first published in RWAmerica's Romance Writing Report December 2005
reprinted in RWAustralia's Hearts Talk April 2006
Premier’s Reading Challenge - I wrote this speech to kick off the Premier's Reading Challenge at my sons’ school. The Reading Challenge is an annual event in South Australia to encourage children to read as much and as widely as possible.
Writing the Accurate Historical - this is a slightly modified version of a talk I gave at the Romance Writers of Australia, Love’s a Beach conference in Sydney in 2004.
A Regency Invitation
Warning! Spoilers ahead! This article is about the writing of A Regency Invitation, published by Harlequin Historicals in November 2005. If you’re planning to read the book, you might prefer not to read this article till later.
In the beginning there was an email... And the email said, “Can we tempt you?”
Finding ourselves thus invited by our editors to what became the Regency House Party of the Season, not one of us could resist.
The premise was suggested to our editors by Joanna Maitland: it became three linked novellas set during a house party. Season, setting and story line were up to us. Realising that editorial wouldn’t do the decent (and to us obvious) thing by transporting Elizabeth from Australia to England to confer with Nicola Cornick and Joanna, we settled down to an entertaining exchange of e-mails. Nearly 500 e-mails later we had our stories, and wondered where they had come from.
Looking back over the e-mails, we found that the process had fallen into three stages.
Stage One: Getting Started
This included setting, timeframe, general plot and characters’ back-stories, structure and interlinking of stories.
Q) How do three writers settle on a single story?
A) They don’t. They have three totally different ideas and start tweaking.
Joanna had the idea of a lady disguised as a maid in order to search for her missing brother. [Joanna]: In my back-story, the host/hostess run regular and slightly risqué large house parties. At the end of the previous one, heroine A's brother (her only relative) wrote to her to say that he'd discovered something very odd and he'd tell her all about it when he got home. Then he never arrived. She has become increasingly concerned and also has no money without brother. She decides she has to investigate but can't go as herself since the host would twig, so she goes as lady's maid to her married friend (because lady's maid goes both above and below stairs). Plan is that heroine A will do bedroom searches and such like while nobs are at dinner etc. The intrigue, I had thought, would be that an escaped felon is being hidden in the house. He was wrongly convicted of course and, by the end, will be proved innocent by one of the heroines (possibly the lady's maid) and they will live HEA. Haven't worked out where heroine A's brother would have been all this time. Perhaps he's being kept as a "guest" alongside the felon so that he won't spill the beans. Or perhaps something else has happened to him, as long as the word count isn't too long. He could be one of the three heroes, perhaps?
Nicola had the idea of a hero forced to woo a wealthy bride to save his inheritance from ruin.
Elizabeth wondered why any sensible man wanting a peaceful life would invite all these ill-assorted guests to visit in the first place.
In the end our starting point was the house party itself. What was it for? What was the host trying to achieve?
[Elizabeth]: Actually I did just have an idea. Something along these lines. How about if the host is estranged from his wife - she's left him and he even thinks she may be dead, but can't find out. If the estate isn't entailed, then he has to decide on an heir from within the family since he can't marry. So he summons a large portion of the family to try and make a decision. We could probably even squeeze a murder out of that in the first novella which could be solved in the third. With perhaps various heroes and heroines being suspected. Anyway, if the host's wife isn't dead, but actually in attendance as a companion or something, but we keep that very quiet as to who this female is that the host is lusting after, then that would make a nice explosive ending. Just ideas to play with.
We also needed a setting.
[Nicola]: We could use Ashdown (my National Trust place) which is compact, unusual and very attractive; it's comparatively small - only eight bedrooms. I do have a floor plan, garden plan and loads of info (you know what an Ashdown bore I can be!) so if you'd like to go for it that's no problem. If we decided on a summer house party, Ashdown would be good as it's designed as an over-sized hunting lodge and there's lots of potential for shooting accidents!
[Joanna]: Terrific stuff, Nicola! I do like the sound of Ashdown, largely because you know it so well. We could always extend it, in an imaginary way, so that it has more bedrooms upstairs, without necessarily extending the public rooms. The readers won't see anything wrong because they won't know the size of the downstairs rooms or even if we've mentioned them all. And it would be very useful to know all about the grounds. Also love the idea of hunting accidents. I feel a murder coming on.
