Some people think research is really, really cool. Nancy Northcott is one such person. Like the Noodlers, Nancy is a former Golden Heart finalist (twice). She's also finaled in the Orange Rose and the Maggie Award of Excellence contests and won the Put Your Heart in a Book, Molly and Emerald City Opener contests, all with books set in historical periods. Her undergraduate degree is in history, and she spent a summer studying Tudor and Stuart England at Oxford.
I love research. I really love it, and not just as a cover for procrastination. Opening a book for the first time, visiting a new place, or meeting someone with an interesting job always holds the potential to reveal some previously unknown, fascinating tidbit. I may--or, more likely, may not--ever use the tidbit, but I like knowing about it anyway.
Loving research can lead to some risky habits, like ordering unknown, out-of-print books on obscure subjects over the Internet. Sometimes those blind orders turn out to be gems, and sometimes they’re triggers for “Geez, what was I thinking?” On balance, though, the gems have outweighed the clunkers, and I try to keep such risks relatively cheap--$10 or so with shipping and handling. I also spend a lot of time reading titles on bargain tables.
The research habit can turn vacation trips into opportunities. No matter where I am, I tend to leave the local booksellers happy. It’s not as if I can get a book on slang of the Lake District here at home, right? My vacation journal doubles as a research reference, but I’ve learned not to depend on that alone. After madly scribbling notes on the Warwick Castle map while the master archer demonstrated, I resolved never to be anywhere potentially useful without a pad, one sized so I could write on it with one hand and no extra support. And extra pens in case one runs dry. And a camera. Mine doesn’t take panoramic photos, so I buy the disposable panoramic cameras before we go.
All those docents standing around in the house uniform are fountains of knowledge just waiting for someone to tap them. Ask one of them a friendly question on a day that’s not busy, and you may make an instant friend. While some of them aren’t talkative, many are. They rarely see people who show genuine interest in these sites and who seem to care what they’re looking at and why it matters, as opposed to just wanting to say they’ve “done” the places. A word of caution, though--do not, ever, under any circumstance, try to engage guards in conversation. Some of them see educating visitors as not their job or, even worse, a distraction from said job.
The downside to this fondness for research is that not everyone shares it. Have you ever tried to corner someone to discuss swordsmiths in Anglo-Saxon England? The menu at medieval banquets? The rigging of sails in the wooden navy? If so, science fiction or fantasy readers, medieval re-enactors, and ship fanatics would love to meet you. Fortunately, so would writers. Anyone else may edge warily away from you, looking for someone to fling into your path as a diversion.
Even the most devoted readers don’t want to know every single fact about, say, food preparation in the Middle Ages. If you’ve spent the afternoon reading about medieval banquets, how much do you put on the page? Probably a tiny fraction of what you’ve learned. All that reading wasn’t wasted, though. The more we know about a time and place, the better our “feel” for it, the more texture we can give our readers.
So, any lovers of research out there? If so, in what meaty area of research can you really lose yourself?
To learn more about Nancy, visit her website, www.nancynorthcott.com. She’s building reference lists there for writers and curious readers.
Family History--A Treasure Box of Research Goodies
My 2003 Golden Heart manuscript FAIRHOPE lured me into genealogy research. Over lunch one day, I happened to mention to my aunt that I was writing a story set in Texas. My aunt informed me that my maternal great grandmother was from a little town in north central Texas called Bells. Shortly before Christmas, a photo of my great grandmother arrived from my aunt. Have you ever had that déjà vu feeling when you've looked at a photo of a long lost relative? The resemblance was enough to pique my curiosity and start me digging.
Since that time, I have developed a passion for family history and have found it to be a great resource for story ideas as well as information on various regions of the country. Many genealogy sites on the web have archives of old photos, old maps, historical information about the area, and letters. Old photos can give you invaluable information about period clothing, architecture, and cultural practices, all handy research items for the historical author, but also for contemporary stories with rich backstories. All of our characters have family stories and relatives with interesting quirks. Old letters are great a place to find family skeletons for your characters. Many of these letters have been transcribed and are available online. They also give you insight into the economy and mindset of the period. Check out Rebekah’s letter and see what I mean at www.bellstexas.com/families/pletter.html
Old wills are another source of interesting historic detail that can be found online at genealogy sites. Many of these have been transcribed word for word. It's amazing how personalities and family conflicts are written between the lines. Let's face it, our stories need conflict. Wills are a way to find family issues true to the period. If you need to kill old Uncle Minty off in your story and don't know what disease to give him, death certificates are full of deadly illnesses with period names to insure Minty's quick demise.
Does the town you've decided to set your story in need interesting detail to bring it to life? One of my favorite sites for my family history is http://www.bellstexas.com/history.html Not every town has a site as detailed as the Bells site, but more are being added every day by generous family history buffs, so check back periodically for information. Many counties have email loops with generous members who are willing to share information. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Cemetery listings are a great resource for interesting names for your characters. There are genealogy sites worldwide with such listings. If you are looking for British surnames for your regency historical, check out this site I found on Google http://www.bigenealogy.com/
If you search by state and county in the United States, you can find plenty of FREE information on the following link: http://usgenweb.org/
If you feel inclined to delve into your own family history and have a list of names, I suggest you start with the following site: http://www.familysearch.org/
I'll have to warn you, however, this can be addictive if you have a fascination for history. Happy searching!
