Over the years I have done a few things to make my writing better.
I won’t say they weren’t fun! And after all, if I was researching the Middle Ages and a bit later, it was because that’s what I loved writing.
I want to say, here and now, that I did not commit any crimes for my book Crime Time:Australians behaving badly or do any spying for Your Cat Could Be a Spy! My research for those was strictly on-line and in books.
But I write fantasy and I’ve always loved history, so it seemed natural to have a go at things historical. I took my first lessons in Renaissance Dance when I was studying at Monash University, where a music student called Rosalynd was offering them. She had done historical dance overseas and thought we might enjoy it. She was right about that and I had a great time learning dances of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. – simple ones such as the Horses, Washerwomen and Peas Bransles, all circle dances you did with partners, and the Officers’ Bransle, danced to the tune of “Ding Dong,Merrily On High”, where the men lifted their partners. There were more complicated dances such as “The Chase Of Love” and my favourite, La Volta, where I was swung up into the air and around. That one was considered a bit naughty in its time. It was a variation of a dance called the galliard, which was very lively and exhausting.
Later, I did Renaissance Dance with Helga Hill, an expert in early dance and music. I found out that the earliest dance we know is something called the farandole, a sort of medieval conga line, which is why it tends to be the only dance I mention in my fantasy fiction. I just don’t know what else they were dancing back then!
I joined a club called the SCA, which was into the Middle Ages, because I wanted to have some idea about how people fought in those days. A friend made some armour that would fit both him and myself and we took turns wearing it. That was a fun time, when I wasn’t being hit on my helmet by someone else’s sword! The swords were made of rattan, a kind of cane, not metal, and I was covered in armour, but I did get very sore practising. I set up a “pell” in my back yard, wrapping a padded cloth around the Hills hoist and using it to practise my sword strokes. I had a very heavy shield to go with it. My mother was embarrassed to have this stuff parked in the hall and would tell visitors it belonged to my nephew.
Eventually, I found that I really had no hope of making it as a fighter, but I had learned what you couldn’t do with a sword and there were plenty of other things you could do in the SCA. We had feasts, cooking medieval foods – one of the members even made a “subtlety”, a kind of fancy cake, in the shape of a unicorn. We did SCA versions of the Renaissance dances I had learned at university and from Helga, and we sang early songs.
I learned costuming through science fiction fandom and used my embroidery skills to decorate my gowns and veils, and while the cloth was not historic, I appreciated the skills of making them by hand, something I still do.
I won’t call myself a exert in any of these areas, but it has helped me to know where to start when I’m writing a fantasy story, and how to look things up when I don’t know enough.
And it has been a lot of fun doing all this stuff. I think anyone who is serious about their writing should try a lot of things they wouldn’t think of doing normally, even if it’s only once.