So there we were, with our setting and three independent ideas, one of which supplied the background for the whole set. Oh, all right! It wasn’t quite that easy. There were masses of e-mails before we got that far. Christmas was looming, so a lot involved tips for cooking geese, shortbread and how to make your personal hero do enough mince pies. What made this possible, apart from e-mail, was our willingness to work together, compromise - although it never felt like that - and our respect for each other’s work.
Stage Two: Who are these people anyway?
After nailing the shape of the plot, we came to the characters. Sort of. Most stories start with the characters, and ours were no exception. We had our characters in mind from the first but we needed to develop their back-stories to know what made them tick. Authors all do this very differently. This time, since our characters were to move in and out of the three stories, we had to ensure that we could write each other’s characters effectively.
We divided the characters between us and wrote detailed character notes, adding to them as we asked questions. Obviously the individual author created the lovers in each story. Then there were secondary characters. Some were easy. Lady Margaret Burnside disappears near the end of The Fortune Hunter - in response to an editorial plea for sex on the backstairs - so Nicola handled her, although we all gave her a nudge in her fall from grace.
[Nicola]: The more I think about it the more inclined I am to create a scandalous widowed chaperone for Cassie and have her pounce on the footmen (maybe a threesome in the butler's pantry?) That would leave Aunt Harriet intact (so to speak) and I think this is important because the maiden aunt character has a very important role and I don't think it should be compromised by having her flirt with the staff. Anthony could be scandalized when he realises how inappropriate Lady Margaret is as Cassie's chaperone - she was appointed by Cassie's maternal relatives the Burnsides - and she is sent packing at the end of Story 1. What do you think?
And the responses came back by return.
[Joanna]: I think your scandalous widowed chaperone for Cassie will work very well. If it would fit your story line, Nicola, you could start without the Earl and Countess, who might arrive part-way through your story. That would provide a reason for Cassie having to have her own chaperone, and allow your scandalous widow to leave without being replaced at the end of Story 1. That would leave Elizabeth and me with the gay valet, the rogering footman, a butler who gets up to unmentionable things in his pantry (unless he was sacked for the threesome with the widow?) and Eliza and Timms if they are still to be a twosome. There's one other aspect i.e. William Lyndhurst-Flint and his penchant for attacking anything in a servant's skirt. So far in my draft, that's only reported by my heroine, rather than shown directly, but I suppose I could show it? In the original brief, they did ask for "dark elements to add depth (without becoming gothic)". Attempted rape by William would certainly be dark.
[Elizabeth]: Something that occurs to me - sorry if this wrecks your gay valet, Joanna - what if William did use his valet to do the dirty work, i.e. assault Frobisher? And what if the valet had the affair with the widow? Anthony would insist on his removal and that would be the point when the blackmail would kick in, because William would agree to sack him just to stay sweet with Anthony. Could that work? Surely that would be dark and nasty enough and it would mean that the whole thing tied in conveniently and not be too gratuitous. What do you think?
Essentially that was how that plot thread remained, because Nicola used it to drive her emotional plot.
[Nicola]: I think I've found a way to bring in the sexy widow and advance my own plot in the process. Lady Margaret Burnside is a relative of Cassie's mother and has been her chaperone for a couple of years. Cassie doesn't like her but Margaret is clever - she's had to be to survive as a poor widow - and Cassie can't give any real reason why she doesn't trust her other than instinct. In fact, Margaret once had a thing going with William Lyndhurst-Flint, although he's considerably younger than her, and now William has enlisted her support to marry Cassie and her money by promising her a cut. So Margaret tries to throw them together, come between Cassie and Peter and even makes a pass at Peter himself. When he turns her down she picks up the valet (thanks Joanna!) - who is pretty keen - no harassment there!
It would be fabulous if Great Aunt Harriet could unmask Margaret coming out of a broom cupboard in a state of disarray and Anthony sack her on the spot. Cassie won't need a chaperone for long anyway since she is betrothed to Peter, and the Countess can look after her until the wedding, which will be very soon. And I like the twist with William complaining about having to sack his valet, Joanna. As a nice counterpoint, I thought Eliza could make some very sniffy comments about Lady Margaret and her carryings on, whilst she and Timms really do exchange no more than longing looks across the room.
