Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Blogger: Laurin Wittig on Braving the Research for Highland Historical Romances

Many thanks to Regan for inviting me here today! She's a wonderful supporter of historical romance and a gracious host.

When I started writing romances my heart was in historical romances but since I hadn't taken a single history course in college I feared the research necessary to do justice to the subgenre and went with the old adage "write what you know." So my first novel was a short contemporary. I set it in my home town, used my first apartment there as my heroine's home, gave her my husband's job, and my mother, all so I wouldn't have to do any research.
But I loved historicals, especially Scottish historicals, so eventually, after that first book was finished and was doing well on the contest circuit, I decided to jump into the deep end and write what I really wanted to write even though I still had that fear of historical research, particularly of getting it wrong.

So here's what I did:

I immersed myself in the history of Scotland, from the general to the specific for what turned out to be about a year. I focused on the Highlands around the time of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and yes, my choice was influenced by Braveheart which came out during that year of research. Mostly I used books, often getting obscure tomes via inter-library loans, but also watching every travel video of Scotland and every map I could get my hands on to get a sense of the place, and every show on the History channel that had anything to do with Scotland. I roamed the Internet - Electric Scotland became my go-to website. I took workshops when I could find them, which wasn't often.

I learned a lot about the history of Scotland. I learned almost nothing about the people of medieval Scotland.

What I yearned for were those little details of everyday life, especially the everyday life of women. Men were at least part of the historical record as soldiers, land and business owners, politicians and kings. Women were rarely found in the records of my time period.

But there were some obstacles I hadn't been aware of when I chose my period and place. The Highlands were primarily a non-literate culture in the medieval period. What that means is most of them couldn't read or write. It does not mean they didn't have stories and histories that were "recorded;" they were just recorded as oral histories. Some of those still exist today as traditional songs and poems that were eventually written down, or through family stories that lasted in the oral tradition long enough to get written down. But even so, I had found little specific information in the historical record about the daily life of medieval Highlanders.

And then a couple of things happened. I attended a Scottish Historical Romance day-long workshop and heard Susan King speak on this problem of getting the history right when there weren't necessarily good sources. Her solution? She finds the holes in the historical record, those places and times that aren't documented, and she sets her stories there.

I thought this was brilliant! I immediately targeted a specific location and year that fascinated me, even though I had found almost no specific historical information about it, and set my story there.

I also learned that day, probably from Susan, but I can't be sure because there were a lot of great presenters, that art could be used to get an idea of clothing, food, instruments, furnishings, and pretty much anything else that was depicted in the art. But again, not a lot of art depicting medieval Highlanders exists, and especially not the regular people of the period.

I was stumped about how to get more information about my beloved Highlanders until I began to give up my fear about the historical research - after all, I had done due diligence there for someone with no training - and turned to what I knew - culture. I may have never studied history but I have a degree in Cultural Anthropology.

It was clear from what I had learned about the Highland clans that this was a classic tribal culture and much of the conflict documented fit what I had learned about tribal cultures all over the world. Extrapolating from those other cultures using the history of Scotland and what tidbits I had gleaned of the Highland culture as a guide I finally found a way into at least imagining what life for the Highlanders might have been like.

And then I went to Scotland with another writer.

We focused our adventure mostly on the medieval period in the Highlands, particularly in Argyll where I was setting my story, and because castles were the most romantic of the artifacts left from the medieval period, we focused on those. We visited ten castles in five days (Doune was my favorite!). We also visited the stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns in the Kilmartin Glen (the setting of my story) because I was fascinated by those, too. Their presence is what had drawn me to set my story there in the first place. Besides, they are really cool.

My friend and I visited Linlithgow Palace, not medieval exactly, but it turned out to be illuminating. We were looking at a portion of an interior wall that had clearly been closed up and the guide information told us that the current opening a bit further down that wall had been made about the same time. Suddenly I could hear a woman's voice: "Honey, this doorway just isn't in the right place. I know it's where your parents wanted it, but I'd really rather it be over there."
Obviously I wasn't hearing a real voice, not even a ghostly voice, but nevertheless the people who had lived in that castle suddenly came alive for me. Someone had remodeled the castle. We learned that several people had remodeled the castle over several generations. People lived in these places. Living, breathing people. And sometimes they didn't like the way their home worked. Just like me.

And that's when I began to understand that archeology was another valuable way into understanding the Highlanders of the medieval period. The homes, clothing, and things they left behind, artifacts, revealed far more to my imagination than the recounting of battles and political maneuverings had. My friend and I became a bit obsessed with privies on that trip. We laughed at ourselves for it, but understanding that these people who lived centuries before us had to figure out all the daily things we do - like how to cope with the toilet needs of an entire castle - brought them alive for us.

