by Mary Altman
Lady Jane McDonald flushed and pressed her hand to her anxiously twisting stomach as the forbidding rake hovered inches away from her. He was the bane of every Mama’s existence, the devil with the silver tongue and amber eyes.
He was also the one man she could ever love. And she was going to give herself to him tonight.
“Perhaps my lord would care for a walk?” Jane asked quietly, brows arched in question. “I could use your assistance with a delicate matter.”
“Another puzzle plaguing you?” His voice was like rare velvet, smooth and rich. Jane had to clear her throat and look away before she could gather the courage she needed to continue.
“No, my lord,” she said, looking up from beneath a fan of dark lashes. “I need your help with my zipper.”
And just like that, the story’s ruined.
Historical romance is one of my favorite genres to read, but it is one of the most difficult to edit. Where contemporary fiction often relies on an author’s ability to respond to what’s around her (you can always catch a flight to Chicago to get the feel right, after all) historical fiction relies on an author’s ability to invoke what she cannot possibly experience. What was the London Haymarket like? How did people talk during medieval times? How did the air smell during the Jubilee? An author typically relies on her senses to observe and reimagine settings for her books—historical authors must rely on research instead.
But how can you accomplish the left-brained task of research while remaining true to the right-brained action of storytelling? I have a few tips that may help you out.
1) Do the hard stuff first. A few authors I’ve spoken to claim they write the story and then apply the historical facts. While each author’s method is her own, I can’t help but feel these authors are missing something by writing this way. Historical details shouldn’t be the window-dressing on a book—they should be the foundation. The depth of accuracy and feeling is what divides a historical romance from a wallpaper historical, and it’s difficult to lend a story any depth if you’re tacking on details at the end. Schedule in time to get the research done before you start in on Chapter One.
2) Have a bible close at hand. No, not the Christian bible—a writing bible. Once you’ve finished researching, gather your notes and organize them into categories. Some authors prefer a 3-ring binder while others use spiral notebooks and still others rely on Word files. It doesn’t matter how you organize your bible so long as it is organized and in a readily accessible place. You’ll want it someplace where you can access it in a moment’s notice when you’re deep in a scene and need to know what sort of undergarments the heroine should be wearing.
3) Visual aids can keep you in check. If you’re writing about Regency London, why not have an old map of the city taped above your computer? If you’re describing a Victorian woman’s dress, why not have a few fashion plates in a nearby pile? Having a few maps or sketches nearby can go a long way toward keeping your details accurate.
4) Double-check everything. There are scores of research books out there to help authors catch a glimpse into past eras. The problem is, they don’t always agree on what those past eras were like. Don’t take one book’s word as gospel—check around to make sure you’ve got everything correct. Falling in with a crowd of fellow historical authors is especially useful here. They often know what the best research books are and can point you in the right direction. (And no, Wikipedia doesn’t count.)
5) Be ready to defend yourself. It’s your editor’s job (my job) to question everything in a manuscript. Always be ready with your research in hand in case your editor asks you to explain a point. Saying “According to the following sources, puce was the new pink in 1812!” is much more convincing than saying “Well, I read it somewhere.” Your editor is not being mean or calling you to task for anything if he/she questions a historical detail—we simply want everything to be perfect. And trust me, you’d rather have your editor pointing out possible errors than your readers!
The most important thing to remember in writing historical fiction is that readers are savvy. Historical readers tend to read very widely and have a very broad base of knowledge. They know when you’ve got your facts straight and when you’re just glossing over details and flying by the seat of your pants. Scheduling time to do the research may be hard for some, but it pays off in the long run.
So what do you do to maintain accuracy? Tips, tricks, rituals by candlelight--lay them on me.
Monday, December 3, 2007
by Mary Altman
Labels: Writing Research