There’s a saying among writers to write what you know, but quality research can fill in the gaps. So when I started to write Stepping into the Light, I knew that I would have a lot of gaps to fill, starting by researching the Scottish Highlands.
Although, I should probably back up a bit first. My original idea for this book started with a dream that contained elements of Snow White along with a wicked Queen and a visiting Prince. I could have written it as pure fantasy with fictional lands and kingdoms, but that didn’t fit well with the rest of the stories planned for the series.
But where in real life could I find neighboring “kingdoms” with “rulers” who might go to war or form alliances with each other? One thought had been Europe in the Middle Ages except I knew next to nothing about that period or region. My second thought about the Scottish clan system quickly rose to the top since I had read numerous books set in the Highlands and knew that there had been a time in history when each clan operated as a separate entity.
Except I needed to know more. A lot more. But instead of starting with the dry history books, I went the fictional route to absorb the genre, common plot elements, descriptions, and language. And in the process of reading dozens of books, I filled a notebook with vocabulary from various eras.
Speaking of eras, it soon became clear that I needed to set my story long before the various political maneuvering and wars with England would have become a necessary plot element. I also moved my story to the far northern fringes of Scotland where it was less-likely for my characters to be involved in or aware of tensions along the lowland border. I found a map of common clan names and locations and settled my fictional characters in the regions where the true Sinclair, Gunn, and Sutherland clans lived.
And then I started writing in order to capture the essence of the story…while marking various spots with **insert name of flower** and **research medicinal herb** to sort out during a second pass.
Early on, I brought the opening pages to my local writer’s group seeking their initial impressions and advice about my weak areas. After all, I didn’t want to repeat an error for 150 pages and make more work for myself later. One woman who has traveled to England mentioned that there weren’t vast forests in Scotland and so my setting descriptions would need to be changed.
Except I had planned multiple scenes in the forest. So that became a top priority item to research immediately! To my great relief, I discovered the immense Caledonian Forest had covered most of the middle and northern mountains of Scotland. The forest had first been discovered (and named) by Roman invaders…and while it eventually suffered a gradual decline due to industry and over-grazing by sheep and cattle, pockets of the ancient trees still exist today. Whew. I could keep my scenes in the trees.
As the chapters unfolded, I found myself also researching the traditional colors of the Gunn and Sinclair clans, the Midsummer’s Eve festival, and the difference between monks and Friars including why my traveling character had to be one rather than the other and what he would have worn.
Speaking of worn, when one thinks of Scotland, it’s easy to picture the kilt. Except that garment didn’t come around until long after my time period so I had to be content with a generic description of wearing the clan plaid over other clothing.
And since there was a scene in a local inn or ale house, I had to wonder what they would have served. Whiskey? Nope. It didn’t come around until after my story either so I ended up researching how to make ale merely to add realistic actions for characters to perform.
Of course, I know I got some things wrong, but I did my best to remain true to the era and region while also injecting a hint of the Scottish burr. But my main goal was to tell a creative story against the backdrop of a real place…and that was the purpose of researching the Scottish Highlands in the first place.
What about you? How important are the details when you’re reading a story? If an author gets something wrong, can you set it aside or does it ruin the story for you? Would you feel comfortable contacting the author about their mistake?