One idea sprang from another, weaving the plots together to create a whole. So Stage Two merged into…
Stage Three: Writing the Stories
A romance is, by its nature, character driven. As we wrote, our characters opened up, developing and pushing the plot in new directions. Aunt Harriet, aka Great Aunt Harridan, was very much Joanna’s creation. As were John and Sarah, Earl and Countess of Mardon, since Sarah had such a large role in An Uncommon Abigail. One day we hope that Joanna will write their story.
Characters with major ongoing parts we handled jointly. William Lyndhurst-Flint, for example, provoked a great deal of the plot development in all three stories, so we each had a hand in his character. In the end, our editors saved his life by vetoing a cobra in his chamber pot. Some characters, such as Cassie’s maid Eliza, and Anthony’s valet Timms, evolved along the way. Our editors wanted a “downstairs” touch, and including their relationship strengthened the main story.
Another character who gained unforeseen importance was Stella, Anthony’s beloved, smelly old setter. She sprang to life one evening in Australia when Elizabeth tripped over her own smelly old dog, and realised a hunting box without dogs was a very odd thing. Originally intended as a bit of canine authenticity, Stella gradually stole the show. Her moment of glory came when Elizabeth, 6,000 words off completing The Prodigal Bride, found a massive plot hole. What self-respecting heroine, with a reasonable amount of savvy, would hare off into the woods after a man she knows is up to no good? Especially in the teeth of a warning from her husband not to go beyond the gardens?
Again Elizabeth’s dog provided inspiration. Poor old Jessie, deaf, blind and senile, escaped the house one night and disappeared on five acres of land with dodgy fences. Lightbulb Moment. Anthony’s affection for his dog was motivation enough for Georgiana to venture into the woods. So Stella, already deaf and rather smelly, was mercilessly struck blind, and Nicola and Joanna were requested to indicate this in their stories - or at least expunge anything that suggested she could see.
Writing each other’s characters was a major challenge.
[Joanna]: Some questions for Elizabeth. What name is Georgiana using? Not, I assume, Mrs. Lyndhurst? and not her maiden name either? Is she still wearing her wedding ring? (I could envisage a very effective scene with Anthony taking it from the chain around her neck and putting it back on her finger, possibly while she's not wearing anything else. g)
[Elizabeth]: Georgiana is using the name Miss Emma Saunders. And you are quite right—she is wearing her wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Hidden of course by the very modest gowns a companion was expected to wear. She sold her mother's wedding ring to get herself back to England. Thanks for the idea about when Anthony could put it back where it belongs. Mmm! Definitely has possibilities.
[Joanna]: Elizabeth, how soon does Cassie discover Georgiana's real identity? She might indeed be cool towards her, once she knows who Georgiana really is.
[Elizabeth]: Cassie discovers Georgiana's real identity along with the rest of the house party because they walk in on Anthony trying to persuade her to remain in his bed - metaphorically speaking - and he is saying something along the lines of, “Dammit, Georgie! You're my wife for God's sake! Of course you're going to sleep in my bed!” I can see everyone except GA Harriet being dumbfounded. She, of course, is unutterably pleased with her role as matchmaker. Perhaps you two might like to flag your characters’ likely responses to me?
[Joanna]: The Countess, delighted and bubbling over with it, is about to say something she probably shouldn't. She gets as far as a delighted laugh and “But that's-” when…the Earl, seeing the danger, gets hold of her arm and escorts her out of the room and back to their chamber where they can discuss the development in private. He's grinning non-stop while he does it, though. Marcus raises his eyebrows, grins fleetingly, and then leans back against the door jamb, crossing his arms, to watch what happens next. Throws a speaking look at Amy. May even wink. Amy is just astonished (and struck dumb) since she hasn't caught up with this part of the Lyndhurst family history. She's trying to come to terms with the idea that she wasn't the only one playing a part in the household. At Marcus's speaking look/wink, she blushes violently. William is momentarily horrified in case Georgiana can queer his pitch with Anthony and John, but covers it up so quickly that (probably) no one else notices. They're all too busy goggling at Anthony and his wife. William will then try to be the soul of discretion, shepherding everyone else out so that husband and wife can be alone. At least, that's how I see them. You may have different ideas, especially about William, since he'll be all yours by then <g>
These are only a sample of the e-mails. Eventually we produced three individual proposals for our editors, a description of the physical setting, the back-story and notes for the main characters. Normally our editors are lucky to get “their names are X and Y” out of Joanna and Elizabeth. They would also be lucky if the finished story bore more than a cursory resemblance to the original outline. This time we all had to stick pretty much to the script.
