Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Michele says, Put History in its Place
Because I write historicals, mostly Regencies, I am often asked about the amount of research I have to do for my books. I have heard other writers will say that they would love to write a historical, but they are scared off by the research or worse, by the thought of getting something wrong.
I guess I have to own up to being a history geek. I mean I have even gone so far as to try to figure out if it is raining on a particular day. It is very tempting to sit surrounded by books looking for the answer to a question like, did men wear colored cravats? The answer is - yes.
The most important thing is the story. The history is merely the setting. And we all know how much we like long paragraphs of description! So while knowing your setting is important, it is their everyday world. As a writer, you have to put yourself in their heads. If walking into your kitchen do you always take note of the brand and color of your toaster? Not.
Then what would you notice when walking into a ballroom? Would you notice the ceilings and the type of wood on the floor? Not unless someone had spilled their drink on it, probably. Or would it catch your eye that your best friend just got a new dress, and that it is the latest fashion? Even there, would you describe it to yourself in detail or just the eye-catching parts, like the neckline is so low every man in the room have their gazes glued to her chest and that the fabric glistens like diamonds.
Oh woe is me, I want to tell all. But I mustn't. Readers of historicals tend to like a bit more detail, or world building, than those in contemporaries do, as do fantasy readers. But if the writer is merely showing off her knowledge, i.e. that she knows how a steam train works or what battle was happening on the other side of the country that week and stops the story cold to prove it, then the story has taken second place. And fiction is all about story.
One of the easiest things to get right are titles for the English nobility-it is also one of the things often done wrong. For each rank, e.g. marquess or earl, and their wives and children, there are different forms of address. And, because there are lots of places to get this information, readers do notice an error. I usually do a family tree to make sure I have it correct for all the characters.
I spend quite a bit of time reading history books, and belong to some history groups too, The Beaumonde for example, where I can ask a question if I am stuck. I do get ideas from reading diaries from the period, but I always write my novel first, then check my sources for the historical details I need. Otherwise I might never get around to writing the story at all! I love looking at pictures from the era, like this one. It provides an image that you can have your characters walk through, like the backdrop on stage.
If you have any specific questions about Regency history—now is your chance. Send them along and I will do my best to answer them.