...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


I once attended a writing class where the instructor, a successful writer of medieval romances who was sharing her medieval research methods with us, ended the class by informing us all that she would soon be returning to England to research her next novel, because she “finds it difficult to write about things she hasn’t actually seen for herself”…such as castles.

There I sat, thinking to myself, “Hmm, does that mean I can’t write about the Middle Ages unless I go to England and ‘see for myself’?” A thought immediately followed by the dour recognition that a trip to England was in no way compatible with my current budget, or likely to become compatible anytime in the near future. (Much though I still dream of visiting England and its castles “someday”.)

As I have said previously, I, too, am a very visually oriented person. It’s difficult for me to describe something I haven’t actually seen, hence my fondness for “picture books”, such as the books on medieval clothing I referred to in my last post. Once I have seen a picture or image, I can then store that in my imagination to use as a point of reference when studying more detailed, less visual texts.

For those of us who write about castle-dwelling characters, but who have never had the opportunity (and no immediate prospect) of seeing even so much as the ruins of a medieval castle in “real life”, how do we begin to imagine, much less transport our readers, back to this far-distant environment?

Modern technology is…well…marvelous. And thanks to a History Channel DVD called Modern Marvels: Castles & Dungeons, those of us with limited budgets can now enjoy a striking tour of medieval castles from the comfort of our own homes.

I remember reading for years about the “motte and bailey” model on which the earliest castles in England were built. And I remember straining for years and years to try to imagine exactly what these books were talking about. I didn’t want to “guess” at what a motte and bailey castle looked like. I wanted to know. Castles & Dungeons took away all my guesswork by showing me exactly how closely my imagination had and hadn’t matched “the facts”.

In addition to learning how castles were built, first of wood and later of stone, this DVD gives the viewer an up close and personal look at such castle features as: crennelation, glass windows, loop holes and arrow slits, the portcullis, murder holes, the oubliette, the great hall, and castle kitchens. The visuals and narration are so well done, that one comes away feeling reassured that an actual trip to England isn’t an absolute requirement for writing medieval fiction with some degree of authenticity and confidence.

Modern Marvels: Castles & Dungeons is currently only available from the History Channel, but you can get a copy by clicking on this link: http://store.aetv.com/html/product/index.jhtml?id=72080

The drawback to DVDs, of course, is that they’re difficult to reference while sitting at a computer, tapping out one’s story. In my next post, I will tell you about my all-time favorite quick reference book to castles. So be sure to check back here in two weeks!

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