Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dianne: When Research Turns Up Nothing – And It’s a Good Thing

Caerleon, Wales -- a Roman amphitheater
It’s tough when you travel to another continent for research and don’t get what you want.

That’s what I thought when my trip to the U.K. this summer didn’t give me the results I expected. My husband had hired a private tour guide to drive me around southern Wales, visiting places related to King Arthur so I could gather information for my MG fantasy series, THE EIGHTH DAY.

The tour guide contacted me by email beforehand, asking specifically what Arthurian sites I wanted to see, but I had none in mind. So I replied that I was looking for inspiration. This research would be applied to a future book in the series, and I was open to ideas.

Ogmore-by-the-Sea, Wales -- a 12th century castle
I thought he was going to take me to 5th century ruins. Instead, he took me to sites that were obviously dated long before or after Arthur’s time – an excavated 1st century Roman fort and amphitheater and the ruins of a 12th century Norman castle. When I asked the guide what connections these had with Arthur, his answers were vague. Legend said that Arthur moved into the fort after the Romans were gone. Legend said that Arthur fought a battle on this plain before Normans built the castle.

But when the guide saw that I was serious enough to hear the truth, he leveled with me. “There are hundreds of places from Scotland to southern England and even into Normandy, France that claim an association with Arthur. Not a single one can be proven. There’s more negative proof than anything else.” He referred me to a book he’d recently read, The Camelot Inquisition by John F. Wake, which I promptly downloaded on my Kindle.

Sadly, I came to the same conclusion as my guide. There’s no credible evidence for a historical King Arthur. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that weighs against him. Most notably: no historians from his time period mention him at all.

Disappointment was followed rather quickly by a feeling of freedom. If Arthur wasn’t real, then I was free to use Arthurian legends however I wanted. I had already been questioned by a copy-editor about the historical accuracy of using the name Arthur Pendragon when Pendragon was associated only with his father Uther until sometime in the 17th century. That caused me some worry … but if there was no historical Arthur, then the historical accuracy of his name isn’t really in question, is it?

If the tour guide had told me in advance he was taking me to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater with only the shakiest connection to Arthurian legend, I might have nixed the trip and gone elsewhere. And that would have been a shame. Because what I thought was nothing was actually full of the potential of everything – including the placement of Arthur’s court in a centuries-old Roman fortress with an amphitheater for his Knights to practice in – if that’s how I choose to write the story.

I told my guide I wanted inspiration, and he delivered what I asked for – just not in the way I expected.