One really has to enjoy history to write historical novels. You have to love the past, which is another country, and love creating a sense of that for readers. As a corollary, you’d better enjoy research, too, and not just because you need to know facts to create a sense of time and place before you can set a story in the past effectively.
So research is necessary as well as fun. (Think of Loretta’s pigs!!!) The bonus is when you discover bits and pieces of the past that fit beautifully into a plot. Things that you couldn’t make up if you tried. So today, I thought I’d mention some cool finds that influenced some of my stories, or even inspired the whole thing.
My favorite story of this type is an anecdote I found in a book on Cornish mining when I was researching mining and Methodists for Thunder and Roses. There were a lot of mines in Wales and Cornwall, and a lot of Methodists since itinerant preachers reached out to the poor and the downtrodden, which included miners. (The established church tended to minister mostly to the upper and middle classes.)
It was in this mode that I read of a Cornish mine that was about to explode. The two miners down the shaft realized this—perhaps they smelled the amount of gas. The only way out was a single little lift bucket that could carry one man, but not two. They stare at each other. Who will got first and have the best chance of survival?
Then one man says to the other, “You go first.” Not waiting around to argue, the second man jumped into the bucket and hauled himself to the surface. Before the bucket can go down again, the mine explodes. All the miners immediately set to work to dig out the poor devil who was trapped below, because in a hard job like mining, you take care of your own.
The work goes well, and for a miracle, they find that the timber supports had fallen in a way that provided a protected space for the man who had been caught below. He is pulled out, not seriously injured. My imagination constructs the scene along the lines of the second man leaning over the first and crying, “Ralph, Ralph, thank God you’re safe! (For some reason, I always think of him as Ralph. <G>) But why did you tell me to go first?”
The lucky survivor looked up and said, “Well, I’m a good Methodist and knew I was going to heaven, but I wasn’t so sure about you.”
I loved that story so much that I put a mine cave collapse in Thunder and Roses so I could use a variation of that scene. <g>
Another bit of trivia was when I was researching the Paris Peace Conference that was held after Waterloo to decide just what they should do with Napoleon this time. This was in pre-internet days, and I remember I had to do a lot of scrabbling before I determined as basic a fact as that the conference was held in Paris, not a return to Vienna, where the Congres was held. (The book was The Controversial Countess, later rewritten as Petals in the Storm.)
In those days, my research started with heading down to the main Baltimore city library, which the state had designated a research center. It has a terrific collection, with multiple sub-levels of book storage.
I would trot down into the city and take with me a large tote bag and fill it with books that looked useful until I couldn’t move it. Then I’d take out the last book so I could lift the bag, barely, and stagger home. I’d go through the books, photocopying bits that were particularly useful, and I’d mine the bibliographies to find more volumes to order through interlibrary loan. Ah, the good old days… Not that I’d trade Google for anything!
At any rate, while researching the book, I found a little footnote that mentioned that the British Foreign Minister, Lord Castlereagh, (left) was injured by a horse in the embassy stables. At the height of the negotiations, he spent several days conducting business from his bed.
Cool! This gave me a rather nifty little scene where the hero and the heroine rescue Castlereagh from being killed by the horse. Because it’s fiction, I had them recognize that it was no accident—someone was trying to kill the British foreign minister. It became part of my spy plot, and the hero got a chance to be heroic.
As I’ve probably mentioned here before, the whole of my most recent book, A Distant Magic, was inspired when I read how a key leader in the British abolition movement was almost murdered by angry slave ship sailors. It struck me how critical Thomas Clarkson’s death would have been, and how fragile the early abolition movement was. It took a long time to turn that wisp of an idea into a story, but I never would have even tried if I hadn’t read that half page anecdote in Bury the Chains.
Of course, research is an endless treasure chest of potential material, most of which can’t be used. When I’m researching, I buy books, use Highlighters and Post-It notes madly, and sort of fill my head with a cloud of possible material. As I write the story, I’ll pull things out of the cloud. “Didn’t I read something about the double baskets used to carry travelers on Bactrian camels in Central Asia?”
So I’ll look up the reference, get the details straight, then incorporate it into the story. When a book is finished, a lot of the cloud evaporates, especially those pieces of material that didn’t get used. But in a pinch, I can always go back to files to verify. Well, usually.
The lords we write about were pretty much always landowners, which it to say, farmers. Since I grew up on a farm, I wanted to incorporate this aspect of life into some of my books. My most agricultural story is The Rake (originally The Rake and the Reformer), in which the hero, Reggie, becomes owner of the much loved estate where he grew up.
Part of his healing from alcoholism is through his reconnecting with the land. One scene that people often mention to me is the sheep washing, when sheep are washed in the spring prior to being sheared. I came across references to this in a couple of books, and it was a perfect way to show Reggie participating in a group activity with his tenants and laborers, and to give a glimpse of English country life.
Another lovely bit I found in a book where how newly cut fleeces “breathe” when they’re stacked in a storeroom. I assume the temperature changes and air escapes, so they sigh and shift as if they’re getting more comfortable. Again, that was incorporated into an introspective sort of scene. This is how tapestries of story are woven, thread by thread.
Ideas are everywhere—it’s execution that’s the real challenge. Once I saw a listing for a remaindered book on antique mechanical toys, and it immediately came up with a subplot for obscene wind-up toys in Dancing on the Wind. As so often happens, that subplot blossomed into an over-the-top finale featuring huge, steam-powered metal statues with murderous habits.
Of course, no matter how much research we do, there are always people who think we got it wrong, and a few can be rather rude in telling us so. Sometimes disagreements are legitimate—there are a lot more gray areas in history than there are iron-clad facts. But sometimes the questioner is just plain wrong. (And to be fair, sometimes the writer is!)
My favorite example of such things happened to my friend Susan Grant when she entered a story with a female pilot heroine in a contest. A judge told her that she should stick to writing about things she knew about. Since Susan is an Air Force Academy graduate, was a fighter pilot instructor, and is currently a pilot for United Airlines, she got quite a chuckle out of this. <G> ( http://susangrant.com/ )
I like to add historical notes to most of my books, since I figure that at least some readers are like me and want to know what bits are true and what is invention. I also use this to explain some of the more unexpected pieces of history that I use. (Yes, there really were attempts to give blood transfusions before the 20th century. Usually disastrous, but they did happen.)
Because really, you can’t invent some of this stuff. <g> Do you have some favorite historical tidbits that you’ve loved finding in books, or written into your own books? Please share!