Life was further complicated by Elizabeth’s sister who dragged her, kicking and screaming, to New Zealand to celebrate her fortieth birthday by walking the Milford Track. Not content with that, Elizabeth moved interstate a month from her deadline.
In many ways the physical distance between us worked in our favor. Instead of meeting to brainstorm, probably forgetting half of what was said, and noting things down incorrectly, everything was in writing. Checking something was easy. Even the time difference between Australia and England worked. Elizabeth, having two young children, usually works at night. Joanna and Nicola work more during the day, so we were mostly online at the same time.
In the end we learnt as much about our “normal” creative processes, as about working together. The creative process is a strange thing. People frequently ask writers “Where do you get your ideas?” We still don’t know. But we do have a fabulous record of the progress of a set of ideas.
And that is what the creative process is all about. It’s not having an idea that counts; it’s doing something with it. Anyone can have an idea. That’s the easy bit. Working the idea through and developing it, actually getting the story down - that’s what counts.
Readers wanting further insight into the creative process behind A Regency Invitation should visit our blog where we are progressively posting a slightly expurgated version of the 500 plus emails exchanged during the project. We hope that this article and the e-mails will help other writers with that development process.
When I was asked to open the Premier’s Reading Challenge, I was surprised. I wasn’t too sure which hat to put on; my Governing Council hat, or my Elizabeth Rolls hat. In the end I decided that this was an occasion where it didn’t really matter.
I wasn’t sure what to say either, so I asked what you’re supposed to do for the Reading Challenge. I found out that you are supposed to read a certain number of books at your level, as well as other books and when you achieve that you get an award. And rightly so.
But why? What’s the point? Why is reading so important that the Premier would get involved? Of course there are practical reasons why reading is important. Reading road signs, recipes, instructions, all those sorts of day to day things that will one day help you to keep down a job and look after yourself.
But life is more than that. More than looking after ourselves and going to work each day. And reading is more than that. Much more than reading road signs and following the instructions on the back of the toothpaste box.
All those novels and story books in the school library, about people who never existed except in the imagination of the author, all those books on faraway places we might never see, not to mention the books on dragons – what are they for? They were the ones I loved as a kid – the ones that transported me for a few hours or days far away from what seemed to me to be a pretty ordinary sort of life. The ones that really stirred my imagination so that characters lived as vividly for me as they ever did for their creators. Some of the books I loved as a child are still loved by children. Many of them are still loved by me.
Anyone who has been to our house will probably think we have too many books – I’m not very good throwing books out. If a book has given me pleasure I tend to keep it. And I’ve brought a few, a very few, of my favourites along.
Take a look at this one [holds up book]. This is the copy I bought of LORD OF THE RINGS when I was about thirteen. I’ve had it nearly thirty years and it’s falling apart. Later this year I plan to replace it, but this old friend will be tucked away safely on a shelf. Throwing it out would be like committing murder.
More old friends; WINNIE THE POOH & THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER. Still fresh and alive nearly 80 years after they were written. These are the copies I had as a child. And The Wind in the Willows published nearly one hundred years ago. My grandmother gave me this one when I was ten. After all these years Ratty, Mole and Badger are still with me. Along with CHARLOTTE'S WEB which she also gave me, although this is a new copy. And here’s MOON FILLY, one of Elyne Mitchell’s Brumby books – they showed me for the first time the beauty of the High Country in the Australian Alps. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to walk and ski on those high plains, but these books were what first awoke the desire to go there.
C.S Lewis – THE HORSE AND HIS BOY, part of the Chronicles of Narnia and the first one I read. I’ve had copies of these since I was ten and I will admit that I spent a fair bit of time gazing hopefully into the back of my great-grandmother’s wardrobe, which I now own. Unfortunately, as Susan puts it in the movie “the only wood in there is the back of the wardrobe”. NURSE MATILDA, the book Nanny McPhee was based on. Elizabeth Goudge – THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE. I still live in hopes that someone will make a movie out of this one. And Mary Stewart’s THE LITTLE BROOMSTICK (my grandmother again!) about a girl whose cat is kidnapped for magical experiments at a boarding school for witches and wizards. I’d be willing to bet that JK Rowling remembers this one fondly. And Harry Potter. A friend lent me the first three books and I spent an entire weekend reading them back to back.
