Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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The Curse of Writing Historical Fiction

April 17, 2015

historical vs fictionSo I write historical fiction, which sometimes feels like a curse I placed upon myself. Like my fortune cookie said:

You will be bogged down by meticulous research and will never, ever know what it was really like to wear pattens. So there!

PS. These are pattens: 

Early 19th Century Pattens from Boston's Museum of Fine Art.

Early 19th Century Pattens from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art.

Pattens were used in Regency times to protect your shoes from mud, etc. Apparently everyone wore them because, well, the streets were made of dirt and full of horses. So you used pattens to elevate yourself above the muck.

Its just one of those little details that most people could care less about but since I happen to enamoured of this particular time in history, I think they are the COOLEST thing ever.

I almost want to recreate my own pair out of old wire clothes hangers.

Ok, I won’t.

My point is that there is a battle inherent within the genre of historical fiction: Historical vs. Fiction.

Every time I sit down to write, I have to decide: who will win? History or fiction?

Does my character don her pattens, as would be historically accurate? If so, do i describe the sound they make? Is it a metallic, ringing noise as she hits a cobble stone? Or is it more of a thud as they sink into soft dirt?

Do I spend hours researching this?

Do I make it up?

Or do I, in a fit of frustration, say FORGET THE #$%# PATTENS! Thus, losing a vital snippet of historical detail. (But, really, would modern readers care about them anyway?)

Does my novel need to come with a glossary of terms?

Is it going to be that kind of history novel?

How stringent am I going to be?

If i am too historical, my novel runs the risk of becoming a Ph.d history thesis. Or it may sound ‘too old-fashioned’.

If I am too fictional, my novel runs the risk of become ‘too modern’ and anachronistic.

It is a constant negotiation. I need to always find a middle ground that works for me.

Not too historically rigid. Not too fictionally soft.

JUST RIGHT.

This is not easy. And sometimes I wish I had set my novel in my current location, in current times, when I could just look around my living room to describe a fictional reality.

But, alas, I must instead peer at pictures like this and extrapolate what it would have been like to wear it…

From Ackermann's Repository 1813

From Ackermann’s Repository 1813

Oh, the burden!

PS For more glorious Regency fashion from Ackermann’s Repository, check out this site!

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I Still Want This: A Research Hotline for Writers

January 13, 2015

There are times when I wish I could just hop on a plane and travel to London so I can do the research I need to do in person.

Of course, the internet is wonderful and I am able to be an ‘armchair’ traveller and move through space and time at the click of the button (a kind of writer version of Dr. Who).

Need to plan a Recency-era dinner party for my main character? No problem! Click.

Need to figure out what day of the week it was on October 3, 1813? No problem! Click.

Need to determine a possible carriage route to Whitechapel from Mayfair in nineteenth century London? No problem! Click.

Major battles of the Napoleon Wars? Click.

Maps of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century? Click.

Male Regency hair styles? Click.

I can’t really complain. The internet has been good to me. It is my friend.

HOWEVER…

There are some things the internet just can’t provide.

For instance…my main character just walked into Lord Byron’s home at 8 St. James’ Street, London.

What does it look like inside?

Yes. WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE INSIDE?

The internet can’t seem to tell me.

Shall I try the old fashioned way…and reach for a book? Well, over the years, I have read many biographies on Lord B.

They love to talk about what happened and about the people involved.

But they rarely tell me what kind of wall paper decorated the walls during the time he lived at 8 St. James’ Street.

At least Google street view provides an idea of the exterior. (Thank you, internet!)

If I could fly to London, maybe I could figure out a way to step inside #8…

If there was a Research Hotline, maybe I could call it…and they could filter through all the letters, journals, books, academic articles, Ph.D theses and websites written to, from and about Lord Byron over the years and find me one detail, just one little detail, about how that place looked inside…

Oh well. Guess I will just have to use…MY IMAGINATION!

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Trying to make Lord Byron fit: Writing about real people in fiction.

January 7, 2015

bryon comic

I have started my second novel in my Regency mystery series and, as I keep telling people, this one has a ‘guest star’: Lord Byron. *excited*

In my first mystery, I kept the famous people of the period on the periphery. Oh, I do a bit of name dropping: Prinny, Beau Brummell, The Duchess of Devonshire, etc. But that’s it. No one from ‘real life’ makes an appearance.

And while I base several of my characters on the antics of real life Regency people, my characters are wholly made up. Pure fiction.

There is freedom in this, I now realize.

As I wrote about in a previous blog, writing about a ‘real’ historical figure, especially one so beloved as Lord Byron, carries with it the high responsibility OF GETTING IT RIGHT.