Today, we're lucky to have author Jeanne Adams hanging out with us here at the Wet Noodle Posse. She's an expert in...wait for it...body disposal. If you've got some dead characters in your books, she's here to give you some ideas for where to go to figure out how to actually get rid of those characters' bodies.
I’m going to blog visit today with pure 100% controversy. I’m going to talk about how annoying a dead guy can be. (Warning! Explicit discussion of the aforementioned dead guy and how to get rid of his body…)
So, tell me, have you ever had an annoying dead guy hanging around in one of YOUR stories? You know the one. He’s important, at least at first, but you really don’t want to focus on him. You really just want him or his rather messy demise to draw your hero and heroine together. But he just keeps hanging around. AAnnoyyyyying.
Now some of you are smiling because you write romantic suspense or contemporaries and you’ve done this. Killed off a “red shirt” character in order to tangle up the H/H and get that story going with a bang. Others are looking at the screen thinking, “This woman’s nuts, there’s no annoying dead guy in MY books.” (Still others are snickering in true feministic fashion thinking, “But what if it’s a dead WOMAN?”)
Yeah, yeah yeah. Well, whichever gender, and however you killed them off, you the author get to figure out how to dispose of a body. I was in the funeral biz for about 13 years. It was really interesting, if you’re into that stuff, and morbidly fascinating even if you’re not. Using that knowledge, I offer a class to writers on how to get rid of the dead guy or gal.
Why, you might ask? Because I’ve read it done so badly, so carelessly that I’ve shut the book and never bought that author again. You’re my friends over here at WNP. I want your sales to soar, I’m thinking NYT. So…I’d like to help you get rid of the body.
I am aware that here in the first part of the 21st century, there are grown people out there in reader and writer land who’ve never even been to a funeral. Either their grandparents died long ago and they were too young to go, or everyone’s hale and hearty. Lucky you, if the latter is the case. Hard to know what goes on behind those quiet doors and walls if you’ve never been there.
On the other hand, you might have been involved in the planning of a funeral or two, but never had to deal with the kind of mortal end you dealt to that unfortunate character. Let’s call him Red, shall we? (Rude to keep calling him Annoying, don’t you think?) So, here you are ready to kill Red off and you’ve done your homework on the forensics and are pretty sure you can burn Red up in a fire and destroy the evidence you need to make the story work. Yeah, but what about Red? Hmmmm? What do you do with the crispy critter he’s become?
Or it’s Ol’ Grandpa who kicked the bucket, left the heroine a bazillion dollars as long as she marries the hero. All this comes out at the funeral. Ahhhhh, but if Grandpa died under suspicious circumstances, you can’t just jump from dead guy to funeral. Or, if you live in Canada, Alaska, Wyoming, Maine or points north, you may have to wait months (until spring thaw) to actually BURY Grandpa. Did you know that?
So do you need to know how to get rid of Red? Believe me, he has special needs. Ha! Have you called your local funeral director? Or e-mailed me? (Click, click, nope, you didn’t e-mail me! Sob!) Do you have an area of expertise that makes you wince at mistakes in books you read? (Any doctors or nurses out there who hate ER?) And last but not least, do any of you historical writers know the origin of the euphemism about dying, delicately referencing the dead guy as having “stuck his spoon in the wall”?
Since I’m celebrating the upcoming release of my debut novel, Dark and Dangrous (June 1, 2008!), I’m giving stuff away. I’ve got a Dark and Dangerous Beach Read Prize for one random commenter and a copy of the book and some Godiva for whoever can tell me about that dratted spoon euphemism. Oh, and thanks to the fabulous WNP for allowing me to come speak of the dead. Grins.
Okay, do you have questions about how to dispose of one of your departed characters? Here's your chance to ask the expert. And be sure to check out Jeanne's Web site where you can find out more about her and her debut release.
So many great research tools, so little time. I used to spend entire weekends in the library. Now I can do the same amount of research with just the click of a button.
Google and Wikipedia work well for me when I need a quick detail.
For instance, one of my characters in my wip referred to the voice of the Robinson Family robot on Lost in Space. To check when the show was aired to make sure my character wasn't too young to refer to the robot, I GOOGLED “robot on t.v. show” because I couldn’t remember the name of the show. Wikipedia popped up and there was all the info I could ever need about Lost in Space.
In another scene in my WIP, my heroine notices all of the lights on the police cars as she pulls up to a house. I want to get the details right so I look up “lights on police cars” and not only do I find great pictures of different police cars on Wikipedia, I see that the lights are also referred to as “beacons” and “light bars” and, of course, “emergency lights.” These aren’t the best examples, but at least you get the picture.
From my WIP:
She could see the house at the end of a cul de sac. With all the emergency lights flashing it was hard to miss. Three police cars served as a barricade and an unmarked sedan took up most of the sidewalk.
Other info regarding police cars came in handy too: “Police cars have nicknames such as (police) cruiser, squad car, prowler, radio car, panda car, area car, scout car, patrol car. In some places a police car may also be nicknamed a cop car, a Black & White, a cherry top, or a jam sandwich. Depending on the configuration of the emergency lights, a police car may also be called a marked unit, RMP (Radio Motor Patrol) or slick top. Undercover cars can be called "Silver Bullets".”