But I’m not just bad at culling my own books. OWL BABIES and PEEPO. The boys put these two in the op shop box a while back. I rescued them. Some of these books are still in print. Some aren’t. Some may reappear. The titles on the bookshop shelves change all the time.
What doesn’t change is that there are always books out there that will sweep you away to other worlds, other lands and other peoples’ lives if you give them a chance. Books that will enrich your life whether they were published last year or nearly a hundred years ago.
So as you head into the Reading Challenge, I think the challenge is not just to read as many books as possible for the sake of that award, but to read as many books as possible to give you a chance to find the books that will speak to you – and take you somewhere beyond your immediate world for a time. They may awake a desire to see another land, or more of Australia. They may awake an ambition to do something you would never have thought of otherwise. They may give you insight into what it’s like being someone else. They may, if you are going through a rough patch, simply give you a break, even comfort. I do occasionally get emails from readers thanking me for just that – giving them a break from a difficult life. Sometimes people complain of books that “It’s not real life.” or “What’s the point of reading about dragons? They don’t exist.”
Well, going on holiday isn’t your real life either, and reading is a little bit like letting your mind go away on holiday. On a real holiday you see different places and different lives. You come back refreshed and better able to get on with your ordinary life. Reading a good book is like a holiday for the mind and I can guarantee that you’ll come back refreshed with your mind expanded, and knowing a little bit more about your own world.
The playwright Oscar Wilde once said that if you couldn’t read a book over and over there wasn’t much point reading it in the first place. I think he meant that a good book is rather like a friend. The good ones are the ones we want to spend more time with, that grow with us and become part of our lives. And perhaps that’s why I have far too many books. They aren’t just words on paper – they are in some odd way alive for me.
So there’s your challenge. Go for it. Find the books that speak to you. Find the books that you can enjoy, and I hope you find books you’ll still love in thirty, forty or fifty years. That’s the real prize.
Writing the Accurate Historical... Did they really do that??
To which one might add the question: And do my readers really need to know? And: Did I need to know?
Since the subject of this workshop is historical research, I would like to say that in writing a novel, you are telling a story about people. In writing a romance you are telling a story about people who can be hurt, who can themselves hurt and who ultimately learn to love. Our readers need to care about our characters as much as we do. Which means we need to know our characters. We need to have characters.
I once stood at a conference cocktail party while another writer told an editor all about the research she was doing for her, at that time, unstarted novel. Eventually the editor said, ‘Start with your characters.’ That gave me a real jolt. I’d heard it, of course. Haven’t we all. But suddenly it had meaning. Life. I knew what she meant. This writer had allowed her very natural enthusiasm for the research to overwhelm her story. As far as I can recall, she hadn’t got any characters! This was a major lightbulb moment for me.
Emotions and feelings – love, hate, passion – are timeless. They transcend time and place. BUT and it is a very big BUT – they may express themselves very differently in different times and places. That’s the nub of it – your characters. If you are going to write a romance of any sort, you are writing a book about people. People with strong emotions.
Our challenge as writers of historical novels with or without romance is to know enough about human nature and the period to make timeless emotions and issues work in a way that is true to the period. But the questions that concern us – How do you do your research? How much do you need to know before you start? And how much do your readers need to know after you finish?
Some people would argue that you don’t need to worry about historical accuracy. There are writers, and readers, who really don’t care if it’s accurate or not. Not just in terms of historical detail, but any detail. I blinked recently when I read that the hero’s mares were bred in autumn and the foals would be born in spring. Ah, no – they wouldn’t be. The gestation period for a horse is eleven months.
That sort of thing is a relatively minor hiccough. Although it’s not hard to get it right, and it’s not even an historical detail, it doesn’t effect the overall story. That’s not to say one doesn’t make mistakes, but making the odd mistake is a very different thing to not making the least effort to find out about the period you are setting your book in.
I prefer to try for accuracy even if I know I’m likely to miss a few things on the way. Some erudite reader will hopefully break the news gently and I can file the information away for next time. This isn’t to say that you have to hit your reader over the head with historical explanation every time your heroine opens her mouth or stands up. What you need to do is find a way for the history, be it social, political, military or whatever, to shape your characters and their story.
I'm going to suggest that there are three overlapping levels of historical knowledge or understanding necessary.
