Travel research tips for writers of historical fiction

I recently received this e-mail from a reader: 

I am working on a manuscript of historical fiction and plan on traveling to the sites associated with my tale (Wales).  I was wondering if you had any advice you could share as to how you visit the places in your stories.  How do you absorb/experience them in a way that you take into your writing? Given your current travels in France, I thought this would be a particularly opportune time to ask.  

Because of the travel complications this spring (due to volcanic ash), I had to consider the possibility of finishing the novel I’m working on now without travel research. I’d done quite a bit of research on my last trip, and I thought it might be possible to manage, given how much is available on-line.
We’ll be back home in Canada in a few days, and once my head clears, I’ll dive into writing the third draft. I’m already dizzy with the realization of how much will need to be changed due to the “on-the-ground” research I’ve done.
When I started travel research for the first of the Josephine B. Trilogy, I was overcome with the feeling of presence. “Josephine walked here.” Experiencing a character’s tangible reality was important to me … and it continues to be, for every book I write. Having a feel for a character’s physical world gives me a certain authority when writing.
But also, for me, it’s a lot about logistics: how did she get from here to there? What were the dimensions of her world?
In other words, facts of the type that are difficult to convey in print.
I also find that there can be wonderful books available in museums that are difficult to discover otherwise. I always check the children’s section, as well. This trip, I found a wonderful illustrated children’s book on the building of Versailles. Since Versailles was in the process of being built during the period I’m writing about, this was a find!
Practical tools
On the practical side, I find it important to wear a (not very flattering) “fanny pack” with all my tools easily at hand: camera (well charged), pencil, notepad, map, money, etc.
This trip I discovered that a recording device is indispensable. (Sometimes I’ll have a camera in one hand, and the recording device in the other.)
I photograph display information that I can then put into Evernote (which then become searchable). I photograph street signs and spots on a map so that I know, once home, what the photographs following are of.
Creating a special map with Google map has been a very helpful on-line tool for keeping track of all the sites relevant to this novel.
I hope this helps! I’d love to hear from others about their travel research tips.
For more on my research process and research in general, go to On Research

Standing (dangerously) tall?the Bata exhibit

While in Toronto, I finally went to the Bata museum, thanks to a note from writer Susan Holloway Scott about a special exhibit: “On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels.”

What took me so long? This is a wonderful museum?and this exhibit was fantastic. I had no idea!

While there, I bought the book by curator Elizabeth Semmelhack about the exhibit ? it’s full of historical detail.

I took a pile of notes. Here are some of the things that struck me.

Slap-soled shoes (shown at left): so named because they make a slapping sound (although I don’t quite get that). The flat base was created to keep pointed heels from sinking into the mud.

The more impractical something was, the higher the class: for example, shoes of white kid were fashionable because they were so easily soiled they implied a life of leisure.

Chopines (as seen on the book cover above, and which could rise to truly dangerous heights) signified wealth because of the added cost of the expensive material required for the gown to reach the floor. They were especially popular in Spain and Italy, where they were worn by wealthy married women.

Curiously, at an earlier period in Italy, law required that prostitutes wear chopines. This Bertelli print of about 1588 shows a “cortesan.” A flap comes up to reveal her pantalons and chopines. (I was surprised to see pantalons at all: generally, women wore nothing under their skirts.)

The late 17th century saw a shift toward lower heels. In France, low-platform mules were worn by both men and women “around the house” (read: castle).

The mules for women were little jewels, gorgeously embroidered and embellished, with pointed toes and slender heels.

I appreciated seeing the famed red-painted heels of the aristocratic male of that period. It’s likely that the paint has faded, but the color looks more like a rich mahogany stain applied to the stacked leather heels. Men’s wear tended to have an equestrian function: sturdy, heeled, with broad square toes.

The Sun King, of course ? who was passionate about shoes, among other things ? wore pretty mules with bright red heels.

For more on this wonderful exhibit, see these links: 

On a Pedestal – Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels – Exhibition Review  

On a Pedestal Exhibition 


Notes from the Cheering Section


A number of books are coming out right now by writers I know and admire. Two of these I gave a glowing blurb, so I’m especially thrilled to see them getting such great reviews. 

Here’s a charming one for Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill, from Passages to the Past:

“Don’t you love it when you start a book and immediately get sucked in just from the first few sentences? Well, that’s what happened when I began to read Daughters of the Witching Hill. This book seriously had me from hello!”

And also this morning, Stephanie Cowell’s novel on Monet, Claude & Camille, got this rave in the Boston Globe:

“Stephanie Cowell is nothing short of masterful in writing about Claude Monet?s life and love… Claude & Camille is both a historical novel and a romance, but Cowell?s graceful, moving treatment of Claude and Camille Monet?s turbulent love defies categorization. It?s an enthralling story, beautifully told. … She writes in language that is simple, elegant, and extraordinarily evocative.”

Check out Mary Sharratt’s book trailer and her website:

Stephanie Cowell’s website is at She also has a wonderful book trailer for her novel (click here).


Hard on nursemaids: on the Sun King’s voracious hunger


{The Dauphin Louis of France and his nursemaid, Dame Longuet de la Giraudière, 1638.}

Dame Longuet may have been Louis’s first nursemaid, but she certainly was not his last. He was born with two teeth, and eight more women tried to fulfill the role, but resigned in defeat.

Observing the future King’s ferocious appetite, the Swedish ambassador advised the neighbors of France to “take precautions.”

Finally, robust Pierrette Dufour persisted. She became the King’s nurse when he was six months old and she nursed him for eighteen months, suffering many bites, which she is said to have healed with the finger of Saint Anne. (Which was … ?)

In recognition of her “good milk,” she was ennobled in 1563. She later became maid to the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria, and then the Queen, Marie-Thérèse.

It was Pierrette Dufour who had the honour of ceremoniously waking the King with a kiss each morning, and even going with him on campaigns.

Note that the baby is swaddled according to 17th century custom. It was believed that the child would thus grow straight and would not remain curved like an animal. Baby Louis wears the cordon bleu of the Holy Spirit which the royal children of France receive at birth.