Another research tool I love to use are the Books for Dummies or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to… The con is that these books can be costly. I like to use them to learn about my character's jobs. For example, in one of my 2008 Golden Heart finaling manuscripts, Better Late Than Never, my heroine is an award-winning nutritionist. I have her win the same award the author of the nutrition book won in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Total Nutrition. By the time I’ve read the book or heavily skimmed it at the very least, I have a better feel for my character and what she does. Here are two examples from my manuscript where having those extra details, IMO, added to the scene:
No wonder the NFL franchise was worried about him. The man needed serious nutritional help. She took the slices of bagel and tossed them into the garbage with the butter. Next, she reached around him for the package of hot dogs and held them in front of his face. “These frankfurters are made from muscle meat. They have all the essential amino acids, B vitamins and iron, which is good, but they’re loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol.” She shook her head. “A definite no-no.”
Max snatched the package of hotdogs out of her hand. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” He let out a hearty chuckle.
And another scene…
He grunted. “I have a better idea. How about I write you a big fat check right now, you certify me as nutritionally sound, and nobody need ever know otherwise.”
“And jeopardize my career, my reputation?” She shook her head. “Not in this lifetime.” She was having fun now. Max Dutton obviously thrived on control and she’d bet her good standing with the National Heart Association that this was the first time in his life he didn’t have the upper hand. “Don’t worry about the little green apples. You’ll get great big juicy red ones and yellow ones, too. Lots of variety--just like you’re used to.”
So what internet research tools do you often refer to? Any research books or tools you’d like to share with us?
Our guest blogger is Adrienne Regard, who has owned and ridden eventing horses for many years, and has been an organizer for United States Pony Club. She writes contemporary romances and women's fiction.
Show of hands: How many of us live in the 18th century? And how many modern writers have in-depth exposure to horses as transportation? Some years ago I wrote a pamphlet to help the uninitiated get started, called “The Romance Writers’ Guide to the Noble Horse.” It’s available through my home chapter of RWA in San Diego.
The use of the horse in historical periods, as well as in modern horse sports, is a surprisingly vast topic and every reader thinks (rightly or wrongly) that they know something about it. The unwary author can make mistakes about the nature of the animal, its use, its tack, its correct use in the 1800s which differs from today’s use — room for error abounds! The good news is, a lot has been written. The bad news is, a lot of what you will find on the web is wrong. So, my advice is to go to printed source material, and run your eventual draft past a knowledgeable friend. By that, I mean someone deeply versed in horse study, not someone who had a backyard pony as a kid.
It’s true that horses are beautiful and they are romantic and the temptation is great, but generally speaking, I’d encourage writers not to land their story on the back of a horse unless they know quite a bit about horses. If you must use a horse, I would also advise that you don’t try to dream up the most unusual animal you can think of. An 18-hand black Arabian stallion with a white mane in Regency London will result in your book being thrown against the wall. Whereas a sturdy brown horse of undifferentiated lineage and sex will probably get your hero from point A to point B just fine, without upsetting horsey readers.
Having disposed of types of mistakes writers make that cause horse people to groan aloud, let’s talk about what you can do with the horse for the purpose of forwarding your plot. Horses, even when trained, are still animals that respond to instinct first. If you need something unexpected to happen, make it the result of an instinctive behavior.
A horse may shy or bolt at an unexpected noise, or a frightening vision. A prey animal will ALWAYS choose to run away first and ask questions later. ‘Shy’ means jumping sideways very quickly, which can easily unseat a rider. ‘Bolt’ means to run off at high speed, uncontrollably. Here's a video of a horse shying.
Bucking is intentional behavior the horse engages in to rid himself of what’s on his back. The rider, the rider’s clothing, something the rider is carrying, the tack or any irritant beneath the tack, all are fair game. A good rider can survive bucking but a beginner? Probably not.
Runaway carriages are great disasters — much more dangerous than runaway horses. 1. Carriages make a lot of scary noise. 2. At speed, they are unstable and can easily overturn. 3. A runaway carriage off the road surface will bounce around like popcorn in a pasture. 4. When it comes to fear, horses egg each other on. The left carriage horse is convinced by the galloping right carriage horse to run even faster. The right carriage horse thinks the same thing. (See this link for photos and reports.)
Falling. Even in the 1800s, gravity worked. It’s not so hard to dream up a way for your rider to fall off a horse. And since helmets were not in use until the 1900s, many falls were serious or fatal. You can have a rider fall when jumping, when a horse shies, when a carriage crashes, when a horse runs away through a wooded area or when the tack fails.
Even with care, a good writer can still get things wrong according to their readers who may themselves have imperfect understanding. The old saying goes, “Ask two horsemen about an issue and you’ll get three opinions.” But at least you will have tried!
Today we welcome Loucinda McGary, a great fan of research as you'll see from her post below. Like the Posse members, Loucinda is a former Golden Heart finalist. Her first book, The Wild Sight, will be out from Sourcebooks this October. She recently received her fantastic cover. Let's all pause for a moment to ooh and ahh...
Okay, on to the post.
The Niall Marker By Loucinda McGary
One of the things I love about doing research was expressed very well in the words of Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
When I was doing research for my manuscript that became my debut novel, The Wild Sight: An Irish tale of deadly deeds and forbidden love, I immersed myself in all things Irish. I read about art, history, mythology, anything related to the Emerald Isle, and that is how I happened upon something called The Niall Marker.
