Queen Bee asked: When you find so much fascinating historical information, how do you (or any of the Wenches) decide what to use, and what to leave out?
Research is a tricky trap. Every writer wants to set the scene in a way that will bring the story to life and create characters that seem real. Digging up lots of nifty background facts as reinforcement is one of the best ways to do it. As much as writers wish it were otherwise, imagination alone can’t carry the whole load. Whether a story is set in a police precinct in modern-day New York or in Bath in 1805, a writer needs accurate details to give a story credibility.
Yet sometimes those same facts can take over a story and overwhelm it: the dreaded “info-dump.” Most of the time, writers don’t even realize the terrible moment until it’s too late. You tuck in a description of the heroine’s gown (the Spitalfields silk requires at least an entire paragraph itself), then the hero’s coat (French embroidery and cut steel buttons) then the heroine’s best friend’s clothing (a sack gown in lemon-colored lutestring), and the servant’s livery (scarlet wool plush, silver lacing, polished pewter buttons galore) and suddenly it’s happened. You haven’t written a tender love scene. You’ve written a Wikipedia entry.
The secret, of course, is keeping to your character’s POV instead of your own. Those cut-steel buttons might be endlessly fascinating to you, but to your hero, they’re just what keeps his coat closed, and of no more significance to him than a Velcro strip is to us. On the other hand, if the heroine sees the buttons, and recognizes the particular pattern in the cut-steel as being sold only in Paris, while the hero has sworn he’s never been abroad –– well, then those super-cool buttons you discovered have earned their place in your story.
True, it’s hard to be judicious, especially for us self-proclaimed history nerds. We love research, whether it’s in the hushed carrel of a university’s rare book room, or Googling away at home in pj’s. We store away ideas and fact like squirrels with acorns, and delight in sharing what we’ve discovered with our readers. But today publishers wants shorter, sexier historical romances, and most editors will react to abundant historical description like Borat: “Not so much.”
Yet when research works the way it should, it’s magical, both for the writer and the reader. I’ve mentioned here before how my recent book splurge of the complete diaries Samuel Pepys now fills an entire bookcase shelf. With my current string of historical novels set in England during the 1660s-80s, I turn again and again to the Pepys diaries for inspiration. Sometimes all it takes is a single sentence or two: “Great doings of music at the next house . . . the King [Charles II] and Dukes [Charles’s two younger brothers, James and Henry] there with Madame Palmer, a pretty woman that they have a fancy to, to make her husband a cuckold.”
Madame Palmer will in fact become Charles’s mistress, and my heroine in Royal Harlot, but this brief mention by Pepys kicked my imagination into high gear. Is this Barbara’s first time entertaining royalty in her home? Does her husband yet realize the king’s interest in Barbara? Do Charles’s brothers like her, and she them? How does such a musical party mark the differences in London before and after Charles’s return to the throne, and how does it solidify Barbara’s position with the king? One sentence, yet it inspired an entire chapter.
I’m not alone, of course. I’m sure every one of the Wenches will have experienced much the same research “magic.” I’m currently reading an advance copy of Loretta’s next book, Not Quite a Lady. Because this book won’t be in stores for another couple of months, I won’t spill the beans about the characters or the plot except to say that it’s another of Loretta’s virtually perfect books. *g* Still, I will say this much: one of the most popular blogs on this site last year resulted from Loretta’s research-visit to Old Sturbridge Village ("The Pig & I": it’s worth revisiting), and it’s clear that same visit influenced quite a bit in her new book (and her characters) as well.
So if you’re a reader, do you like stories suggested by historical fact? If you’re a writer, do you, too, rely on historical facts for inspiration? (And thank you, Queen Bee, for the question –– you’ve earned a free book.)