Can I Get This Right? or The Real Deal or False Lead? by Lynette Willows

You are sitting in the light of your computer monitor, a huge stack of books, most of them recently acquired from a scoured library propped next to the desk, drinking endless cups of coffee or bottles of soda (for us Canadians, pop). How on earth was something coherent going to wind up on the page, especially after finding many of the history volumes have conflicting information? After wrestling with material for days, the pressure of getting it right and the level of caffeine in the body high enough, pen is figuratively put to paper. On the contrary, I sometimes wonder that students’ bad experiences writing papers for high school doesn’t drive some them away from historical writing.

college student studying for SI Bartlett blogWriting history constitutes a broad set of skills which may be difficult to master but are so rewarding when your unique draft is ultimately finished.

Having developed a historical timeline, writers must find a set of primary historical sources which can address the idea they have formulated. Once again, this is no easy task. It requires an array of skills using the library and online sources that can be trusted. Historical writers must know how to manage the on-line library catalog, be an irritant to the librarian and perhaps even, horror of horrors, know how to use the old card catalog and fiche. They must be willing to explore the stacks, learn to use special collections, travel to locations, or interview experts or even witnesses if there are any. This kind of primary source research demands a diligence and persistence rare in these days of easy Internet access, which often has it wrong, spitting out old and outdated resources from Wikipedia. By the way, that’s a source that should only be used as a starting point, and take the information with a grain of salt.

librarian for SI Bartlett blogIf you’re researching online, haunt any free resource attached with University libraries and historical societies. And it’s a matter of trial and error using key search words, a skill I have only recently hit upon and mastered somewhat. It’s surprising what pops up when you hit that magical combination, and the rich resources you stumble across.

They must craft a theme wherein they pose a clear historical plot and then offer their characters addressing it. In a well-structured, grammatically correct manner, they must work their way through a story without falling into common historical fallacies. They must match evidence to argument, grasp little known facts that on the surface look incidental but ultimately prove infinitely fascinating, and anticipate and pre-empt challenges to their argument. Sources, noted down but not included in bothersome appendixes, should be kept for any dissention on following blogs that discuss your book.

Phew! It is little wonder that history novelists can find research so traumatic. Often history teachers, in the author’s early life, presented past events in a dry lecture that left us wondering why we are even vaguely interested. This is understandable. We often do not understand how we think about the history-writing process, and old prejudices developed in high school hang tenaciously on. Most writers do not have it as easy as history addicts like myself. Many do not have the innate passion for the past which propelled history teachers into spasms of joy. I absorb history with an “osmosis” technique, soaking it up like a sponge that many find foreign, but my own history teacher celebrated. Even those with little apparent interest need to approach what they read with a critical, analytical eye. You have to evaluate what research will fit into your novel and craft it to become a seamless part of the story. But wait…I’m writing historical romance. Is this really all necessary for a genre that typically wants only the love story to take center stage? All this research will only make my novel cumbersome and dull.

As for the research, absorb odd incidents that will serve to heighten the interest in the story, and may even move the plot along and put your characters in a truly unique situation. Let’s face it, romance novels have pretty much run the gambit of swashbuckling situations no matter what era you are tackling, and have become stale and repetitive. As romance novelists, I feel it’s our job to come up with fresh and unique ideas based on little known historical facts that better serve the cravings of our educated, far more sophisticated modern readers, especially women. I have recently found out, through our own experimental steps, that men can be attracted to romance as well, based on feedback from our male readers, We expanded on plot in a traditionally character driven genre.

I admit, we stuck a slim toe over the line, and it worked. We included a brief battle scene in the book, a typical no-no in romance that allowed the reader, both male and female, to taste, smell and feel what it was like to be there. We also included many technical scenes concerning historical horse breeding that garnered applause in reviews. It shows that even the most mundane appearing point can be expanded and presented to your readers as a unique approach without sacrificing, and in fact enhancing, the romance of the story.

No Walking for SI Bartlett blogThis is no longer the time of old romance formulas, where the hero snarls and indulges in mild rape to titillate the reader into sympathizing with the heroine, who does eventually succumb to the advances of the man. Modern women in 2014 want sophistication, more accuracy and driving plots along with their strong characterizations. As writers, we owe it to them to work harder to get it right, and entertain at the same time.

It’s at this point that I need to mention the language. If I wanted to be truly authentic, I would have to have the dialogue follow how they spoke then, and frankly, no one would understand what your characters are saying. Methods of speech were quite different than they are now, even though they still speak English. Slang and phrases were as unique then as they are now, and they have shifted so much, it’s almost like speaking a different language. We need to keep modern terminology in our historical stories for the ease and enjoyment of the story. Otherwise, you have to have an extensive glossary of terms in the back, and that’s not very practical.

As an example of obscure research, there have been much confusion and inaccuracies concerning hygiene in these rough eras, not just amongst readers, but writers themselves. Many think that people went for weeks, or months between wash-ups, which simply isn’t true. I remember Kathleen Woodiwiss trying to overcome this problem in her novels in the seventies, by her main characters installing an actual, working bathtub, complete with taps, plumbing and a drain with plug. Unrealistic for colonial America, but oddly no one seemed to notice and soaked up her novels in record numbers. But women can no longer suspend their belief to such an extent, even though the taste for romantic fantasy is still going strong. Readers now demand more realistic, suspenseful, and historically accurate plots and characters. They are better educated and they will nail you on inaccuracies. They even got me on one small phrase I used, the word “bush” instead of forest, which was not used, nor ever really used, in the United States from what I understand. My “Canadian-ism” escaped unnoticed in the final draft, and it was a few readers who spotted it. The only other place that term is used is in Australia.

Art takes work and innovation. It took me a few weeks and extensive research on a subject for my blog that was not well documented, since hygiene is a very intimate issue that was not generally discussed in polite society during colonial days. Good hygiene habits were passed from mother to daughter, and father to son, in private and in whispered tones.

Ultimately, I had to research implements, recipes for soaps, hair rinses and bath houses to get casual, off side comments on how often they bathed, and how. Surprisingly, it was far more frequent in innovative than we previously suspected. But it makes sense, as well. Otherwise, diseases and distasteful smells would have overcome the most lovesick person into avoiding close contact. Basically, it took lateral, or sideways thinking to find what I wanted to find. Sometimes, even after doing this, it will take going through secondary links and finding obscure sites that are rarely viewed, but hold fascinating details that will spur entire books! It’s what happened with my current work in progress that resulted in a fascinating event in history that few people know about. On further research, I found even more exciting facts related to this unusual occurrence…well, needless to say, I couldn’t pass on it. I had to write this story.

water pitcher for SI Bartlett blogSo, it seems that good reading, writing, and evaluating are deeply linked in historical accuracy for the new generation of romance writing. I am eager to know what works for you in research habits.