Geneticists have isolated a gender-specific trait that they have traced back to a 5th century High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Niall became the founding father of Clan O’Neill and gained his moniker by taking high-born hostages (not quite prisoners but not houseguests either) from the five kingdoms of Ireland, Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Meath, plus one each from Scotland, the Saxons, the Britons and the Franks. This helped keep the peace during Niall’s reign and made his descendants the most powerful rulers of Ireland for the next six centuries.
Being the history geek and lover of trivia that I am, I decided I must incorporate this fascinating bit of obscure information into my novel. And it actually became one of the turning points in my story. Only it turns out The Niall Marker might not be that obscure after all...
A few weeks ago, I watched a fascinating program on PBS about how African-Americans are tracing their roots by studying their DNA. Scientists have perfected a technique that can tell anyone what percent of their DNA is from Africa, what percent is Native American, and what percent is from Northern Europe. The narrator of the program, a professor at Harvard, was quite surprised to learn that over 30% of his DNA came from Northern Europe. But that's not all!
Turns out that he had Irish ancestors. How did the experts know? (drum roll, please) Because he had The Niall Marker. I couldn't believe it! There was my fascinating little piece of trivia that I'd put into my book on national television!
Forrest was right, you never know. And truth IS stranger than fiction!
My husband Michael has always participated in my writing. He’s done some writing and editing himself, and before I began writing historical romance, I was glad to have him as first and most astute reader of my reviews, essays, and erotica.
Michael's a bookseller. An old-school, independent, brick-and-mortar bookseller, he reads what he sells, sells what he loves, and could no sooner accept money from a publisher for front-of-the-store display space than commit grand larceny. He's the kind of bookseller who remembers what his customers have read last, and knows -- sometimes better than they do -- what they might want to read next.
So if my husband’s been my most astute reader, I've been among his most eager customers -- and even better, I get home delivery. Which made it more or less inevitable, I suppose, that when Michael suggested I might be interested in Robert Darnton's The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, I fairly grabbed the book out of his hands.
Reading this brilliant and entertaining account of how French booksellers sold smuggled works of Enlightenment philosophy and erotic entertainment to a readership hungry for social change was like discovering a hidden history, both of my husband's trade as a socially-committed bookseller and mine as an erotic writer. A world opened up, exciting me so profoundly that I found myself moved to write (of all things) a romance novel, The Bookseller's Daughter, about a bookseller (she) and an erotic writer (he).
Michael was astonished, amused, and helpful as ever. He’d never read a romance novel, but throughout the writing of Bookseller’s Daughter and Almost a Gentleman he proved a tough and honest critic – especially of my synopses (you can read his wry, sly observations about synopsis writing here).
It was only when I began The Slightest Provocation, and tried setting a book in the British countryside during the dark, tumultuous, famine-ridden years after Waterloo, I realized that I needed help with more than my synopses.
Because the political situation in Post-Waterloo Britain is a tough nut to crack, especially if you take on domestic espionage as I did. My first try at a spy hero wasn't working; I needed to figure out why. And I needed to figure out a few more things as well, like:
Who were the spies, anyway, that the Home Office was sending out to infiltrate the reform societies that were springing up over the countryside and to foment rebellion?
What did the reform societies want?
And, for that matter, what exactly was the Home Office hoping to accomplish by suspending the venerable principle of habeas corpus and thereby giving themselves leave to imprison British citizens without charges?
I needed to embark upon a systematic study of a confused historical period and the confusing policies of the fierce, frightened faction that held government power at the time. Gulp.
"Michael?" I called softly.
"Help!" I bellowed.
And so, ungracefully, we became a research-and-writing partnership.
And although you can probably guess which of us made more thorough use of the library catalogs, together we collected an impressive set of borrowing privileges. We got our other best-beloved involved in the project as well. England's Last Revolution: Pentrich 1817, by John Stevens seems only to exist in two libraries in the Western hemisphere. But with his sharp bookseller's eye, Michael knew that this was the book we most needed. He located one of those copies, and our graduate student son Jesse was able to borrow it for us.
All of this research into the political situation helped me rethink my hero. Kit Stansell was no longer a spy, but a veteran of the Napoleonic wars who hopes to work in the Home Office, just when the Home Office was sending provocateurs to the countryside. Witnessing the real events of 1817, Kit and his estranged wife Mary begin to realize what’s going on and do what they can to stop it. (Well, they stop the made-up part of the events in my book, anyway -- since sadly, my made-up characters and I couldn't stop real historical tragedies from happening). And as my contentious hero and heroine battle their way to reconciling their marriage, I allowed them to try to make sense of some of the real correspondence cited in the Stevens book, which Michael and I read on microfiche during our trip to the British National Archives in Kew, just outside of London.
Which brings me to the best part of keeping research in the family: the research vacations... or holidays, as you'll call them if they take you to Britain. The day we spent reading the Home Office correspondence at the Archives remains a cherished memory, which you can read more about in my post at the wonderful History Hoydens blog.
And you can also read more here, about our walks through field and forest and over stiles in the part of Derbyshire where The Slightest Provocation is set. We'd planned to rent a car, but we wound up hiking and taking buses because the Derbyshire bus drivers were so chatty and helpful and it was so nice not to have to worry about driving on "that" side of the road -- plus we didn't quarrel, as we usually do when it turns out I've been reading the road map upside down.
