In the Name of Research

For school, my fourth-grader is preparing to be Marco Polo. Or to be more exact, an imaginary female accompanying the fourteenth-century merchant traveler from Venice. I don’t know if Marco Polo had female companions on the Silk Road, but since my nine-year-old is a girl, this is the best way she can pretend to be a part of that time and place.

Venetian merchant traveler, Marco Polo. Source: Wikipedia

This isn’t her idea, by the way. It’s her teacher’s. It’s part of their “Explorer” unit, where they get to research a famous explorer from the past, and present their findings to the class, while dressed in period costume. The challenge isn’t finding enough information from books or online. The challenge isn’t writing it all down. The challenge, and this is where the dear parent being me is involved, is finding the dang period costume.

Where exactly am I supposed to find a Venetian, medieval gown for a nine-year-old girl?

Source: Morgue Files

My daughter and I have been discussing ways to render this outfit, using items from our 21th century, Indian-American household. These include sari material, scarves, throws, Indian bedspreads, and a belt I used when I was nine-years-old myself. You could call it improvising. But would you call it research?

Research is an interesting concept, especially in the life of an author. These days, you have the most amount of information you’ve ever had right at your fingertips. A simple Google search can yield paintings of women in the time of Marco Polo, online catalogs where you can purchase period costumes for adults, children, or pets, and Wikipedia pages describing the items Polo discovered on his journey to the Far East. You don’t have to go far to go back far in time.

When I was first writing my children’s novel, VANISHED, I did similar research online, learning as much as I could from Google, about an ancient, South-Indian instrument known as the veena. This was the instrument that would belong to my book’s main character, the one that would go missing, and that she would go to great lengths to recover. At the time, the only person I knew who owned this instrument lived in another state. There were no nearby teachers or veena players.So I did what any other able-bodied author did – I imagined everything. I used my years of being a violinist to imagine how the strings felt when you played on a veena instead, the calluses that formed on your fingers from practicing, the fears of sounding “twangy” in front of others, and what a seemingly unsympathetic teacher might sound like when she’s badgering you to practice. During the summer, I interviewed a real veena teacher in person, and took photographs. And that’s how I wrote my book.


The box I carried my veena in from India to New York.

Today I actually have a veena of my own. With great care and a certain amount of luck, I was able to bring one back from a trip to India last year. Not only that, I actually found a teacher near me, one I didn’t meet until very recently. And I have to say, imagination aside, there is nothing like playing on the real thing. Finally I know firsthand what being a veena player is all about. Looking back at the book I published, I strangely got the details right – the strings really do feel the way I’d written about them! Still, nothing beats the feel and sound of a real instrument – for me the author, and for others who have read my book and get to see and hear the instrument for themselves.

Creative research is definitely a way to bring something otherwise inaccessible to life. Perhaps the materials my daughter will use for her Explorer project will be derived from a silk sari given by her Indian grandmother, or from a Rajasthani bedspread brought back from a trip to India. And maybe the cloak will come from Walmart. She, like her classmates, will have to imagine much.


Source: Flikr

But the real physical and tactile experience of assembling the various materials together,  of wearing them and walking around in them, might evoke a sense of what it was like to be a lady in Marco Polo’s time, hundreds of years ago.

We cannot underestimate the value of a real experience, even a simplified or modified one. Sometimes these real moments have the power to take us farther than a Google search, and we become the musicians and explorers we first could only imagine being inside our heads. 

In the meanwhile, if someone has a spare Venetian, medieval gown that fits a nine-year old, please let this parent (and author) know.


Sheela Chari is the author of VANISHED, which was recently featured as an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. She lives in New York.

  1. By the way, thanks for your Skype visit to our 3rd grade yesterday. The kids and teachers raved about you. Now the kids want to read your next book and the teacher had to explain that it won’t be ready by the time they finish Vanish. They are about half way through.

    These kids are ready for your next book. Just say the word!

  2. We had the EXACT same assignment but my daughter was Hernando de Soto. We used a motorcycle jacket and wrapped the arms with aluminum foil, added a plastic sword, fake moustache, and made a red silk sash.

    • @PragmaticMom, I will have pull all the stops on this outfit! From the images I have searched online of medieval, Venetian women, they often wore their hair in 2 conical buns on their head. I’m trying to convince my daughter (who’s horrified) that it’s all in the name of research and authenticity.

  3. Hi Sheela – Great post! I couldn’t agree more about making the time to do the research. Not only is it about “getting it right,” but I think authors who take the time are often rewarded with additional story ideas.

    • @WendyS, The funny thing about research is that there is a right time to do it. At least I’ve seen for me what works, is to get the story down first, and then research to make sure you’ve got it down right. I find that if I do too much research first, I lose the story.

  4. Google Society for Creative Anachronism in your area. Find a contact number – preferably for the hospitaller, who is the person in charge of (among other things) finding garb for newbies and visitors. You may not find the costume ready-made, but I bet you can get good advice.

    • @Peni Griffin, Thank you, Peni! I will try that! But who knows, it might be more fun coming up with something homemade. 🙂