A Love Letter to Research

I did a history degree. No doubt you know that. I write things. You know that as well. I go on adventures… Ok… This is just going over stuff you already know. But what you don’t know is that all of this takes time, effort and most of all, research. A lot of research. And sometimes that can take me to places stranger than reality!

At the moment I’m working on a Dark Legend Short Story entitled: Beyond The Sea. It features Will and Dan as they take a short break following their mid-term exams (leaving Joe and Doug behind to keep an eye on things in Worton) All Dan wants is a normal, relaxing, few days away with no graffe and nothing bad happening. Will wants normality as well, but Will’s idea of normal is a bit different from Dan’s. Will’s idea of normal things teenagers do is drugs, drink and sex, and as Dan isn’t complaining about that the two of them head off for a dirty weekend in Amsterdam…

I’ve never been to Amsterdam and as it’s a real place I can’t just utilise my imagination. It has to be based on reality, or at least equate to a close proximity of reality. And this requires research, lots of research, even though it’s only a short story. I tell you, anybody looking at my internet history over the last few days would think I’ve been planning a dirty weekend of my own. It includes: return flights from Leeds/Bradford, websites for various hotels, Information about Amsterdam airport, numerous websites for speciality condom shops, Amsterdam’s best sunset spots, the vodka museum, the sex museum, websites concerning the red light district, stuff about Van Gogh, stuff about Escher… And that doesn’t count what I’ve been looking at on Google earth and street view. I tell you, street view is a godsend to writers. You can just drop in on anywhere in the world, even if you’ve never been, and you can describe it accurately. It’s brilliant.

That story will be out at some point, but not for a while as there’s something important in part three that happens to Dan which affects him in this, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I’ll be releasing that first. But enough of my working life for the moment and back to what i was talking about. Research.

Research is an important part of everything I do. I find that if I just make stuff up it makes everything seem superficial. It doesn’t quite work right. Even the made up places in my work (EG, Cythry, Silbury, Worton…) all have some basis in reality. All have an actual location to place them in context with the real world. Worton is located in a twenty square mile, claw shaped area in Bowland, Silbury is just north of Boston in Lincolnshire and even Cythry , although it comprises an entirely fictional valley, a lake, a village, a viewpoint and a dark and depressing gorge, has an actual location in the Carneddau.

I mentioned that research has led me to some strange places and there was none more stranger than the research I did for my original dissertation topic (before I had to change it because it was apparently too general!) It was a beautiful dissertation all about late medieval Welsh culture, stuff like poetry, language, kingship and legal stuff, and then I was going to contrast it with what happened after the conquest of 1282.

The first thing I looked at was poetry. The English have Chaucer around this time, the Welsh have the bards and loads of them to boot. And, in the name of research I went to a medieval Welsh poetry festival. I got some good stuff too. Some really good stuff as I got to learn how Bardic poetry actually worked and how it was performed orally. I can’t find the original Welsh versions on the internet right now so you’ll have to take my word on this one- Even though I don’t understand much Welsh, let alone medieval Welsh, I could still understand the meter and rhyme of the bardic poetry once I knew what i was looking for. As there was English translations I had that stuff pretty much down. Language is language and that’s easy to understand, grouped letters form sounds and with Welsh it is no exception. Even if you don’t know a language, if you can read the text you can find the rhyme. For instance, here’s a bit of French poetry…

Je suis las, il fait nuit.
Bonsoir, cher petit père ;
Couche-moi, bonne mère ;
Porte-moi dans mon lit.

Redis-moi ma prière :
Mon Dieu, veille sur moi,
Fais-moi vivre pour toi.
Pour mon père et ma mère

It’s name translates to Evening Prayer. I haven’t got a clue what it means but take a look at the last words of each line. Pére and Mére obviously rhyme and so do Moi and Toi. Even without understanding this poem I can tell you that the rhythmic structure is something like A-B-B-A. This is the simplest example I could find but it demonstrates my point quite well, I think.