Actually, we almost did quarrel, one sunny day when we couldn't find the walking path trail to Pentrich, when I thought Michael might have asked for more directions... as though a man ever asks for directions when he gets lost. But that was good too, because it served as the inspiration for the dark and rainy night when Kit and Mary get lost, and Kit doesn't ask directions... but you can read all about it in The Slightest Provocation.
While as for my next book, The Edge of Impropriety, forthcoming in November?
Well, this one's a romance between another of my brainy pairs of lovers, a popular novelist of the late 1820s and a scholar/adventurer/collector of classical antiquities. Which demanded I learn quite a bit about the Elgin Marbles, the British Museum, and the themes of eros, esthetics, and empire... a process that began in earnest (but by now you see how this goes), the evening Michael brought home a wonderful, provocative book called Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy Edge it when it comes out in November. Isn't the cover lovely?
And thanks for having me, Noodlers, and for allowing me to share my gratitude to my lifetime partner in creating love stories.
Welcome to guest blogger and Superromance author, Darlene Gardner. In the 22 romances she's penned, Darlene's characters have had an astonishing assortment of professions. Here's how she learned about such things as being a cameraman, a restaurant owner, an architect, an FBI agent, a marketing assistant, a lobbyist--the list goes on and on.
I should admit up front it amazes me that I'm blogging about character jobs.
My problem isn't so much deciding who does what for a living as figuring out how they go about doing it. How should I know what a typical day is like for a doctor? A lawyer? An Indian chief? (See accompanying photos of George Clooney from his ER days, Taye Diggs from his short-lived role as attorney Kevin Hill -- and Sitting Bull. Yes, Sitting Bull. Do you know how hard it is to find a photo of a hot Indian Chief?).
What amazes me even more is that I chose this topic. Why did I do this to myself?
Because I've discovered four magic words that make figuring out how my characters spend their work days a whole lot easier. Day. In. The. Life.
Go to your favorite Internet search engine, type in your character's profession, put quotes around "day in the life" and chances are you'll strike gold. Sometimes substituting "diary" or "typical day" for "day in the life" yields just as much information.
If that doesn't work, try searching blogs. Google has a search mechanism in place for exactly that.
Thanks to the Internet, information on how people do their jobs is everywhere. And people really like to write about themselves. I'm talking contemporary people, naturally. Unfortunately, I doubt this would work for historicals.
I'm not advising against traditional resources, such as consulting a book or picking up the phone to get specific questions answered. You can't beat first-hand research.
Want to simplify the process? Write what you know. For example, the hero in ANYTHING FOR HER CHILDREN, my May 2008 release from Harlequin Superromance, is a high school basketball coach. As a former newspaper sportswriter with two athletic kids, I know basketball. But I also found a story on-line where a basketball coach outlined his day to day schedule.
Ah, the Internet. It's making our jobs as writers a whole lot easier. One caveat: It's not perfect. You can't trust all the information you come across, so, whenever possible verify your information.
And I still haven't been able to find that hot Indian Chief.
How do you research your characters' professions? Any other tips?
Hi, it's Esri Rose! I'll be answering questions about myself on Jennifer’s Random Musings. Hear what I dream about (disturbing!) and for the first time ever, read my totally made-up “call story.” (That’s the circumstances under which an author hears that she sold her first book.) Your lovely hostess, Jennifer, is going to ask you trivia questions based on my website, and two participants will get copies of Bound to Love Her.
Even the names are beautiful. They're the names of different sorts of fabric; what differentiates them is the way the raw materials--wool, cotton, linen, silk--are spun and woven. You can see a whole list of historical fabric names with short definitions here.
So how do you make sure your hero or heroine is dressed correctly and how do you know what these fabrics feel like, or sound like? Will her gown float gently to the floor whenit is removed, or will it slide with voluptuous grace? Will the fabric puddle in folds or settle into peaks like whipped egg whites? And what are the common errors that writers have innocently, or lazily, copied from each other?
I'm going to give you a few of my favorite resources online. One is to look at portraits--fortunately for us, the subjects of historical portraits liked to appear in their best clothing. For the Regency period, I like portraits by Ingres (like this one). There's a wonderful collection of portraits by Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, whose subjects ranged from Marie Antoinette to Byron at batguano.com. For an overall source of paintings of all kinds and periods, visit Carol Gerten's site.
And one of the best things you can do is search out a historical reenactor, or someone who sews historically correct clothes for a local museum and pick their brain. Ask to touch fabrics and see--or even take home--samples. Imagine how the fabric would look by candlelight or moonlight or lamplight.
Now, as for the common errors:
Getting naked. People didn't. Well, eventually they might, but if your characters are having a passionate, unplanned encounter, who is going to get her back into her stays????? I blogged about historical definitions of nakedness and states of undress at the Spiced Tea Party a couple of months ago.
Slowly he unfastened the tiny buttons down the back of her gown ... No he didn't. Until about 1820, when buttons took over, gowns had an open placket at the back that closed with two drawstring ties, one a few inches above the waistline and one at the neckline. All he'd have to do is untie them and her gown would fall off. When the placket acquired buttons, it would only be a few.
Drawers. Even if she had them, they'd be crotchless until about the first decade of the twentieth century, when they buttoned up. Essentially they were to decorate/cover the legs. Earlier, in Elizabethan times, they were worn only by prostitutes. They would not act as any sort of barrier.
