So I thought I’d try to remember the research steps for A Lady’s Secret.
Because I write series, I have a fairly wide and deep knowledge base to begin with, but of course things come up that I have to research — the things on a need to know basis. As I said last time, I didn’t expect A Lady’s Secret to start in France. I hadn’t researched everyday life in Georgian France and now I needed to know.
Logistics said the book had to start a few days away from England, and Abbeville came to mind. The reason Abbeville came to mind is because when one crosses from Dover to Calais and heads toward Paris, you’re quite likely to spend a night in Abbeville. Been there, done that, and so, it seems, have most travelers through the ages.
It was at this point that I discovered travel books from the 18th century on Google Books that gave me info I needed, but I’ve written about them before. I thought that this time I’d mention some of the things that didn’t end up in the book, because our judgment on what to leave out is as important as our judgement about what to include.
(If you’re a writer, what’s the juiciest bit you’ve had to leave out because it just didn’t fit the story?)
The highways were owned and administered by the French crown and strictly regulated. They were quite safe because the penalties for any infraction were severe. I could have shared the complex rules about how many horses you were required to hire, depending on the number of wheels on the carriage and the number of occupants, but I restrained myself. The rules seemed designed to spare the horses abuse, which seems like a good thing.
It was, apparently, essential to take ones own knife, fork, and spoon, for those provided by the French hostelries were completely inadequate. It sounds as if they had something like a spork — a dished fork — but it’s unclear. The knives were blunt and the blades so thin they bent. Or so the advice went. I decided that played no useful part in my story.
That’s the benchmark, you see — does it contribute to the story? I couldn’t see how to make a good story incident out of it, so I left it out. I’m sure Robin travels with excellent cutlery.
(Oh dear, in looking for a website to point to, I came across an 18th century time sink. The 18th century reading room. Also The Casanova Tour , which seems to be a description of 18th century travel through the experiences of Casanova, which is particularly relevant as you’ll see later.)
I felt I had to include the fact that most post houses only provided horses and not food and lodging because Robin and Petra stop at one such place and they’re hungry. To have them eat as if that was the norm offended my sense of reality, so I had to make a little point of it.
It does seem a strange state of affairs, however. The post-keepers could have made a nice little income from it, and travelers complain that delays left them having to travel much later than they intended in order to find a place to stay.
There was also strange stuff about the bills. Costs had to be settled on arrival at an inn, or the traveler could face a huge bill with no way to contest it.
But let’s move on from travel. I also had to figure out routes. Calais to Dover was the obvious one, but what about Boulogne, often used now? It’s a longer Channel crossing, but less time on the road. As they want to leave France as soon as possible, they choose Boulogne, even though it wasn’t as busy or good a port.
Living in the minds of my characters — or rather, Robin at this point, as he knows the routes — I realize that crossing to Dover makes them sitting ducks for the bad guys, so I have to see where else they could go, and how. It’s only a minor spoiler to say I spent a lot of time researching Folkestone for very few words, but I needed to know.
Oh, I forgot to mention all the research I did on Italian convents, especially those in Milan, which was quite fascinating and provided good background, but very few words. Ah, if we could only included all our research, writing a novel would be easy! Dull for the reader, but easy to reach the word count. But they really were crammed with widows and unmarried ladies of the higher classes, who could rarely find husbands. Also, did you know that even up till recent times some nuns’ headdresses distorted the skull and caused headaches and other problems? Not saying this one is an example, but those tight, starched bands could do damage.
I had already been reading about Teresa Cornelys, and as she was a natural fit for an Italian heroine I hoped to make her a major player, but alas that didn’t work with the story. I didn’t even get to tell the nifty story of her and Casanova.
You want the story? Good! When young, Teresa Imer, as she was in Venice when she was beginning her career as an opera singer, had a love affair with the young Casanova and bore a daughter. He’d gone on his adventures and knew nothing of it. She married another, then later another, and after an almost
unbelievable sequence of events ended up hosting Venetian assemblies in a grand house in Soho that became the model that Almack’s made successful. Teresa, alas, didn’t, and though she ruled London for a few years, she was always in debt.
This picture is of a musical evening at Madam Cornelys’ house. You can see a bigger version by clicking here.
Enter Casanova, come to enjoy London. Teresa immediately wants a loan. Probably as part of this, she decides to convince him that her daughter Sophia was his. Being Teresa Cornelys, however, she simply confronts him with the girl in public when he has no choice but to acknowledge her because they’re so alike. She then sends Sophie on begging missions.
The plan backfires somewhat, however, as he decides that Teresa’s house is not suitable and places her in a convent boarding school. Time for me to gulp. There are no convent boarding schools in England, which is a minor point in my book!
Turns out there was, sort of. A group of women lived in Hammersmith (maybe, the location switches in different versions) it a vaguely nuns-like way and wearing something like a habit. They supported themselves by running a school for a few girls.
I really wanted to work this into A Lady’s Secret because it’s a delicious tid-bit, but though I managed it, it ended up on the cutting room floor because it was part of a section that didn’t move the story along. When I cut it out, the rest of the book stood without a quiver. That’s the real test. If it can be cut without making a difference, it has to go.
I’m sure there were many other plunges into the research books along the way — there always are! — but that’s enough for now.
Do you notice information dumps in books, and do they bother you?
Which do you think is most common these days — too much information in historicals or too little?
A Lady’s Secret might be on the shelves this weekend. It should certainly be there by Tuesday. Romantic Times describes it as a "delightful, delicious gem of a book." Chapter one is here.
And, of course, the two-for reissue of trad regencies is also out soon, and you can read the openings of those from this page.