I think I doubled my research library on that trip, buying every castle guide and archeology book I could find.

The last hurdle I had to leap was how to make my characters sound like they lived in medieval Scotland even though I write for a modern, non-Gaelic speaking, audience. Fortunately another writer friend kept suggesting dictionaries to me. I am the proud owner of more than a few Scotland related dictionaries and other useful word sources: Scottish Gaelic/English, English/Doric (not technically a Highland dialect but is clearly Scottish), a Scots dictionary, the Dictionary of Scots Words & Phrases in Current Use, Scotland’s Place-names, plus some Scottish quotation books, old song lyrics and poems when I can find them, a host of archeological books, and often just poking around historical web sites will put me on the trail of a great word. When I find a word I want to use I’ll look it up in an etymology dictionary to see if it was possibly in use in the time period. Since the time and place I write in was primarily a non-literate culture I assume the word could have been in use if it’s plus/minus a hundred years or so, or if it was in use in France during my period since there was a lot of contact between Scotland and France, likewise if it was in use in England, though I try to steer clear of those words unless they sound Scottish to me. Often the words I decide to use aren’t really all that old (at least not that I can determine), but they sound old and give the flavor of the language so I’ll use them.

Now I'm working on a new trilogy of Scottish historicals, again set right around 1300 in Argyll, not too far from the Kilmartin glen. I'm doing my due diligence to get the history as correct as I can, but I'm also drawing on what I continue to learn about the culture. This time I've found another hole in the history, and pulled from the tradition of mystical, dare I say, paranormal gifts commonly found in the lore of the Highlanders right up to modern times. I'm using the Picts, that culture that was in place before the Scots came over from Ireland, or the Vikings surged in from the north, as the ancestors of a line of women who each have a unique ability that, when combined, will allow them to protect not just their clan but the entire Highlands from English invasion.

Am I using history? Certainly. But I'm filling in the gaps with educated guesses based on the culture of the Highlands, the geography of the land, the artifact remains of the Highlanders and the Picts, plus the nuances of the languages and music of Scotland, the oral traditions, myths and superstitions, and my own vivid imagination.

Comment on this post to enter to win my two MacLeod novels, CHARMING THE SHREW and DARING THE HIGHLANDER!


  1. Good morning, Regan! Thanks for hosting me here on your blog this week!

    1. I am so glad you are here, Laurin! And thanks for the amazing article showing us all the work you put into making your Highlander romances so authentic. I love how you capture the Scottish voice!

  2. Wonderful post on the best way to do research. I think what many authors forget they research initially to make sure the characters are living and acting in the way the people of that period did. The problem with some new authors is they tend to have spent so much time on research they have an a tendancy to info dump. I like the fact that you mention chosing a period in which there isn't as much written record allowing you more freedom to create a unique story. I have chosen to write about a woman who was very unique but we only know of her uniqueness because of something in the record almost 100 years after her death. Chosing a real woman in history often allows you a lot of freedom because so little is written about that woman or women in general especially pre 1400.

  3. Fraoch,

    It's so hard, when you've spent all that time researching, not to use every little detail you've discovered, but it does happen all too often. One of the things I've learned to do is to do what I think of as the "baseline" research at the beginning of a project but I don't go looking for a lot of details (like what the heck did they call an apron in 1300?) until I'm almost done with the story. Then I get to pick and choose the details that will bring the story to life but I'm not tempted to overdo the details because the story is already 95% complete.

    Sounds like you've chosen a great character - someone real, but not well documented. Fun!

    1. Just have to chime in here on the issue of info dumps. It was one of my "reader's pet peeves" (see that article tagged Sharing Secrets under Categories on my blog). I really appreciate an author who does her research and it's reflected in the romance, like you, Laurin. It is what separates the great historical authors from those who write fantasy set in some vague historical timeframe. But info dumps are truly annoying...I always feel like the author is trying to teach me something. Like I couldn't look it up for myself. I will avoid naming names; they know who they are... Suffice it to say their books don't make my best lists.

  4. Great post!!! Scotland is on my bucket list... I'd love to visit someday...

    The books sound wonderful!

    Lisa :)

    1. Lisa,

      Thanks for dropping by! I've been to Scotland but going back (again, and again, and again) is on my bucket list, too!

    2. Lisa,

      You're the random winner of The Legacy of MacLeod books. Please email me at with your snail mail addy so I can send them to you.


  5. Laurin,
    Thanks for being a guest on my blog! Your post was truly thoughtful and provided us a wealth of information for many days to come. Keep writing those wonderful Highland romances and let me know when the new trilogy is out!

    1. Regan,

      Thanks for hosting me! I should have news very soon about the new trilogy.