Anne here, and today I'm going to answer some questions I was recently asked about the research I do for my books.
1) When you write your first draft, do you do all of your research first then begin writing? Or do you write your first drafts whilst you research facts?
It's a bit of both. My process is different every time, and the research depends a lot on the story and the setting. Some stories are inspired by browsing through history books—for instance Tallie's Knight which was inspired by an old woodblock print of aristocrats being carried in litters by hearty local peasants over the Swiss Alps. That was a "grand tour" story, so before I started writing I did a lot of research about the "grand tour."
Similarly with books set in non-English settings — for instance To Catch a Bride (which was set partly in Egypt) and Bride By Mistake, (which was set partly in Spain) I've had to do a lot of research beforehand. Strangely the Egyptian research was much easier than the Spanish. There were plenty of English people present in Egypt for the time I set the story in, so I was able to find journals and letters and sketches and all kinds of helpful sources.
But Bride By Mistake was set in post-Napoleonic Spain — the war was only just over, and though Spain was experiencing internal turmoil, as various factions squabbled over the future of the country, there was not much available in English, and what there was, was all about the politics, whereas I wanted information about the state of the countryside, particularly in the north, and the ordinary people living there.
In the end I found a historical novel written in the 1930's and some general histories, and hoped they'd be enough to go on. My main solution was to keep the hero and heroine together, not interacting very much with other people. Most of the research I did for that story was about the journey they made. And for some of it I simply imagined myself into the scene.
Many of the books set in London or Bath require limited specific research. I have a good general knowledge of the Regency period and some personal experience of the settings —that's my own photo on the left — and most of the time I don't need to do much research, only the small things along the way.
For instance I might need to look up the clothes in fashion that year, describe the interior of a house, check a street map of the time, or look up the flowers or vegetables in season and the dishes that might be served. I sometimes research that kind of thing when I'm writing, but more often I'll do it much later. I simply write XXXX and keep writing. Then when I've finished the rough draft, I'll go back and find the details I need. I learned that little trick early on, after I once did a lot of research for a particular scene — and later deleted it from the story.
But sometimes the direction of the story will depend on some fact or historical situation, and those I have to research on the spot before continuing. If I know that before I start the novel, I'll look it up, but I'm an organic writer and don't pre-plot my books in detail, so often a situation will arise that I hadn't expected. So then I have to stop writing and research.
2) How do you manage to stop yourself procrastinating and 'research' forever.
The trouble is, research is always so fascinating, and you can really dive down a rabbit-hole for hours if not days. I remember I once researched men's toiletries and scents for ages, it was so interesting. It ended up as only one or two lines in the book, but that's usually the way. Research is like an iceberg — in the final book you only ever see a tiny amount, and the rest is invisible.
But there are these things called deadlines, and in the end, I have to compromise between doing what's practical and doing the amount of research I'd really like to do. And often I really can't find the information I need, so I have to write around it.
Yes, several times, I'm embarrassed to say. Mostly the mistakes I've made were when I was so sure I knew something I didn't bother to check — like when I said in The Accidental Wedding that the heroine's mother had made a pilgrimage to Lourdes — 70 years before St Bernadette had her vision. Catholics from all over the world wrote to point that one out to me, and all I could say was mea culpa. I thought I knew it, so didn't look it up.
Another time I changed a location in a hurry, just before sending off the finished manuscript, meaning to check it afterward when the copyedits came back. But I forgot. That was Marry In Scandal — and some English readers certainly spotted the error.
Another error was a smaller thing, where in The Perfect Kiss I had a lemon tree growing in Shropshire and an English reader wrote and told me that it just wasn't possible. The plot didn't depend on it at all, it was just a passing mention, but . . .
However readers sometimes think things are wrong when they aren't. As Grace Burrowes once said, "Readers are often in error but never in doubt." Years ago I was roundly criticized on a reader loop by an Italian speaker who said the Italian phrases I'd used in Tallie's Knight were "rubbish". Another author put us in contact, and I showed the lady my sources — which were letters written by an Irishwoman in 1802. She said "OMG you used proper 19th century Italian — how wonderful!" But she never withdrew her criticisms from that reader loop, or corrected the impression she'd left. <g>
All I can say is that I do my best to get things right, but I don't always manage. I also have to learn to live with those mistakes — with traditional publishing (ie big publishers) there is no possible way for me to correct them, no matter how much I want to. By the time a book is published it's completely out of my hands.
So, what about you — what kind of errors throw you out of a story? Are there mistakes and historical bloopers you just can't forgive? Or that drive you bonkers? Or can you occasionally forgive and just keep reading? And if you have further questions about the research process, feel free to ask.