The Coup, Day 2: Historical Research for Fiction
It’s Cait Reynolds again, and you know what that means…muahahahahahaha
Historical romance is full of strong-jawed heroes in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wife…whether they know it or not.
In fact, if you add up all the fine, vast estates throughout England, you’d probably end up with a country the size of the North American continent. Actually, better add in Central America just to make sure we have enough acreage. (Thanks to my friend Britt for pointing this out to me all those years ago.)
For every Lord So-and-So, and Duke of Blah-Blah, there is a lovely, feisty young lady who much overcome a sad lack of fortune, sudden misfortune, or the tragedy of unfortunate connections in order to save the day, the estate, and the hero…who naturally obliges by falling in love with her.
Oh, wait. Sorry. Gone off the rails there.
We’re not talking puerile plotting today (and besides, that’s Lamb’s specialty). I’m here to talk about how to write about an ingratiatingly indignant and independence-loving heroine together with her seriously sensitive and sinfully seductive hero so that they are not walking, talking anachronisms that make readers want to tear their eyes out with the pickle fork.
Before we jump in, can I just ask…does it always have to be Regency England? Really? Historical writing is hard enough without thousands of experts ready to jump in and point out any inaccuracy or anachronism. I mean, I have seen virtual fisticuffs break out among the delicately natured about the precise method of shining Hessian boots as mentioned in a particular book.
We have to do the research. There is no silver bullet, no short-cut. We might not be doing the world-building of fantasy, but we are re-building a world that impacts every single thing our characters will do, say, think…and eat. Yes, certain emotions and reactions are consistent across time and fundamental to human nature. However, the way our characters understand the actions and circumstances that create those emotions and the way their reactions are expressed are absolutely rooted and shaded by their contemporary context.
Let’s take a look at a sample of the areas that we need to consider when tackling historical world re-building.
Dentistry, Dandruff & Deodorant
Perfume was invented for a reason. Back in ye olde, personal hygiene was far more…shall we say…individualistic? Perhaps optional would be a better word. I’m not saying people didn’t try to wash—somewhat. But, ‘somewhat’ had very different connotations and practices in the 12th century and the 19th century.
Even nobility had issues with the stink. I mean, think about it. You try walking around on a sunny, 70-degree day in several layers of silk and linen while having your internal organs constricted by whalebone. Oh, and don’t forget the wig (and attendant weevils and other creepy crawlies that would take up residence therein).
Bathing involved servants, buckets, lots of wood or coal, and a short soak in rapidly-cooling water. We should be considerate of Sally the under housemaid when deciding that your character is going to have a bath every day. She already has a lot of work to do around the house (including emptying your chamber pot), and helping to prepare a bath for you under the watchful eye of your abigail isn’t making her job any easier.
We don’t have to write that everyone stinks or about the housekeeper’s armpit hair. But, we need to think twice and do some research before glibly tossing out that Our Heroine shampooed her hair.
Watch Your Mouth
Seriously. If I read another manuscript where the author has used words like sure/okay/all right, I am going to reach for that pickle fork. But, it’s not just use of modern slang that can jar the reader out of the story, upsetting hoop skirts everywhere.
Even the way sentences in dialogue are constructed can indicate whether a character is speaking Tudorish, Regencyish, or Victorianish.
Even commoners would speak more formally than we do today—and the riff-raff, beggars, and laborers would also know just enough to speak with respect to their betters.
We should not make the mistake of thinking formal means ponderous or dull, though. It’s fun to play with that stereotype here and there, especially when writing the dialogue of a pompous, hidebound old windbag. But, formality and a more extensive vocabulary doesn’t mean we can’t have witty, chatty characters that are silly, sexy, and scintillating.
Elizabeth Bennet did not repine the fact she could not go to university, or become a doctor or a soldier. She operated well-within the confines of acceptable social norms and expectations, and she did so because she naturally accepted that circumscribing and did not question it.
Why would she? It simply was how things were. Yes, she challenged the status quo about marrying for love, but she never challenged marriage or denied that there were only a handful of respectable options outside of marriage for a young lady.
This brings me to something that I see over and over again in stories: the feisty heroine who dreams of becoming X (insert impossibly modern career choice here). That’s not to say that we can’t write a good, convincing story about a heroine who dreams of becoming X, but we have to take a good, long, hard look at her starting place before we do.
Seraphina is bored with embroidering all day and wants to join her brother and become a knight. She’s all about how girls can fight just as well as boys, and girls should get a chance, etc. She tosses her golden hair as she fights openly with her father about wanting to learn how to use a sword.
Cue pickle fork.
Seraphina was always closest to her brother Rolf. They supported and protected each other while growing up in a difficult family situation. When Rolf is called to go serve the king in a crusade, Seraphina panics.
She doesn’t want to be left alone to deal with the difficult family situation at home. She doesn’t think she could handle waiting months or even years for Rolf to come home—if he even makes it home.
She is backed into a corner, but because of her native courage, she makes a daring choice. She convinces Rolf to let her come along in disguise as part of his retinue. Along the way, she has to practice and sharpen up her fighting skills in order to pass for his squire. It’s a different world out there, when wooden swords are replaced with cold, hard steel.
Basically, people need to stop shoving heroines with 21st century values and beliefs into ye olde days. The only way to avoid making this mistake is to read and learn about the cultural values of the period and to immerse our brains into thinking in this way so our characters will behave naturally in harmony with the times.
Not Bread and Cheese Again!
Would people please stop having their characters eat nothing but bread and cheese? There is so much bread and cheese in poorly-researched historical novels that I feel nutritionally-imbalanced just reading about it.