A broad view of your period
You need to know the period well enough to have an idea about the issues. You need to know what was going on politically. What was the war of the moment? How people thought. What they believed. How they did things. Why they did things. A basic framework so you can create characters with believable goals and aims to frustrate. For example, there is very little point in writing a Regency with a heroine who desperately wants to be a lawyer and a hero who objects. It’s a non issue. You could, however, have a heroine who is a writer. The hero might well have a few issues with his beloved earning money in that way. Especially if his mother had a scandalous affair with her publisher. Or a heroine who wants to retain her independence in some way and his mother had a scandalous affair with Mary Wollstonecraft. That could become part of your conflict.
To gain this sort knowledge you need to read. General histories, biographies. Social history, military history. Contemporary novels, poetry, plays. Anything to give you a feel for the period.
In doing all that reading, you may well find that plot ideas spring into your mind. Someone's story may fascinate you. Or an odd snippet of information may tantalise you. Possibly for years before it comes to fruition. For example, as a school girl I was fascinated by the romantic poets and their use of opium and the way it affected their writing. Not enough to try it, I hasten to add! Over the years I read quite a lot about them and the effects of the drug on their writing.
Then, a couple of years ago I was reminded of the way suicides were dealt with before 1823. Buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart and all property sequestered to the Crown. At the time I was having trouble with the plot of the book that became His Lady Mistress. My heroine's opium addicted father was overbalancing the whole story and quite frankly, he had to go. So he committed suicide as a result of being denied his dose. But: Drugs are a completely different issue in the early nineteenth century to what they are today. Everyone took opium in the form of laudanum and its effects were not widely understood. So it was no good having Verity miraculously know what the problem was and start a rehabilitation centre. There was no point in giving her a 21st century pc attitude to drugs.
On the other hand the effects of opium and the devastating effect on a teenage girl of watching a beloved parent sink into ruin, whether through opium or alcohol, remain much the same. But I had to do a large amount of reading to find out about the effects of laudanum and more reading to come up with a convincing period response to the whole thing. And I had to get into my heroine's skin to find out how she felt about the whole thing.
Same with the suicide. A suicide then was treated very differently. In 1822 you were buried at the crossroads with a stake through your heart and all your property was sequestered. And the social stigma then was far worse than now. A suicide now is seen as tragic. Then it was a disgrace. Which is perfectly fine from my point of view because it gave me a great opening and lots of baggage for my heroine to work through.
Two men standing twenty paces apart in Centennial Park, Sydney at dawn taking it in turns to shoot at one another would shock the living daylights out of us now. Then? Tragic, yes. Foolhardy, yes. But not completely out of left field. My point is that you need to know enough to make the era and its mores work to your advantage. And this is the second level of research.
Knowing enough about the particular issues and situations that are specific to your story
Once you have your characters and plot in place, you have more reading to do. You need to challenge a will? Start reading up about the Court of Chancery and revisit Dickens' Bleak House.
And then we get to the final layer of research...
The day-to-day details
The minutiae of living. What your characters ate, wore, read and did, what they sat on, how they washed. The only rule here is never take anything for granted! And don't put off starting until you have ascertained what your heroine is going to wear on page 300. If you're anything like me, the plot will have morphed long before then. Check these sorts of details as you go, if you don't know already. I often change the font to bold and stick in a note to check. Or, if it's clothing, I wait until I have whole raft of things to look up and spend half a day on it. There are some fantastic sites including people who sell antique clothing. Well worth a visit.
And remember, not only the clothes change the farther back you go. Attitudes change. If your mediaeval heroine absolutely must cavort around the countryside in breeches, she shouldn’t just do it as a matter of convenience. One of the charges brought against Joan of Arc was her immodesty in dressing as a man. It was beyond shocking. Not just a little bit naughty. They were looking for reasons to burn her at the stake, remember. They weren’t bothering with small stuff. This could actually be a major issue in the plot if handled well. Unfortunately many authors skate over it and pass it off as mildly naughty. It wasn't. It struck at the very heart of medieval beliefs about men and woman and their respective places in the world. The trick is knowing enough to know what questions to ask. Knowing what not to take for granted.
So how much do you need to know?
As much as possible. How much gets into the book? Actually on the page? Not much in comparison to what you have found out. Sometimes what you find out is important for what it stops you putting on the page. You need to know the issues. Arranged marriages, the ins and outs of inheritance, titles and their significance.