I do not want mass emails and tweets from angry English Romantic Literature students berating me for maligning one of their idols.

So there’s that.

But now I see that I also must struggle with the constraints of biographical accuracy.

My second book in the series is set in late November, 1813. This date is necessary to an important plot point. I have no wish to change it.

However, Lord Byron, in his infinite wisdom, decided long ago to start keeping a journal on November 14th, 1813.

This journal is available on line.

(Yay! I get to read about the minutia of his day and can use it to make my novel more realistic. Yay!)

(Boo! What he actually does vs. what I want him to do do not match up very well. Boo!)

The day he was to meet my heroine (Friday, November 26th, 1813)  is documented as ‘a day missed’–so there is room for me, as a fiction writer, to play with.

However, in other entries, he mentions who he has visited or seen or dined with, so it makes one wonder why he would neglect to mention my character’s name. Her visit definitely makes an impression upon him. If it truly happened, he would surely write about it.

Of course, I am not trying to re-write history so much as present an ‘alternate’ history. An event that could have happened in Byron’s life. I want it to be believable.

So there must be a reason why he would not include her visit (and all that is to come after it) in his daily diary.

WHAT IS THAT REASON?!

Here is my current puzzle piece, the one I am trying to make fit.

(Writing a novel is very much like taking a jumbled up puzzle set with no picture box and trying to turn it into a cohesive, whole picture that looks like something-that-is-sort-of recognizable…)

Lord Byron, you rascal you. Already, you fascinate and frustrate me!

Oh boy. This novel is going to be extra FUN!

(You know you’re a writer when…solving these sorts of puzzles will happily occupy your mind for days…and when you solve it, it is a total rush!)

As to solving it, I am open to any suggestions from the crowd! Thoughts? Any one else face this quandary? *help*

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Don’t Hate my Lord Byron Interpretation! aka In Writing, You Go Where You Must

June 8, 2014

real fictionI’m starting to think ahead to Book 2 in my Regency mystery series. And this time around I think I’d like to include some significant ‘real life’ Regency guest stars–namely Lord Byron and (my muse) Lady Caroline Lamb.

In my current novel (book 1) I was VERY careful to create only fictional Regency folk–with a little bit of ‘real life’ name dropping. I mention Prinney (the Prince Regent), Napoleon, Lord Byron and his publisher John MurrayBeau Brummell, and others. But they are only on the periphery. The background. They never take the stage.

I did this because I wanted the story to be 1st and foremost about my characters. I didn’t want any distraction caused by some famous person showing up.

Also, writing about a real life personage is A LOT of work involving a TON of research.

Which is why I’m now wondering: am I crazy to want to include Lord Bryon, a historical personage so overly fictionalized that he has his own reading list? see “Best Lord Byron Books”

Also, how can I possibly do him justice? There are a bunch of biographies solely devoted to trying to do him justice.

Also, how can I do justice to a person that is so beloved? Will English grads (and English professors) nation wide send me snarky letters, irate at my fumbling portrayal?

On the other hand–HOW CAN I RESIST?

My novels is set in the fall of 1813. THIS IS PRIME BYRON TIME Part 1! (Part 2 is when he hooks up with The Shelleys in 1816…but that is beyond my novel’s current time line.)

So just before my novel’s time line:

  • Byron publishes Childe Harold in March 1812 and ‘becomes famous’…
  • In March 1812 Byron and Caro Lamb start their mad cap, cross dressing, self stabbing, on/off again affair…
  • By the summer of 1813, Caro Lamb has embarrassed herself so badly in her conduct in this affair she is taken out of town…
  • In the summer of 1813 his half sister Augusta Leigh arrives…
  • In the fall Byron visits Newstead Abbey, returning to London Oct. 19 1813…

Which is right about the time of my novel. And not a lot happens to him between Oct-Nov.

What an intriguing lull! My writing instincts insist I must fill it! Imagine if my characters have a run in with the great Lord B! (*gleeful chuckle*)

And so–as is the way of writing–it doesn’t matter in the end what I think.

The decision is made for me.

I go where I must.

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In Which I Willingly Submit to a ‘Research Frenzy’

April 8, 2014

Image

I decided I needed a different perspective. I took a break from writing THE END of my novel in order to go back over what I’ve already written.

In a previous post called ‘[Frame It] To Keep The Writing Flowing’, I talked about how I used the parentheses [ ] to mark those areas where I needed to add details or make decisions about phrasing.

Here’s an example:

Before dinner, I practiced [name of Mozart music] to perfection.

