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.

6 comments:

  1. Great post, Michele, and what you said about stopping the story with too much detail is SO true. It's a mistake many historical writers make because they did all this research and want to show what they know. I liked how you put it--would you, in your head, go over every aspect of a friend's dress or just the eye-catching elements? Great point.

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  2. Awesome, informative post Michele! It's so interesting just jumping in and learning about different eras in history. I think your research and dedication to a accurate portrayal of Regency England comes through loud and clear in No Regrets, but you add a cool twist with giving us a heroine who isn't the "normal" thin beauty of that time period, or the brooding mysterious girl who just needs someone to help her out of her shell. Very cool!!! I can't wait to read what you have in store for The Lady Flees Her Lord.

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  3. Thanx for the offer, Michele, okay, I'll go for it. How DOES one address an earl vs. a marquess? And what about a viscount vs. a plain ole count? All I know is a Duke trumps everybody, right? And he is Your Grace?

    LOL! You can see that I don't write historicals. However, when somebody says, "Oh, I'll just write a contemporary coz there's NO RESEARCH." I just shake my head in pity.

    Cindy

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  4. Michele,

    I admit my guilt! Once I was afraid to do research, until I finally forced myself to read up on a subject I wanted to write about. Now I can't get enough of it! I haven't done any historical research but have delved into other topics, and it's great fun, especially if it is in support of a story that you love. Thanks for this very interesting post.
    Christina

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  5. Michele,
    I must confess that when reading, I tend to focus on dialog and barely skim the descriptions. However, I read every word of your book, so you must have done a good job of not throwing in too much detail!
    I've read so many Regencies (I know Georgette Heyer's novels by heart!)that I could probably write one myself, but I never have. I'll stick to sci-fi and leave the historicals to you!
    Cheryl

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  6. Thanks for your comments everyone. and Cindy you are right. Research is needed whatever year you write about.
    As for your question, everyone below a duke is 'my lord' in direct address, or just his title e.g. the Marquess of Queensbury (with the family name of say Weston) is usually Queensbury to his peers and his wife, with the odd my lord thrown in. You are also right that a Duke is "your grace" or simply "duke" once you get the first your grace out of the way.
    But his daughter is not going to be Lady Queensbury, she is going to going to be Lady Weston, and his eldest son is likely to hold the courtesy title of earl or viscount and will be Lord something-else.
    Confused yet? lol
    For those really needing to know, fortunately, there are all kinds of resources devoted to making sure you get it right.
    Best wishes,
    Michele

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