A Novel Approach: Number 25 Taking Research to a Higher Level

Part Two:

“You are to start tomorrow as their maid. If you do well, you will be paid eight stuivers a day. You will live with them.”
I pressed my lips together.
Don’t look at me like that, Griet.,” my mother said. “We have to, now your father has lost his trade.”
“Where do they live?”
“On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort.”
“Papists’ Corner? They’re Catholic?”
“You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that.” My mother cupped her hands around the turnips….

This brief passage is from The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s novel about the haunting Dutch girl who gazes at artist Vermeer from beneath her blue and tan scarves. Little enough is known of Vermeer, much less of the unknown young woman who sat for a then-scandalous portrait, regarded then as an erotic image dressed in clothing associated with impure thoughts and acts. How did Chevalier learn enough about her to write the novel?

She didn’t. No one knows who the girl was. Chevalier instead learned enough about Vermeer and his world to write it, and to make it very believable. Let’s look at a few passages of what she wrote, then go behind her words in an exercise to illustrate how a novelist might proceed to do research for such a story with so little to lean on. While this may not be her precise research trail, it is the method.

1. Life of Vermeer. The starting point is to consult general resources, even as simple as Google and Wikipedia. From these one can learn Vermeer’s correct name, the generally accepted dates for his birth, death, and where he lived and worked. These lead quickly to major details of his life, family, and his relatively-few pieces of art. The danger of relying on these sources too much is, of course, factual errors.

Once the framework of background information is in place, research must go to more informative, detailed, and reliable sources. An Embarrassment of Riches, Schama, 1988, for example, portrays the emergence of a wealthy nation caught up in the wars of religion and a city that hosted aristocrats, leaders, artists, and scientists in its practical canals and divided classes, the kind of background that would enable an author to pry out the world in which the story will be set. Vermeer’s World, Netta, 1996, provides detail of Vermeer’s own art and that of contemporaries as well as details of Delft and its citizens, Vermeer’s patrons, and daily life.

2. “…you will be paid eight stuivers …” The question isn’t so much ‘What are stuivers?’ as ‘How did she learn what would be a maid’s wage in stuivers in 1665?’ This is exactly the type of necessary research that goes unnoticed by the vast majority of readers but which gives the story such depth that it invites them to become invested in it. Details, such as money and the wages of the labor class, give credibility that a reader may accept without thinking about them. A primary source record of such information would be original tax records of farms, markets, breweries, city taxes and the like to stratify purchasing power among workers of different trades, a task that might stifle some novelists working in a foreign language. In almost every instance such work has been done for them. In Griet’s case, her wages can be dug out of De Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age, 1992, and Saltow and Van Zanden, Income and Wealth Inequality in the Netherlands, 16th-20th Century, 1998. Such scholarship is the spine of good research.

Whoa! Why so much hard work? This is getting complicated. This, then, is the fork in the road, the point where the writer makes a decision: ‘Am I writing a historical novel or just a yarn?’ Wikipedia is easy; tax records are not. If the decision is to do the easy one, proceed to write a yarn and, by all means, enjoy doing it! After all, the result will be a book that might be set in another era and might appear to the uncritical readers as if all the elephants in the story’s room of historical details do spout water from their trunks. But….

There are a couple of reasons why the hard research has to be done. First, the ‘twenty pages’ rule is that if someone reading the book doesn’t buy in to the story for any reason, including sloppy history or inaccurate details, s/he will give it no more than another twenty pages before dumping the book in the Good Will box. Second, and this really is more important, an ongoing and constant immersion in the accurate history of your story will do more to put you, the writer, into the place, period, and culture of the time than any back and forth hunting for facts on the internet will ever accomplish. The ‘write what you know’ maxim will bear fruit, but only if you know it, and only then will a rich and believable world flow from your pen or word processor.

That is a lot for just the first two steps. What’s next?

3. Keep track of what you learn. Set up an index system to keep track of your research. Make a system that works for you, whether on 3 x 5 cards, printed bits in a 3 ring binder, the ‘favorites’ bar on your computer, or a combination of them all. Use lots of tags on book pages to quickly help find your way back to something important. When feasible, keep the research books, articles, and pamphlets on your shelf since many of them will be constant reminders. The books, at least, should have their own indices and references. Now, back to the shovel.

