The research involved in writing historical fiction is wide-ranging. Although the key events, movements, politics and personalities of the times are essential, it is also important to be able to describe how things were done, what tools were used, what activities were included in a particular trade-frankly, this is often the most intriguing part of the research. For The Cross-legged Knight, I brushed up on the treatment of burns, the working of leather, and the outfitting of a goldsmith's workshop.
I don't think it gives too much away to say that for Knight I needed information about how burns might have been treated in the 14th century. I tapped an enthusiastic source, my brother-in-law who has been a researcher at a pediatric hospital for burns for 35 years. I hadn't expected how much he would enjoy advising me on what was known about burns at the time, and what herbal and biological medicines might have worked. It helped that he has followed the Owen Archer series and so knew the healer for whom I needed the information, Magda Digby, the Riverwoman.
Magda has her own theories about healing and her own recipes for physicks. Now and then I use an actual recipe, such as the dwale* that she mixes for Poins before performing surgery on him. But as I imagine her she would cut to the quick of a recipe, deciding what worked and what was superfluous, and often concocting her own. For her treatment of burns, my brother-in-law guided me through the decisions I needed to make about how long the victims had lain in the fire, what sort of fire it was, where they had been lying. He explained the various degrees of burns, how they look and smell, and suggested what Magda would need in order to heal them. Two of the items she needed were alcohol (we discussed the alcoholic content of several beverages) and something tannic to reduce the bacteria, such as tea. In fourteenth century England Magda would have no tea, so I sought alternative plants from which she could extract sufficient tannic acid. This dovetailed with the leather-making research I was doing for the book-an unpleasant reality-I'll return to this. Some interesting details that I didn't have the space to use were that leeches were used in skin grafting procedures for burns by sucking excess blood from grafted blisters-he believed that Magda would have the knowledge to do this, and that the ancient Egyptians used ants to suture wounds-once the ant bit the wound the ant's head would be severed and the jaws would hold the wound together. These techniques might sound disgusting and unsanitary to us, but skilled, experienced healers saved many of our ancestors with them.
Unplanned connections and serendipitous developments are delights for writers. In revisions I discover unintended themes running through my books, and in The Cross-legged Knight it was the connection between healing a wound and tanning leather that surprised me. Urine and tannins protect the skin from bacteria while burns are healing and keeping it elastic, and it is the same process that cures the hides in tanning and allows them to be worked. The plot called for a tawyer as a key suspect in the murder, and I'd already planned the conflagration that makes Owen's investigation even more urgent. I needed a tawyer rather than a tanner because the former worked with small, delicate and hence less valuable hides than that of cows-goat, rabbit, deer, for example. Tawyed leather is appropriate for gloves, a pair of which provides important evidence in the book. I also wanted the man's residence to be in the center of York, not farther out where the tanners, with their noxious processes and need for water, lived. Tawying was a somewhat less noxious craft, using alum and oil.
Sometimes extensive research is invisible in the final draft, usually edited out because it slows the action. For scenes in a goldsmith's workshop I spent many happy hours studying illustrations of goldsmith shops and examining a gold working table in Edinburgh, but in the end I kept only a sketchy description of the shop in the book. I'm sure there will come a time when the intricacies of such a shop will provide the telling clue.
My book collection is quite eclectic, and the goals on my research trips are not limited to libraries, archives, and historical sites. In June I spent a day hawking in Scotland. I can't wait to fold that into a plot.