Red silk nightgowns etc. Sorry, no sexy lingerie until much later than the Regency, because for a long time underwear and nightwear functioned purely to protect outer clothes and bedclothes.
Lord Wotsit gazed at her sexy bottom and legs that went on forever... well, I guess they might, but think about the cut and drape of historical gown, particularly Regency ones where the waist wasn't at its natural level and bottoms were obscured by folds of fabric. Lord Wotsit might well get all steamed up about her bare shoulders --think how the cut of Regency gowns drew attention to the shoulders and nape of the neck. And her ankles, of course.
She never wore stays ... oh yes she would (unless she was Lady Caroline Lamb). Because otherwise nothing would fit. Someone would have to get her in or out of them (see above) unless she wore side or frontlacing stays, which were fairly rare, or at least few have survived. And she would not be able to reach above her head or put a car into first gear.
I love to travel, so traveling to do research is twice as fun. There are two kinds of traveling research that I've used. The first type of research is the kind I do when I'm going to make a trip for a vacation or to visit family or friends. On these trips, I may not have a specific story in mind, but I make observations and take lots of pictures that may be valuable for a future story. For instance, one of my daughters lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Whenever we go to visit her, she plans little excursions to nearby places of interest. Of course, there is Baltimore itself. One year we took the Duck Tour around Baltimore. We have also gone to Gettysburg, Annapolis and the Naval Academy, taken a sailing ship out of the harbor and back, toured Evergreen, a house listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here is a picture I took in Bar Harbor, Maine. Even if I never set a book in Bar Harbor, this is a great gazebo scene that could take place anywhere my imagination might set it.
Besides taking pictures, I always collect any free brochures or maps that are available. I put these things in magazine files. Sometimes, I will buy a book, especially if it has a lot of photographs in it. Now I have all this information handy if I decide I want to set one of my novels in these places. I can also use this information if a character should visit there. I have brochures and maps that I've collected from nearly every state I've visited, and I've been to all fifty states.
Then there is research travel that involves going to a specific place to look for specific things that I need to know for a book I am writing or a book I plan to write. Three of my books are set near Spokane, Washington. I went to high school there, so I am familiar with the area. But things have changed since I went to high school, so when I visited, I took particular note of the changes I saw. Before I wrote the third book in the series I went back to take a tour of Pend Oreille County, which is north of Spokane and found a place where my hero and heroine go on a picnic. Here is a picture I took of a sunset that I describe in each of the three books in that series.
Recently I took a trip to the North Georgia mountains, the setting for my book, HOMECOMING BLESSINGS, which comes out in April 2009. I was nearly finished with the book, but I felt that I needed to make a trip there to get a better idea of the small towns in the area, even though I had visited there many years ago. I was certainly glad I made the trip. Besides reaffirming some of my memories, it also reminded me of the hilly terrain, even in the towns. In the story, I have my hero and heroine stop for lunch in the little tourist town of Helen, Georgia. It is filled with all kinds of shops. I have my hero buy the heroine a small gift. While I was writing that scene, I had no idea what he was going to buy her, even after perusing the shops on the internet. So when I visited Helen with a friend, we went through the shops with the specific mission of finding something the hero could buy. The trip was worth finding the perfect gift. The story revolves around a mission that is restoring old houses in the area. So I took pictures of some old houses. Here's one.
I like to combine an in-person visit along with the information I find on the Internet. Many times I research the area on the Internet to find places I want to visit. For instance, for this last trip I checked out all the tourist information on the North Georgia mountains and discovered that a trip to Amicola Falls was a must. So before you go, make a list of places you want to visit and things you want to learn.
When I travel for research, if at all possible, I try to combine it with a vacation or a visit with friends or family. Even though I may not be able to do that, I still find that actually visiting a place can be helpful in making the story setting come alive in my own mind as well as on the pages of a book. Traveling for research can even trigger ideas for future books. Take pictures, collect all the free stuff and save it for a future book, and don't dismiss any opportunity to do research, even if the trip involves visiting relatives or going to a wedding. Make the most of any trip you make.
I imagine most of us were told when we first started writing to write what we know. I remember that all too well, and it seems to me like it was also an era in which all anyone could find to read were self-immolations based on guilt or mis-treatment from the writer's childhood. There was a lot to write about in those days. I recall a long string of books about Jewish men who had been traumatized by their mothers. Catholic women talked about their lives of guilt under their overbearing mothers. Pretty soon Jewish men and Catholic women were out and there came all the fathers of any, all, or no religious affiliation, who abused their daughters in truly awful ways. Ethnic stories became popular. Probably all of the above were true and valid, and all of these were extremely interesting to me at the time. But they were all speaking from their own experience.
My teachers and writing instructors all told me, "Write what you know." I was female, white, Protestant, and had a father who was too busy working to beat me. And I looked around at my plain white house in the middle of Oklahoma City, with my position as second child among five, and my father who went to work every day and my mother who stayed home every day. What did I have to say? That I was a mis-understood, ugly duckling, Straight-A student, who went to church on Sundays, and didn't have a date for Saturday night? And I was forced to live with a mother who had asthma and siblings who were annoying? Even back then I understood the rest of the world wouldn't take the time to read my story.
But how could I "know" about the things I wanted to write about? I loved history. I loved historical novels, and I wanted to write them. But let's face reality, I knew I didn't have any trips to Egypt and Rome scheduled in my near or distant future. (I'm gong to Rome for the first time this year, more decades later than I am willing to admit.)