4. “Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with Molenpoort….”
Stories with a sense of place flow from a three part strategy.
A. Maps: Vermeer’s Delft, like many ancient cities, was well-mapped by the mid-1600’s, so part of the strategy is to find and use maps of the period. Detailed street maps of the mid-1600’s by Dirk van Bleyswyck and Bleau that are so well-drawn one can locate Vermeer’s house. The Pope’s Corner, the market, churches, canals, mills, almost everything that Vermeer would have known, can be located.
B. Art: Period specific works give accurate texture to fiction. Vermeer’s own paintings of The Little Street and A View of the City of Delft are essential. Other art, such as Vrel’s rock-cobbled streets, wooden windows, and tiled roofs from A Street Scene and an anonymous contemporary drawing of St. George’s Gate and the jail in the city’s west wall, are evidence of and a reminder that Delft was a tiny walled city. Such art reveals the color and texture of clothing, the arrangement of homes, markets, and churches, tools of life such as brooms and spoons. Your story will come alive.
C. Site visit: If a place is important enough to write about, it is important enough to know personally. Walk where your characters walked, look at the buildings they knew and learn what took place inside them. Feel the rain and see the filtered light and your mind will form that become second nature to you. Much of Vermeer’s Delft is intact, and going there opens several doors that reading alone can not do. Hence,…

4. “Papist’s Corner? They’re Catholic?”
There are some things not appreciated until you personally grasp the waypoints that shaped the story of your characters. Vermeer’s Delft was a chilling stew of conflicting religion and morals that means very little when mentioned in a history book but becomes a heavy presence inside the walls of Nieuwe Kerk, Delft’s Catholic church of the 1600’s where he walked every day as a child and was buried – somewhere- when he died. This leads to the realizations that there is an Oude Kerk, the Protestant one, and that Vermeer’s morals were embroiled in the religious wars that engulfed Delft and Europe for hundreds of years. These facts led to the point made by Griet’s question to her mother – “They’re Catholic?”
Chevalier made brilliant use of this moral dilemma, the poor Protestant maid and her supposedly wealthy Catholic employer, a struggle that she used to set up the artist’s precipice –painting for his patron’s money while also painting Griet, a dubious subject in an emotionally charged sitting, for art. Such core conflicts can be learned, revealed, or enhanced on the ground much more effectively than reading book after book of the Hundred Years’ War.

5. “It throbbed when van Ruijven caught me hanging up sheets…”

Research into the dark side is just as important, perhaps more so, as the details of daily life. Chevalier’s dark side is a patron, Van Ruijven. Scholarly articles, such as Vermeer’s Clients and Patrons, by John Michael Montias, The Art Bulletin (Mar. 1987) can shed great light on the peripheral characters in your story becaus they draw on real people who were interesting largely because they were themselves caught, or at least accused, of doing something they should not have done. Tracy Chevalier undoubtedly found enough in the biographies and monographs of Vermeer’s patrons to lead her to write of one of them having a voracious appetite for other people’s wives and children. Learn as much about the villains as the heroes.

6. Museums. The last strategy for reality-based research is to inhabit museum collections of the work and personal items of times, places, and people of interest. The Vermeer Centrum/ Center in Delft, like most such museums, has such Vermeer artifacts and an exit shop with books, posters, and similar items that may move research onward. Such places can be unexpected treasure chests of both items and print research.
Open air, or nature, museums (such as the old town of Williamsburg, Virginia) are collections of entire houses, streets, barns, offices, shops, mills, taverns, and their contents, often with people baking bread, forging steel, cutting crops, shoeing horses, making cheese, and sewing, all using original tools, dishes, and implements. An hour watching people cook, eat, and work at everyday occupations, such as at the Dutch Open Air Museum in Arnhem, can enable writers like Chevalier and you to write about the preparation of meals, beating tapestries and polishing furniture, and tending crops and animals just as if you had lived through your story. Be generous with your camera and use your index system.

Wrapping up: The sentences we studied did not come first — they came last, long after research had unearthed support for every detail. A bonus of such research is that it not only gives veracity, it always yields ideas for new story lines and details for back stories that probably were not on the outline when the idea for your novel first took shape.

This is what makes your characters and their stories become real to you. When you reach that stage, the story you write will be real to your readers.

It really works.

  • Frank R. Southers

    Jack:  Another writing gem, especially how to search for the golden nugget or dig the diamond in the rough world of historical research.
    Congrats and thanks for your teaching.   Frank

  • Jedward1

    Wow!  I am not a writer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do a good deal of research for my projects.  This is a great explanation for the research process.  As a family historian, this is exactly how I cunduct most of my research.  Kudos for another fabulous installation of A Novel Approach! 

  • Henry

    In a work of historical fiction, the first reviews I note are those of the historians.  If they do not endorse the book’s accuracy, I read no further.  Jack nailed it. 

  • Margaret_skea

    Only problem with this article was it enticed me to spend lots of time reading it when I really should have been writing!! Look forward to reading more from this writer.