Well, going back over my work, I realized I had quite a few [  ] to fill in.

This lead me on an hours long research frenzy, where I looked up such things as:

  • money amounts of the Regency period and their corresponding modern day equivalents
  • men’s Regency hair styles
  • the Russo-Ottoman war of 1806-1812
  • a map of the Ottoman Empire
  • towns in the Lake District of England
  • Wordsworth’s time in the Lake District
  • Regency foods and menus
  • maps of London circa 1813 (which I painstakingly compared with Google maps of modern London in an attempt to establish a carriage route for my heroine to take from Mayfair to Whitechaple–I also tried to give my characters ‘authentic’ London residences)
  • deserts in Jordan one might go through en route to The Red Sea
  • names of Ships from England during the early 1800’s
  • heritage homes near Crawley UK
  • common names for the British gentry (which I then cheerfully bastardized into my own versions)
  • Beethoven piano sonatas (thank you youtube for posting so many sonatas so I can hear what they sound like!)
  • whether Istanbul was called Istanbul or Constantinople in 1813 (it’s Istanbul, apparently)
  • what year the Duchess of Devonshire visited Paris
  • wildflowers of England…that only bloom in summer!
  • common birds of England
  • historical Inns/Pubs in England
  • yearly calendars for 1813 and 1809

And a few more items than that, besides!

Isn’t it amazing, how a writer will not only obligingly look up the most arcane trivia in books or websites–but also be deliriously happy about it?

I consider those hours well spent, my friend. Hours well spent!

PS. Naturally, searching for arcane details is part of my You Know You’re A Writer When…12 Reasons! List

PPS. As much as I’ve enjoyed my hours of researching, I still would love for someone to move forward with my Research Hotline idea

PPPS I ended up making a ‘Regency Links’ page on this site, primarily to help myself out (so I wouldn’t have to search them out via Google all over again as I have been repeatedly doing through out this whole novel writing process) but also in case there are any other Regency Geeks out there who might like to see them. It’s on the side bar (scroll down to Other Useful Items) or click this link.

PPPPS And here are some invaluable Regency books I’ve collected over the years!

regency books pic

 

 

 

 

 

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Doing What Your Character Demands…

June 15, 2010

One of my characters has decided to come back to England from Turkey, causing me untold anxiety in the research department…especially since he’s due to give a ‘lecture’ about his travels to the Royal Society in about three scenes from now…

I have tried to negotiate this. How about a country I’ve actually been to, Mr. Elliot? Spain, perhaps? Morocco? Italy?

But no. This character won’t be dissuaded. It’s got to be somewhere suitably exotic to the English imagination of the times, a reasonable distance away, not an enemy of the state or under Napoleon’s control and preferably not the exact same itinerary as Lord Byron, who traveled abroad during the same approximate time period…

So Turkey it is.

I had no idea when I started this novel that I was going to be googling ‘Turkey in 1813’…and not getting much for it, it seems. Drat! So it won’t be handed to me on a silver platter…which means a more refined internet search, that will likely take me hours & hours and days and days. I might even have to order a ‘real’ book from the library. (Where is that Research Hot Line when I need it, eh?)

My novel is set in the Regency period. I have read a lot of history books on this era because it is my ‘thing’ (see blog: I ‘Heart’ The Regency). I can feel my way around Regency England quite well (and when in need of additional inspiration, there’s a plethora of Jane Austen adaptations to put me in the mood..) I also have a pretty good grasp on France during this time, given Napoleon’s dominance and the love/hate-on the English had for all things French.

But Turkey?

What is this character thinking?!

Actually, I already know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking:

Better get to work, writer! I’m giving a lecture to the Royal Society three scenes from now and you need to prepare my notes!

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Research Hot-line, Anyone?

April 27, 2010

My novel is set in England during the Regency and sometimes I struggle with getting the details right because a) I don’t live in England and b) I wasn’t alive during 1795-1837, respectively.

While I do have a collection of history and biography books about the period, and 9 times out of 10 I can find out what I want on the internet (thank you, Wikipedia!), there’s always that one little detail you want but can’t find no matter how many times you re-word in ‘Google search’.

I wish there was a Research Hot-line I could call. Excuse me, but how long is the strawberry season in England? Were doors made out of oak, primarily? Were umbrellas commonplace by 1813? Did London have sidewalks? Was there pea-soup fog or was that more a Victorian phenomenon?

I can get too hung up on the history. For gods sake, I tell myself, it’s not a PhD dissertation, its a fictional novel! Stop dithering and just make it up.

If I’ve got it wrong, and someone notices, I’m sure they’ll let me know eventually…