Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sharon E. Cathcart: Seeing is Understanding

Sharon Cathcart is a dear friend and delightful writer who, like T.E. MacArthur, is a member of our writers group, The Treehouse of Solitude. She is also one of our most prolific as well as best travelled members. As my guest this week, she has some insightful observations on... observation.

True confession:  I started this blog post at 3 AM in a London hotel room, when I couldn’t sleep.  It was my third time in London, and I was thinking about how much that first trip had broadened my horizons.

As a historical fiction author, I spend a lot of time doing research.  All the same, there is no way to explain the way your understanding deepens when you see places, things and people you’ve studied, up-close and personal.

I’d studied English history for decades by the time I made that first trip to London.  It was easy, in my mind, to conceptualize what a Yorkist or Lancastrian castle would look like.  Yet, on that first visit to England, climbing Warwick Castle’s “Mound” to see the ruins of the original structure brought home that it was much smaller than I’d imagined – as well as its strategic importance.  You can see for miles from the Mound’s vista.

And that is to say nothing of the humbling realization that Richard III (my favorite, much-maligned monarch) had stood where I was standing and had looked out across that same vista.  It was wonderful.

I can tell you that similar feelings arose in the White Tower, Edinburgh’s Holyrood Castle and numerous other sites I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.

Picasso, Sleeping Woman, 1952
Seeing Man Ray’s photographs at London’s National Portrait Gallery this time out was a real treat; part of my forthcoming novel, “In The Eye of The Storm,” deals with Paris’ modern art movement in the early 20th C., and Man Ray was part of that.  So were Picasso and Matisse; I got to see their seminal works when the Leo and Gertrude Stein art collection visited my city.

So, why is this important?  Aside from discovering that I rather liked Picasso’s pre-Cubist works (there is a small print of his “Sleeping Woman” at my desk), I found myself better able to visualize peoples’ lives.  It’s about seeing furniture, houses, works of art … and even the intricate carvings prisoners left on the walls of their Tower cells.  Folk both wealthy and humble kept things that we are able to study and comprehend.  Seeing a letter written in Rob Roy MacGregor’s elegant hand, next to the man’s well-worn belt (which demonstrated him to be a small fellow) was another enlightening moment; we think of heroes as larger than life, but this man’s hands were probably smaller than mine.

Despite having studied the Palais Garnier extensively when I was writing “In The Eye of The Beholder,” there was no real way to appreciate the intimacy of the building.  Admittedly, the outbuildings (like the stables) are now gone, but the five sub-basements remain – as does the Phantom’s Box 5 (with a commemorative plate on the door).

Area Sacra
Discovering that Rome is small enough to walk everywhere even today was also enlightening.  Among the many ideas for novels that are running around in my head is a centurion’s tale; seeing the Colosseum, various fora, the Area Sacra, Pantheon – and how close they really are to one another – means that the book will be that much better when it’s eventually written.

All of this is the sort of thing that helps fill in the picture when you’re dealing in historical fiction. 

Now, maybe you’re thinking “I can’t just up and travel abroad?  What are you thinking with this?”

What I’m really saying is that it’s important to take advantage of any opportunity you get to see the things you’ve studied.

Maybe you’ve written a novel set in Ancient Egypt.  I was fortunate enough, thanks to an academic competition, to see the very first U.S. tour of King Tut’s treasures … and that doesn't come along very often.  But if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can visit the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum any day of the week.  It houses the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts west of the Mississippi, and even has a replica rock tomb.  (Full disclosure: I was a docent there for a while.)

My point is that there may be fabulous opportunities right in your own back yard that will allow you to better involve readers as you share experiences via your tale.  When we take advantage of whatever opportunities come our way to see what we’ve studied, I truly believe we are changed for the better.
Sharon E. Cathcart is a former journalist who has been writing for as long as she can remember and almost always has at least one work in progress.  Her latest book is “Through the Opera Glass,” a collection of short stories.  

Learn more about Sharon and her work at her website,, or by visiting her Facebook fan page,


  1. Thank you for hosting me, Maggie, and thanks to your readers!

  2. A lovely, insightful interview. Thank you.