I love losing myself in research books, but there's a special thrill to research trips. Walking down streets your characters walk in your novel, exploring rooms they might have lived in, seeing clothes and furniture and works of art and imagining which of your characters might own what, how it would be arranged, what it might represent. It doesn't necessarily mean going to the location where the book is set. I was lucky enough to go to London and Scotland when I was researching Beneath a Silent Moon and "location scout" (that's me in Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden, which first opened in 1800). But I also did a lot of research for the book on trips to New York City. Kenneth Fraser, the father of Charles (the hero), has an art collection that plays an important role in the book. Kenneth Fraser built his collection making the Grand Tour with his friend Lord Glenister. I built Kenneth's collection in my imagination by exploring the the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection.
The allusions in my books tend to the literary and the musical. Even though I've loved museums since I was a child (my mom and I named all the Regency and Georgian paintings at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor when I was ten) exploring the visual arts for thematic references for my books was something new. The Frick is particularly wonderful for this as you can wander through actual house looking at paintings hung on the walls of rooms designed for them, sculptures set out on beautiful tables and desk, marble busts lining corridors. If you get tired of walking, you can take a break on a stone bench in an exquisite courtyard filled with stone statues. I took notes, drew (very bad) sketches, scoured the museum gift shops for post cards. I looked, of course, for works I thought Kenneth might have collected. But I also looked for works that reflect that themes about sex and power (and the intertwining of the two) that run through the book. Which, given Kenneth's personality, tallied nicely with the type of art he would have collected :-).
Back at home I laid out my notes and postcards and bad sketches and picked paintings and statues and sculptures that fit different scenes. Early in the book, Charles is summoned to an uncomfortable interview with his father Kenneth, who has just become betrothed to Honoria Talbot, the girl Charles almost married himself. In Kenneth's study, A Renaissance bronze that had the look of Cellini served as a paperweight. A bit later in the scene, Charles fixed his gaze on the bronze sculpture, which appeared to depict a naked Triton ravishing n equally naked Nereid. He gripped her, either in conquest or supplication, while she looked away and yet curved her body into his own. That description came from notes I took on a sculpture I saw at the Frick.
Later in the book, Mélanie (the heroine) is alone with Kenneth in the wake of a shocking incident involving Honoria, an incident which makes Mélanie question everything she thought she knew about both Kenneth and Honoria. Kenneth was staring at a painting on the wall by the fireplace. Danaë reclining on gleaming red velvet, her head thrown back, her hand extended to clutch a fistful of gold coins. When I saw that painting (at the Met, I think, though I may be wrong, and I don't have time to dig my notes out before I post this), I knew it was the perfect image for that scene.
Still later, when Mélanie is trying to make sense of the world of Honoria Talbot grew up in--She thought of the Fragonard paintings that were littered about the house. Young lovers in a rose-strewn garden, watched over by Venus and Cupid. A world of sugar-coated romance with carnality pulsing just beneath the surface. That description--a metaphor for the world of my fictional Glenister House set whose intrigues form the background of the novel--was inspired by the Fragonard room at the Frick. I still remembering standing in that room, turning to examine the various paintings, and realizing how very much more is going on in them than what first meets the eye.
Kenneth Fraser's collection plays as important role in the plot of Beneath a Silent Moon, but it became much more than that as I wrote the book. It was a way to highlight emotions and draw thematic parallels. It became a living, breathing part of of my characters' world for me--and hopefully for the reader.
Writers, do you like exploring museums and imagining how works of art might figure in your characters' lives? Have you ever written a scene inspired by a painting or sculpture? Readers, do you imagine scenes from your favorite books when you visit museums? Any favorite books to recommend in which works of art play an important role?