So, I had the poetry stuff down but I also had an awful lot of other stuff about the Welsh Princes and the conquest of 1282 done as well. I found out about an administrative site called Llys Rhosyr and they were restoring the foundations so I got photos of the actual stratigraphy of the building. I discovered where Prince Daffyd was captured whilst on the run (not far from Cwm Cythry as it happens), I went down to Cardiff to check out the museum. I found out about Moel Y Don and how the English had tried to cross the Menai at the stupidest point, and drowned when they got attacked. I had graphs demonstrating the effect of the English language across Wales, I had stuff on native Welsh and English Castles, I sat in Bangor Cathedral and spent an hour sketching every little detail of the tomb of Owain Gwynedd. I even managed to find source material about the building of the cage they put the royal children in. Remember, this was all stuff I had been told to look at and stuff I had managed to collect in just a couple of months. I even managed to compare English to Welsh in terms of food words (Where the Welsh words for different meat are the same as the animal, the English used English for the animal and French for the meat EG: Cow and Beef, Sheep and Mutton etc…) It was all looking good.

The Falls at Aber

And then to top it all was the piece-de-resistance, the palace of the princes themselves. There are three locations: One is at Rhosyr, which I mentioned above- And personally I think that is absolute codswallop. The other two are at a place called Abergwngregyn (hence simply referred to as Aber). One is a house called Pen Y Bryn, which is Elizabethan but according to the owners there’s some structural evidence that it was built into an existing structure called Garth Celyn which they reckon, according to archive material, was the home of the Welsh princes. However, the local archaeologists, primarily Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (Hence forth referred to as GAT), have always been a bit sceptical about this notion. And with good reason because the evidence they have at Pen y Bryn is circumstantial to say the least.

At around the time I was starting my research an opportunity came up to take part in an archaeological dig with GAT. Which brings me onto the third site and most likely candidate for the palace of the princes. Right in the centre of the village of Aber is a site called Y Mwd. That’s of no importance. The important thing is what is buried right next to it: A big winged hall of the right date for the princes and in the right spot. And I actually had the chance to work on the site. It was brilliant, even if it did bucket it down with rain sometimes. The site was absolutely perfect for my dissertation and I was right there, right on top of it. Unfortunately for me the dig was six weeks and I could only do a few of those because of lectures and what not. I intended on my last day on site to take a camera and get some photos for the dissertation.

Everything was coming together nicely. I had an awful lot of stuff, tons in fact when I think about it. I had source material, sketches, mud on my boots, conflicting evidence… Everything I could want to craft a beautiful dissertation. I even had an introduction drafted by this stage and some conclusions coming through. One summer of research in the sunny mountains of North Wales had yielded a gold mine of endless possibilities and I definitely hadn’t finished yet…

Then everything came crashing down. I never got that last day on site and hence never got any pictures. I got so close, just a couple of days away from the end. It was really bad as well because my last actual day on site I was on a bit of a downer and then ended up having to hitch a ride back to Bangor with one of the archaeologists as my ride home hadn’t turned up to collect me . I hope they don’t think that it was because of that they I left because it definitely wasn’t. It was because of three simple words: ‘It’s too general.’ That’s what my dissertation tutor said. Too general and I had to change the topic and do a summers worth of research in three days. With that hanging over me I had no choice but to send an email to the site supervisor and apologise for not being able to do the last few days. It didn’t help matters either that they had changed my dissertation tutor over the summer and the new one didn’t really like what I was doing. In my opinion it wasn’t too general. I had only just started and, given time, I cold have done something amazing and written something that was much better than what I ended up with. Even if it was a bit general at that particular point, by the end I’m sure it wouldn’t have been. That whole summer i had been joining dots and establishing the culture and landscape of medieval North Wales and how it changed after 1282… Nobody had done that before. It was a fine piece of original research that never got a chance to shine. In the end 95% of that research was wasted. I got to use the Rhosyr in an essay later on and that’s about it.

My new dissertation was almost completely different and there was much less substance to it. It was all about medievalism and how A Victorian Gothic revival building compared to an actual medieval building and how they both looked back to the past. It wasn’t very good in the end. I think it might have ended up even more general in actual fact. Oh… And I couldn’t get into the Gothic building until March because they had closed for the winter, even though I emailed them and explained the situation.

Maybe if things had worked out differently…

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