There is no excuse for bread and cheese. If anything, historical food is one of the easiest areas to research! Just type ’18th century English food’ into Google, and BAM! You’ve got blogs, Google Books, PDFs of actual recipe books, and even photos of meals cooked from authentic recipes.
Also, pay attention to what your characters are drinking. Well water (hello, giardia)? Beer or ale? Possibly. You could have combination of sherry, wine, and port or brandy with dinner. Be careful of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate before the 18th century. Yes, they were around, but not universally, depending on the decade and country. And, don’t let me catch you talking about hot chocolate like it’s some Swiss Miss crap. Hot chocolate was just that. Hot. Chocolate.
So, next time you want to write food into your scene, don’t settle for Wonder Bread and Kraft Singles. Let loose with Sack posset, quail in puff pastry, Chelsea buns, turnip soup, and Portugal Cakes…with a couple bottles of good Madeira to go along with it all!
Dressing the Part
Our dear Charity has managed to get away from her odious great aunt and is at the house of her friend Isabelle, getting ready for the ball. We the readers are treated to an extensive description of fabric, décolletage, sleeves, overskirts, hems, and lace. Let’s not forget the incredible jewelry, hairstyling, and make-up.
There’s a whole other sermon I could write about the sins of describing outfits. Today, I’ll confine myself to discussing historical accuracy. We need to dress our characters according to their social position, and we know what that means (hint: it involves research). A barmaid will not have a closet full of everyday dresses. If some malmsey-nosed sot spills beer on her, she can’t go home and change. Most likely, she would go rinse out the beer from her skirt because this would be her only summer skirt, and her other outfit would be for winter. Maybe, if she was lucky, she would have one good dress for weddings and funerals, and that dress would probably have been cut down from one of her mother’s in a style of twenty years earlier.
Yes, almost all women who could afford them wore corsets. But, before you have our dear Charity go complain about having to wear a corset, stop. Just. Stop. That would be like complaining about wearing a bra. Yes, we all do it sometimes, and we know it’s possible to go without one. Yet, it’s not really a big deal. It’s just part of what we wear every day.
This also goes for cravats for the gents, because someone, somewhere thought it would be a marvelous little joke to make men strangle themselves every day in the name of fashion.
Clothing wasn’t so much put on as assembled onto a person, with people who couldn’t afford maids helping each other. Both sexes wore stockings (at least up until the early 19th century) with garters to hold them up. There were petticoats and felt strips, chemisettes and buckles.
Just be careful of underwear. Drawers, pantaloons, panties, and small clothes weren’t really all that commonplace until the 19th century. This means if you want to go deep POV, you could mention the occasional strategic draft…
Pickle Forks and POV
The point of all this work is to show, but not show off. Out of everything you learn, only 10% should make it into your book. Wait. Stop. There will be no flipping of tables while reading this blog! Hear me out.
It’s all about understanding POV. What is normal for the character versus what is noteworthy. Think about contemporary fiction: ‘Taylor sat down at the table and helped himself to the potatoes.’ We can easily picture this in our minds. There’s a table, chairs, a dish, a bowl with potatoes and some kind of serving utensil. This sentence could work just as well in historical fiction just as it is (assuming we are working with a time period where potatoes were part of the European diet…and knowing that Taylor as a first name really wasn’t used back then but whatevs): ‘Sir Taylor sat down at the table and helped himself to the potato and gruyere galette.’
We do not need to elaborate just to show off that you verified the status of potatoes or know how dishes were served in the 19th century. There is no real reason we should ever write: ‘Sir Taylor entered the formal dining room where even on ordinary, daily occasions, the family gathered to eat. He settled himself in an ornately carved chair and reached for the porcelain platter with the Potato and Gruyere Galette.’
Some people would snort and point out that there is nothing wrong with that sentence, that it is lovely and descriptive. Yes, it is descriptive, but would Sir Taylor really think about how interesting it was that the family used the formal dining room every day, or how ornately carved his chair was? Do we notice with mild surprise where our dining table is every time you sit down to eat? No? Then, why would Sir Taylor?
Stay focused on the character, the plot, and the action. All I had to do to evoke a fancy, historical feel to the food was to change it from potatoes to an actual recipe (one which George Sand was rather fond of). If I’ve done my job right earlier in the book/chapter/scene, I’ve already given you a feel for the manor house, its size, décor, etc., but all done in the context of dialogue and POV.
So, now that I’ve beat sloppy historical fiction about the head and ears, I’m going to tell you about an opportunity to learn how to do sufficient and efficient research to be credible, interesting, and subtle. I’m offering an online class on Saturday, July 8, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST on W.A.N.A.! Information and sign up links are below.
So, you want to write historical romance. Awesome. Now, you just need to learn everything about that time period. Yay! Yay? Oh…crap.
While we don’t need a PhD in history to write historical fiction, we do need to do your research so that we can avoid the pitfalls of anachronistic language, modern Mary Sues, and the unforgivable sin of having our characters pay morning calls before one o’clock in the afternoon.
But, how do we start researching? And, when do we end? How do we know we know enough to start plotting–let alone writing? How do we keep track of everything we need to remember?
This class answers all those questions and more.
- Get a template that guides you through all the steps of research
- Discover the tricks of effectively and efficiently using Google and Pinterest
- Learn how to use historical context in character development (i.e. no more Mary Sues)
- Find out when and how to take research shortcuts…and when you have to buckle down and just slog through it all
- Learn how to build a research reference library of your own
- Discover how to find non-fiction books that are NOT boring
- Develop an understanding of what kind of historical details to put into your story, and more importantly, what to leave out
Research for Historical Romance Writing – Or, How NOT to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8th $35 for Basic/ $75 for GOLD / $125 for PLATINUM
You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story.
You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.
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