I found what I wanted to know in books, hundreds of them. I watched horridly incorrect movies and viewed dozens of photos, joined groups of people who also love history, visited museums and re-enactments, and done everything I can to produce accurate stories. But I still make mistakes.
The truth is, you can NEVER know enough. But there just is a point where you have to wing it when you don't know. I can't go to England every year, and didn't go until I'd written twelve books set there. There's been a lot I got wrong, but there's also been a lot I got right.
So should I have not written those books because the subject was one I didn't know to the depth of my soul? I don't think so. That would be like telling a woman not to write about men until she completely understands them. In that case, there wouldn't be very many romances on the bookstore shelves, would there?
Not only that, I'm convinced the truly accurate historical would not be a very readable story today. Naturally, a story written in the Ancient Egyptian tongue would be far more accurate than one in English, but really, how many of us would even try to read it? We may descry the modern heroine dressed in period clothes, saying "Yeah, right" to the hero since that piece of dialogue is obviously from another century, but the reality is there is too much of the past that simply can't mesh with the modern reader. I contend truly accurate historical fiction is not really possible anymore.
Research is vital for almost all stories, but a part of that research is in the writing itself. Learn your facts as best you can, yes. But as you write, the information you have assimilates with what is innate within you and you begin to really understand what it was you didn't know. That is when the dry facts take life and become a story. That is when fiction becomes truth. And what you didn't know becomes what you know.
So learn what you can, but don't tie yourself into knots about a culture that is not your own or a place you've never been. Spin your tale, and learn from your own imagination.
This is the map of Tanner and Marlena's journey across the English and Scottish countryside in my January release, The Vanishing Viscountess. Click on the pointers to see some of the details of the trip.
When I first conceived the story for The Vanishing Viscountess, I didn't think about the challenges of doing a Road Story. All of a sudden I had to research a dozen locations instead of one or two! What was I thinking? I needed HELP.
First of all, I needed a route for my characters to travel. Our very own Noodler, Delle Jacobs, saved me there by giving me the coaching routes of the time period. After that it was Google Maps to the rescue!
How did Google Maps help?
1. By showing the route. By using the Get Directions feature, I plugged in Delle's information, and I could literally see on the Google map how my characters would travel across the country.
2. By providing the distance between places. The Get Directions feature also provided the distance between points on the map. I needed to set a realistic pace for my characters, to make sure that each day they traveled a realistic distance for Regency times.
3. By giving names of towns, villages, rivers, streams, street names, and so on. When I knew my distances, I also discovered the likely places my characters would stop for the night. Then I could use other search engines (like my favorite one, Answers.com) to research those places.
4. By showing me details I didn't know. Like where bridges were, turns in the road, things like that. The satellite feature was helpful because it showed the actual terrain. I could even zoom in on buildings, which would be useful if you write contemporary fiction.
After I finished The Vanishing Viscountess and started talking and blogging about using Google Maps, I learned of a new Google feature in Google Earth that is ideal for historical research. I use this feature all the time now.
On the left, under the menu “layer,” set view on “core.” Under core, click on Gallery. Under Gallery, click on Rumsey Historical Maps and then Map Finder. The maps I use are the 1790 maps of the UK and the 1843 map of London, but there are special maps all over the world. The cool thing is, the historical maps overlay the Google Earth map and the Google Map functions still work. I can plot distances my characters need to travel in the UK and London and I am looking at the area as it would have in that historical time period.
My map of Tanner and Marlena’s trip even shows up on Google Earth and on the historical map overlaying it.
I set my book, Bound to Love Her, in my town – Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is full of weird characters, and so are my books, so it seemed like a natural fit. Plus, I’m lazy. But I’m here to tell you that the devil is in the details, and you're not off the research hook just because you live in your book's setting. Here’s a quick quiz to test your knowledge of home-sweet-home.
1)Your character stays in a motel in your town. What does it cost to spend a night there? Not only might you be shocked at the price, but it will probably change by the time your book is published.
2) Your character makes an emergency withdrawal of cash from an ATM. What’s the limit on what she can take out?
3) Your character winds up in the hospital. I thought all emergency waiting rooms had white linoleum. Turns out ours has carpeting. How about yours?
4) Your character has the same college degree you do, but you went to university in another state. Does your local school even have that program?
5) Your character throws an incriminating paper out of her office window. Does that office building actually have windows that open? Most multi-story buildings don’t.
6) Your character meets a mysterious stranger in the fiction section of your library. If she's standing in the very last aisle, what genre books are on the shelves around her?
The benefits of setting your book locally are many. For example, if you feature the salon where you get your hair cut, they might agree to put a stack of your promotional bookmarks at the counter. But when your character gets a hot-stone massage there, make sure it’s your salon that does those, and not the competitor you once visited with a gift certificate.
So how did you score on my little quiz? Have you ever written a horrible mistake about your own town? ----------------------------------------
Hey, do you want the chance to win a copy of Bound to Love Her? Then head over to my guest post on Noodler Jill Monroe's blogand read the dark (but funny) secret of how elves threaten all of humanity. Jill will pick a winner from the commenters. I think you have until the end of Sunday for your comments to count, but don't quote me on that. Bound to Love Her (In stores now!) is an urban-fantasy, romantic-suspense comedy. With elves. Visit me at my website, ElvesAmongUs.com.
