Monday, December 3, 2007

Historical Research

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.


Marisa Chenery said...

I've written two historical romances, the first was just released a couple weeks ago. I do exactly what you suggested--I do all the research first before starting to write. I print out all the information and keep it in a file folder, which I keep near at hand when I start writing. I usually can find what I'm looking for quick enough.


Unknown said...

Another book ruined by a zipper is a non-fiction book called Revolutionary Mothers about women during the Revolutionary War. It's not a bad read until you hit the part where one of the founding mothers zips up her bag.

Anonymous said...

I like to print things out, too, but I also keep a collection of links handy for whatever I'm working on. That way I can go straight to a source while I write.

I also like to use Live Search and the street view on Google Maps for descriptions of places. That even applies to places I've visited - - it's come in handy more than once to jog my memory and add to what goes into a story.

Barbara Sheridan said...

I tend to write in the era I've always been fascinated with--the late 19th century. Since I've always loved anything and everything with that period I like to think I have a "feel" for the basics.

If I need specifics --like information on the Indian Territory and Choctaw Nation I used in three books, then I've done more research to nail down those specifics.

Shelley Munro said...

I tend to write and research at the same time. Research, although necessary, is a dangerous beast. There's a real danger of getting caught up in research and either trying to cram it all into your story or procrastinating about starting to write because everything is so fascinating. I tend to write notes for myself using the word program. That lets me know I need to either check a fact at the end of the writing session or follow up during the polishing part of the process.

Kate Willoughby said...

I do a lot of online research, too, and I set up a Favorites Folder for each book and save the addresses for reference, both while I'm writing the book, and afterward. When my books are released, I create "special features" for them on my website and usually included is that list of research sites.

lynneconnolly said...

I'm a writer and a historian and my twin obsessions started at around the same time. I wrote my first story at seven and fell in love with the Georgian era at nine.
True, my parents spent every weekend dragging me and my sister around every stately home in Britain, so it was a case of learning to love it or being bored to tears, but I'm the only person (apart from my sister) whose regular childminder was a museum curator and who was minded in a genuine Victorian nursery.
However, I have around 200 history books, only matched by my books on mythology and the occult and I keep up my research, too. You might think that research into history is static, but new things are being discovered all the time.
I get a lot of my storylines from journals and newspapers of the time, the kind of things known in the historian's world as ephemera. That way they are authentic, take from the time and are unusual, too. No modern misses in pretty dresses.
Tips - If you write a historical novel, LOVE the history. Enjoy doing the research. So that if you see a new book is out on "your" period, you have to have it and you devour it.
Never take anything for granted - the tiniest details are often the ones that go wrong.
For the love of heaven, get the titles and names right. Make a mistake with those, and they're repeated through the whole book and readers will hate you.
Readers notice. You will be found out if you skim history
Never, ever take your research from other novels - it's sad that I even have to say this, but even Georgette Heyer made a few mistakes.
Mix your media - if you find it on the Internet, go and check it in a book, or a journal, or with an academic.
It's not just the facts, it's the zeitgeist. You need to get the feel right.
If you can't be bothered, if only a few details interest you - write a fantasy. Set it in a faux Regency world on another planet. Fun!
Never let the following words past your lips or your pen - "It's only romance, they won't notice." They will.
If it's in "Braveheart," it's wrong .

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Maps are wonderful tools for historicals. Horwood did extremely detailed maps of London about 1792-1799, which are terrific for writing about that time period. Going to the locations and walking it with the historical map in mind helps a lot too.

I research historicals constantly and have a huge filing cabinet full of articles, maps, notes, and bibliographies, organized by time periods.

I tend to research and write at the same time, although I do preliminary research if I'm venturing into a new time period to see if what I want to do will work.

And doing research can bring on terrific plot ideas!

I've written two mainstream historical novels and a slew of historical romances, and I guarantee that nobody has zippers. :-)

J L said...

The same is true for a person writing in a SciFi world -- if you do world building, make sure you stay consistent in that world. So many paranormal books have been ruined for me when a 'rule' is broken. Since I write paranormal, I know how hard it can be to keep the facts straights, but that's where the 'Bible' comes into play: I have one I keep close at hand in which I jot down all the miniscule facts that keep my story on track.

Denise A. Agnew said...

I always do my historical research FIRST, then I start writing the story. Then I have all my research documents and books on hand so that I can check things whenever I need to. :)

Denise A. Agnew

Anonymous said...

Research must always come first. Always. Wikipedia is great for a grade 7 essay, but in terms of real research you need real sources. I love academic journals for research. And most online databases have them in pdf format. I keep a folder for each story I've got going and one for generally neat stuff I stumble across.

I once found a paper that detailed the flora in and around Kiev in the 9th and 10th centuries based on analysis of fossilized spores and pollen. The information in there was invaluable for setting a scene and giving my characters things to eat, grow, profit from and argue over.

charleneteglia said...

I actually picked time periods to write about that there's a lot of argument among historians over and lack of data, so I have a little leeway. *g* But I still researched the medieval period and Viking age to the point of overkill. Art, science, politics, current events, daily living, you have to look at a lot of areas of history to get anything like a complete picture of what life was like. And then you have to remember that it's the setting for the book and tell the story. But the background gives the foundation for the story, IMO. I can't imagine not doing it first.

anny cook said...

I write fantasy so I have to invent my world, politics, history, flora, fauna, monetary system--everything from scratch. I have a three ring binder for each series. And update it by the book. So I can go to book three and see which characters, towns, or other new items I added.