History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 January 2007

Research and the Paranormal Historical


by Colleen Gleason

I’ve been asked many times about whether I research before writing my historical novels, or as I go. The short answer is: I research as I go. But that's partly because I've been writing, reading, and watching historical fiction for a long time. So, I already have at least a sense of the era.

I know the basics about what the people wear, how they travel about, what conveniences they have and don't have, etc., so when I sit down to write a book set in the past, I have enough information just to be dangerous.

But the fun part comes as I'm writing, because that's when things start to happen. Usually, I have the bare bones of a plot, but not the details. And the details, in my opinion, are what make a book. And the details are what I research when I'm in the process of writing.

When I have to make decisions--about what someone is wearing in particular, about where a certain house or building is located, about what they might eat at a ball or fete, about a political event that's happening--that's when I do the research for that particular thing. I stop writing and start searching.

I think this works partly because it keeps the whole process from being so intimidating. I don't have to know everything before I start! You can't eat the elephant all in one bite, as one of my bosses used to say--and that's a great mantra for historical research.

For example, in Unmasqued: An Erotic Novel of the Phantom of the Opera (my August release under the name Colette Gale), I didn't have the best sense of 1887 Paris. I had enough to start off (I'd read the book, seen the movie), but I didn't have the details. So when I had Christine and Raoul take a drive through Paris, I had to find out what it might have looked like, and what they might have seen. I was able to answer this question by using three tactics:
  1. Googled "Paris 1887" and got lots of stuff
  2. Looked at paintings of Paris that were done in the late 19th century
  3. Read fiction set during that time period

Paintings particular were helpful to me, because I'm a visual person, and seeing a picture of Paris with the Eiffel Tower just being built gave me an image to work from. And reading fiction written (and set) during the time in question is really valuable. I can hear how people speak, what words they use, and often get little details that I wouldn't have found otherwise.

So it was fun for me to learn, through this research, that in 1887, the Eiffel Tower was just being built and the Parisians hated it. They thought it was a monstrosity. And so I found a way to include that little tidbit in the book.

And that brings me to another serendipity about research, and why I do it as I go: it's the gems I find. The little nuggets of detail or information I'm not looking for, but I find accidentally. If I did all the research up front, I may not find these pretty little things.

Here's another example: I'm currently writing the third Gardella Vampire Chronicles book, which opens in Rome. I had to decide where a particular church that is important to the Venators (the vampire hunters) is located. I guess I didn't really have to exactly identify where the church was, but I wanted to. It gives me a better sense of place, too. So I spent about three hours, literally, poring over a book about Rome and then validating my decision to locate the church of Santo Quirinus in what is called the Borgo.

When I started researching the Borgo, I found a lot of interesting information about that area; details that I included in the setting: that the umbrella makers were relegated to this quarter because the wet silk they used smelled so bad, that rosary makers lived in the Borgo, and I even found a painting of the area.

Another question that I’m asked a lot in regards to research, since I write paranormal historicals, is whether the world-building in a non-contemporary time period is more difficult than in a modern one. I don't think that paranormal world-building in a historical setting is any more difficult than it is in contemporary settings. In fact, in some ways it might be easier.
It's a lot of fun to take a historical fact and twist it to fit my world-building. A perfect example occurs in Rises the Night. I introduce John Polidori, who is the author of The Vampyre (the first book that really portrayed vampires as aristocratic, mysterious creatures that lived amid Society).

My research taught me that John Polidori died in 1820, which is the year in which my book is set. How convenient is that? I also learned that there was some mystery surrounding his death. Hmmm. Some said he died from poison. Others said he died in an accident. I decided that he died from a totally different reason--related to the world I've built--and made that an event in my book.

So, to sum up, let me just say that for me, as far as research goes, once I have the basic idea of the time period, the research is just for little details. But the little details (hopefully) are what give the book its flavor and color and authenticity, and paint the picture.

I don't use everything I learn. I don't describe my characters' dress every time they come on the scene, or every single carriage or room. I give enough to paint a wide swath, with a few well-placed details, and that usually works to give a good flavor of setting without bogging the book down.

5 Comments:

Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Colleen, I research as I go also, and I wonder if this mirrors how we write as individual authors. Because my plotting is write-as-I-go also, aside from the major points I need to hit.

How about the rest of you? Are Plotters the type to do extensive research beforehand and Pantsers the type to gather research as they go?

(Side note: "Plotter" means someone who plots the story out before starting. A "Pantser" writes by the seat of her pants, without much pre-planning.)

11:10 AM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Victoria, I'm a pantser (horrible word!) too and I research as I go as well. So far your theory is holding good. I do however read a lot of general nonfiction just for pleasure and I've read Regencies since I was a wee bub so I've got a pool of general knowledge to draw on which at least tells me a story is possible before I start it.

Interesting stuff about Rome, Colleen. That's the other thing I find about doing a lot of general reading - stuff pops up that more specific research just wouldn't give me. Sometimes a line in a totally unrelated book has given me a whole new plot. You know, something like, "This happened in 1912. What different spin could I put on it if I placed it in the Regency?"

11:58 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

How about the rest of you? Are Plotters the type to do extensive research beforehand and Pantsers the type to gather research as they go?

In both areas, I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm not a classic plotter in that I don't do extensive outlines, character bios, GMC charts, and all that lovely stuff plotters insist you must do before you have any business starting the story. OTOH, I'm not a true pantser in that I can't just sit down and write the instant I get the germ of an idea. I have to set the story on my mind's back burner for at least six months, playing with it off and on until I have a sense of my characters and the overall flow of the plot.

I'm always reading research books, often relating to one of those ideas on my mental back burner. That general reading helps me flesh out my plots, gives me ideas for future stories, etc. But I always research as I'm writing, too, especially for smaller details. I try not to stop writing, though--instead I'll make bold, all caps notes within the text that I need to figure out what flowers would've been blooming at that time of year or look up an appropriate dance or dinner dish or whatever.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm a pantser, and I do hella research before I ever set finger to keyboard. So call me the odd writer out. LOL!

One thing I don't believe in is using works of fiction for research purposes. I see SO MANY mistakes in novels (some of them truly egregious).

1:50 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I spend a lot of time thinking about the opening scenes in the first chapter, then I pants it, start writing until I get to a point where I have to stop and think some more. ;-)

About 50 pages into the story, I write an outline, then I finish the book as fast as I can. I rely on general historical knowledge to impart the flavor while I am writing, but I couldn't stop and look up a lot of details while I'm in the "process."

I just have to get the whole book "out of me" before I slow down. ;-)

2:56 PM  

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