "w" differently, she changed the spelling so people would pronounce her name properly. Later, when she returned to the British Isles, she retained that spelling.

Wait. What was the question we were addressing?

Grace Topping said...

Interesting post. My series doesn't require much research, but when I've researched something in particular, I always found it very interesting. The challenge is using enough of what I've learned to make the reading interesting but not so much as to bore people. I once had an agent tell me that I wasn't writing a "how to" book so, cut some of it.

Lori Roberts Herbst said...

Love it! I follow that siren song way too much—and I fear that someday, my Google search history might get me in trouble!

Kait said...

Great blog, Connie.

Research – one of my favorite rabbit holes. I hope someone has a solution to the golden straw, I could use it myself! Can't think of any specific bit of information gleaned, but my husband will occasionally point to me when people are struggling and say, "Ask her, she's a garden of information."

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

taking a deep dive into prehistoric caves in SW France. So many delicious facts.

Susan said...

Everytime I look through the “bible” for my series, I find so much research I haven’t used. But I learned a lot.

Edith Maxwell said...

I also love research, Connie. I don't think I've learned about a castle, but lots of other things.