National Parks—Research Treasure Troves for Writers
National Parks are a great resource for writers, particularly those writers interested in history, like me. My family and I have spent many a vacation touring a variety of national park battlefields—Vicksburg , Gettysburg (my daughter lasted one hour into the audio tour before meltdown occurred), Chalmette, Yorktown and King’s Mountain—and visiting sites registered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. http://www.preservationnation.org/
Not only do most national parks offer short films that provide perspective on the historical significance of the park, some also have re-enactments, walking trails or maps with audio tapes or CDs, exhibits that include period clothing, armaments, and information on what the soldiers ate and what daily life entailed. One of the best national battlefield parks we visited was Yorktown. Visitors there can see how the soldiers cooked, how doctors treated their ailments, what tools they used, and how they fired cannons.
While you’re visiting a national park, don’t skirt around the gift shop. The gift shops carry maps that might prove useful, money samples, paperdolls (source for clothing) and a huge selection of non-fiction books, including published diaries of the people who lived nearby, cookbooks, and pamphlets that you might not find elsewhere. Some even carry books or pamphlets that share local legends and ghost stories—a personal favorite.
Diaries, in particular, are a great resource for how people of a certain time thought, what was important to them and what sort of language they used. Here’s a sample of journals I’ve picked up at national parks: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballad Based on Her Diary 1785-1812, Frances Anne Kemble Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-39, Richard N. Coté Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in 19th Century Charleston. Pamphlets I’ve purchased: Patricia B. Mitchell Civil War Plants and Herbs, Leonard V. Huber The Battle of New Orleans As It Was in 1814-1815, The Life of Jean Lafitte, the Famous Pirate of the Gulf of Mexico (The Nora Anglia Press), and Kay Moss A Backcountry Herbal of Plants Both Wild and Cultivated Likely to Be Found in Dooryards and Kitchen Gardens in Frontier Communities of the 18th Century.
Additional Suggestions: While on vacation, look for small museums. They tend to have publications you might not find elsewhere like Nanette M. Bahlinger’s It Is a Wonderfully Lovely Place: Jekyll Island as Seen Through Kate Brown’s Fresh Eyes. The Letters of Kate Brown, February-March 1917 at the Jekyll Island Museum and Sister Xavier’s “Value of Herbs” at the Old Ursuline Convent in New Orleans.
Also, take the time to visit places with live history exhibits like Williamsburg or the Rural Heritage Museum in Somerset, PA, where you can get a more realistic feel of what life was like in the time period and how people made things from bricks to wigs, shoed horses, and what the people planted in their gardens. The advantage to live history is that the people who work there are steeped in the history. I spent forty-five minutes asking the tailor in Williamsburg questions that would have taken me days to research.
Share any additional tips you might have! I'd love to hear some of yours.
I've been interested in servants for years, and when I started writing historicals was always very conscious of how the masters of the house interacted with the servants. As an essentially lazy person, I figured out quite early on that servants were tremendously useful to fix plot devices--as the ears and eyes of the house they learned a lot about the people "upstairs." And they weren't always tremendously discreet, although of course employers wished they were.
I was also a little alarmed to read in NYT bestsellers about Regency households where the front door of the house was opened by a female servant (wrong!) wearing a late Victorian uniform (wrong! wrong! wrong!).
So I started reading, and before I go any further, let me mention that I'm presenting my workshop Doddering Butlers, Pert Housemaids, and Faithful Retainers: Busting the Servant Myths at Nationals at San Francisco (on Saturday August 2). If you have any specific questions, ask and I'll do my best to answer, here or off list.
One book I found tremendously useful--it is, in fact, one of those books that make you think you've died and gone to heaven--is The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams, originally published in 1825. It has all sorts of amazing information like how many servants a household would employ, what they were paid, what their duties were, how to clean various things, recipes, menus, what vegetables were in season each month, and so on. Wow.
Everything you'd need for the Georgian/Regency household, right?
The Complete Servant is a fine example of how a book should be taken with a pinch of salt. The Adamses were career servants whose vision of the ideal household probably was not based on fact--as perfectionists who had risen to the top of their profession, they knew how things should be done and this is what the book is about, not how things actually were.
From other reading, I found that households, job descriptions, and master-servant relationships varied tremendously. The Adamses themselves gave some household "rules" that I'd hesitate to use in a book:
The kitchen maid should make the stablemen's beds (well, I suppose someone has to do it)
The housekeeper was summoned to carve the meat at dinner
The valet waited at table behind the master's chair (dinner, according to the Adamses, is all hands on deck)
One of the butler's tasks was to convert white wine into red
The Complete Servant is a fabulous resource, but you can't rely on just one book. In my presentation I use a lot of its material, but I also use other sources to balance it out: cartoons, for instance, like this typically rude one by Rowlandson. (There is a site, searchable by keyword, of Georgian prints and cartoons, at Yale's Lewis Walpole Digital Collection.)
I've also found servants' memoirs and servants' portraits very useful--the National Portrait Gallery in the UK had an exhibit on servants a few years ago and published a wonderful book of paintings and essays. Many of the historic houses in England are now featuring exhibits on servants and if you're planning a trip you'll be able to visit below stairs. And read between the lines in favorite books to see what roles the servants play--Mrs. Fairfax the housekeeper in Jane Eyre, for instance or the brilliant choreography of servants/masters in Mansfield Park.
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