We need to know how people lived. How did they light a fire before matches were invented? And how did you use a tinder box anyway? How did they go to the toilet? What did the beds look like? A bath? How did people dine? What sort of porcelain did they eat off?
Ninety per cent of your knowledge doesn’t make it onto the page directly. But knowing it stops you putting things on the page that shouldn’t be there. For example – your heroine is in a post chaise on her way to London and wishes to write a letter to send as soon as she arrives. What does she use? Nowadays she would whip out her trusty laptop. In those days – the travelling writing desk. In it would have been all the necessary items for writing a letter. Paper, ink, a quill pen, probably a steel cutter to trim the nib and fine sand to sprinkle on the letter to dry the ink. And when she reached her destination, if her host was a member of the House of Lords, and we do hope he was! he would have franked the letter for her, to spare the recipient the cost of postage.
All this detail just to make sure your heroine writes her letter correctly. You might not put all that detail on the page, but you need to know it just to make sure she doesn’t write it incorrectly.
For example in His Lady Mistress I needed my heroine to light a lamp. It was a very emotional scene and I was curious anyway. So I found out how to use a tinder box. And it sounded really fiddly. Awkward. Hard to do in the dark at the best of times and damned near impossible if you were wet, cold and crying anyway. So I could use that little bit of knowledge to heighten the emotional impact of the scene.
And that is what it comes down to – how the detail of the setting can be used to enhance and further your plot and or your characters’ emotional development. Period detail should not be there merely for its own sake or so that the reader knows how clever we are and how much research we did.
Your reader wants a story, not a history lesson. If my heroine hadn’t been so upset when she had to light that lamp, she would have lit the lamp. Period. Who cares about the tinder box? I wanted to know for my own interest and to make sure I didn’t have her inadvertently do something impossible. As it turned out I could use the information directly.
Sometimes you use the info indirectly – for example if you want to show The Other Woman being a total cow and you decide to show her mistreating her horse – remember that in a side saddle a lady only wore one spur. On her left heel. The right heel was held away from the horse by the pommels of the saddle. You don’t go into detail about it on the page of course but you refer to ‘her spur’ singular as it gouges the poor horse. And when your copy editor corrects it – you change it back and write a polite note explaining why. What you refrain from putting on the page can be just as important as what you do put on.
How much to use?
This depends very much on the type of book you are writing and how much you need to tell your story. If you are writing something like Georgette Heyer’s AN INFAMOUS ARMY, then you will have to include the most enormous amounts of detail. You are weaving your story around events that have shaped history and you must make them real for the reader. You can only make them real and make the reader CARE who won, by making it crucial to your characters. Heyer’s account of Waterloo has never been bettered because she shows it to us through the eyes of Charles Audley, a man we have come to care about deeply. It is the characters that will make your reader care about the outcome of a battle.
Creating the physical settings is enormous fun for me. I love old houses and furniture and always have to rein myself in to include only what is strictly necessary, otherwise my readers would get a guided tour of every room in the house along with their contents.
Firstly you have to know who the owner of the room is. Male? Female? Is he comfortably off, rich, or so stinking wealthy that the heroine has refused his suit because she thinks everyone, including him, will believe she’s only after the money? What sort of room is it? A library? A drawing room? A bedchamber? A bathroom?
Say you have decided on a library. Now, when are you? Could the room you have in mind have existed then? So you use a wonderful book called AUTHENTIC DÉCOR – THE DOMESTIC INTERIOR 1620-1920. You go to the right period and lo and behold, you have your choice thing of libraries. For the hero’s library in The Unruly Chaperon, I used an engraving of the library at Syston Hall since it was to be in a country house and belonged to a Duke. The advantage of doing it this way is that even if you don’t mention everything, you know what’s there. If the heroine is standing by the desk and feels impelled to throw something at the hero, you know what is available. And if she plumps for the standish you know exactly what will be covered with ink and sand.
Do you describe the room in detail? Possibly. Probably not if the person walking into the room knows it very well. How many of us walk into one of our rooms and take careful note of all the furnishings and décor? None of us, unless we suspect the room has been burgled.
But if the person doesn’t know the room and is likely to be thoroughly stunned by its grandeur, or – heaven forbid, squalor, then yes – a description is in order. The trap here is that one can be in danger of giving a history lesson rather than telling the reader something about the owner of the room or the person experiencing the room. We need to make our reader see it through someone’s eyes and let them experience that person’s reaction to the room at first hand. You don’t necessarily need to give a detailed description of exactly what is where. You just need to give the reader a feel for the room, let their imagination do the rest.
