Back at the HNS conference in June of this year, they offered a session on what to do for research when you couldn't travel to the location. I distinctly remember that being one of the time slots when there was more than one talk I wanted to attend and so I missed it, but I can't tell you how often this comes up for historical fiction writers. This is an enormous problem especially when you live in rural Ohio and are writing about 14th century England and Scotland. Around here, about the only on-site research I can do would be picking a farmer's brain about the mechanical workings of a John Deere tractor.
This week I've been writing a scene which takes place at Scarborough Castle in 1312, just before Piers Gaveston was besieged there and gave himself up. Very likely, it was the last place that he and Edward II were together - and what a heart-wrenching time that must have been, knowing the the Earl of Lancaster was bearing down on them, hellbent on capturing Gaveston and bringing the king to terms.
Flipping through every book on my shelf, I discovered I had zero useable details to draw on. So, the internet search began and suddenly I had dozens of details through pictures and descriptions. I needed to know where the castle is located in relation to the sea and town, the topographical layout of the surrounds, and the blueprint of the castle itself. This, at least, told me something about the architecture, the vistas from any vantage point, and how impregnable the fortress was due to its location on a promontory on an isthmus of land.
Now, I have a setting in my head. I can envision what lies to the east, west, north or south. Where they might have been standing when they shared their last words. The lay of the land. The smell of salt air and the sting of the wind.
It's something, but I still wish I could go there, even though the place is in ruins, the buzz of automobiles can probably be heard in the distance and there are motorized yachts in the harbor instead of medieval sailing ships. The internet is a valuable tool that puts the world at our fingertips, but there's something transcendental and inspirational about standing in the spot where history unfolded. This is when I wish I was independently wealthy and could just hop a plane and be there.