The description of the library tells you something about the man who owns the it apart from his wealth. He’s family oriented. Hopefully it tells you even more about the heroine, Tilda. She is unused to this level of grandeur. At first it scares her. Then she realises that the room is friendly, that it has been created for people to use, to enjoy. And she likes its peacefulness. The reader already knows that Tilda has had a less than peaceful upbringing so her response to the room is in character.
When I checked I discovered that this room is the only one in the book that I have described in great detail. This was because there were several scenes in the library and I needed to have a clear picture of what it looked like. Libraries are useful places because they are less public, more informal than a drawing room. They are rooms where people lived, interacted with each other in a more familiar way. As opposed to the drawing room where one received guests and was on best behaviour.
I used that contrast between a private sitting room – again a library, rather shabby and old fashioned – and a smart drawing room in The Dutiful Rake. People were not so very different then in many ways. The public rooms would be furnished in the first style of elegance while rooms the family used might well be far less fashionable. This might be due to monetary constraints, or simply because you were used to your old furniture that had been in the family for years.
In The Dutiful Rake, the heroine, Meg has been brought up by a miserly guardian in a very rundown old house in Yorkshire. When she marries and is brought to London she is utterly stunned by the luxury of her husband’s town house. Particularly her bedchamber and the bathroom. The bedchamber in question, and bed, were Parisian in fact. I gave the hero a French mother to deal with that detail. The bathroom was the sort of thing that would have shocked most well-bred English women of the time. The original belonged to a French actress! I took some liberties with the decoration, but the rest is authentic. And the decoration is at least in keeping with the period’s fascination for classical mythology!
Since Meg’s reaction and adaptation to her new surroundings was a major part of her story I described these rooms in some detail. And I must admit that like Meg I immediately saw the possibilities of the bath. Its inclusion can only be described as gratuitous.
Of course, quite apart from knowing what sort of furniture to use you also need to know what sort of items were used in everyday living. How was a cup of tea made, for example? Where was the tea kept? In a locked tea caddy. And why was it kept under lock and key? Because good tea was seriously expensive is why. Servants used to sell used tea leaves at the back door. It was then dried out and reused as cheaper tea for the less well off. Sometimes it was dyed with heavy metals and was actually poisonous.
A friend in the UK mentioned in an email that she had been unsure of whether or not sugar tongs were in use during this period. She was wary enough to be careful, although, since she wasn’t contemplating having the heroine throw them at the hero or attempt to stab him with them, it wasn’t an important detail. She did however find out how sugar was presented, in irregular lumps broken off from a cone in the kitchen. As a matter of fact sugar tongs were in use.
Kitchens are in themselves fascinating places. But you would only refer to the kitchen in detail if something vital was going to happen there, or your heroine, or hero, was going to be spending a great deal of time there.
Perhaps the hardest thing of all to capture and convey is tone and language. While there is no point in sounding as though you were channelling Jane Austen, it can be very off putting to readers if your Regency heroine sounds as though she has escaped from Sex and the City. There is a balance to be struck between appealing to a contemporary audience and sounding as though you are regurgitating PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. I'm afraid there is only one way to achieve that balance if it is important to you, and that is to READ the literature of the period. Letters, diaries, novels, anything. Check slang expressions in the OED or a dictionary of slang for their origins. This will help you to give the flavour of the period.
And be very careful of quotations. For example; that old saw about the female of the species being more dangerous than the male? Guess who thought it was a proverb of sorts, something that had been around for centuries? Well, it's not. It's Kipling, and fortunately I happened to re-read RIKKI TIKKI TAVI and was able to correct myself before the book went to print!
Historical detail shouldn’t become an end in itself. Its main purpose is to give you the flavour, a sense of time and place. To avoid it turning into a history lesson, it needs to be used as part of the story or to tell you something about the characters and how they are thinking. As part of the everyday fabric of life.
And you should never lose sight of the fact that the world you are creating is a fantasy for someone. It is not a history lesson. It is a romance and the relationship is your primary focus. To quote Anne Gracie – the romance is the jewel. The setting exists to enhance and hold the jewel. The better the setting the more light the jewel can refract.