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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 July 2007

Creating a World

A new book is like contemplating a very challenging puzzle. Thank goodness that even though I generally dislike puzzles I really enjoy crossword puzzles. Too bad that creating characters, their homes, their backgrounds, their lives and then making each piece fit into the whole seems to me much more like a jigsaw puzzle.

The current piece that is hardest to fit is the feel of the place. For the last five years my characters have happily lived in Sussex – deliberately close to London, mild of climate and visually beautiful. It helps that I have visited the area and was able to match the reality with what my imagination conjured from research.

My new family is going to live in Derbyshire, near the Peak District. The Pennistans are more emotionally intense than the Braedons and they insist that the dramatic landscape of the north central part of England suits them.

The best book I have ever read on the subject of place is Defoe’s A TOUR THROUGH THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN, one of those delightful primary sources that stands the test of time. Yes, it is the same man who wrote ROBINSON CRUSOE and, yes, I know it was written way before the Regency, but the feel of his England is so much closer to the Regency than ours is. You have only to compare a contemporary map with a period one to understand that. THE TOUR was published between 1724 and 1726 and the edition I have was edited by Pat Rogers with wonderful photos by Simon McBride.

Defoe’s experience of the Downs was a help in creating the Braedons’ home, and his observations of Derbyshire are just as entertaining. But now I realize how important actually seeing the place is to me. I am longing to experience more of the vistas and villages, to feel the wind, hear the wildlife. With no chance to travel to Chatsworth, or the Peak District Park I am beginning to fear that I will not be able to make this last piece fit perfectly.

Tell me how you handle a sense of place for a spot you have never seen. Yes, I admit to being self-serving. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

9 Comments:

Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

I love the world-building process of writing, but it's also a challenge. Patricularly with an historical era. I've been able to take research trip for some of my books but not all, and even with a research trip I always wanted more more information. Contemporary accounts from the near the time the book is set (such as the Defoe one) as wonderful. I find steeping myself in images really helps. I'll rent any movie/televsion series I can think of with a similar setting (I'm pretty sure they actually filmed Elizabeth trip with the Gardners in Derbyshire in both the A&E Pride and Prejudice and the recent movie). I'll also invest in some coffee table-type books with good photographs of the area (and I'll often keep pictures on my desk while I'm writing). I wonder too, especially with the internet, if you couldn't send away for some local tourist guides (such as the sort of booklets you can buy on a tour of a country house).

None of that's very original, I'm afraid, but hopefully it's of some help!

9:03 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Movies! What a good ideas. And I loved those scenes in P&P. I know what you mean about wanting more information even with a trip to the spot. The ideal would be to live there while writing. So far that is just a fantasy but maybe someday.
Thanks, Tracy.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I liked videos if at all possible of the place in question, particularly in order to hear the accents. Barring that, coffee table books are excellent, and reading original source material like the Defore books is also a good way to go.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I use travel books (modern or old--if I can find them) for specifics on famous spots like Carcassonne.
I also use picture books... travel brochures (I clip out pictures of my setting--for my current book it's southern France). And maps--old ones, with old place names.
And I read a lot of related nonfiction. For the book I'm working on now, I re-read books
on Aquitaine and Languedoc and Eleanor of A.)

I can get the "feel" of a place, particularly an exotic setting like Jerusalem, from films ("The Crusades"), but I don't trust the
costume choices or the language usage. I try to soak up the landscape, buildings, etc.
even ships and serving maids.
One excellent recent film for setting was "Beowulf and Grendel"
filmed in Iceland.

I'm wary of History Channel
presentations, even though I love watching all those little computer-soldier figures line up for battles on opposite sides of a hill.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Mary, have you discovered Google Maps? My husband just introduced me to it, and I'm using it extensively for my alternate history. One of its features is old maps for certain parts of the world, including a road map of England from circa 1800. You can look at the antique map view and see that there was a village at a crossroads at such-and-such point, and then toggle to the satellite view and zoom in to see what it looks like WRT terrain.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Have rented P&P and am all set to watch --thanks. Also scoured the oversize shelf at the library for coffee table books - nothing that said "Derbyshire" but some that were close enough.

When I entered Derbyshire, England in the lib search the first thing that came up was Pam's "The Slightest Provocation" -- amazing!

Susan, Google Maps looks great but I cannot figure out how to access the historical maps you mentioned. What am I missing?

Thanks for all your help. Feeling much better about the process and ready to work with my h&h.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Camilla Bartley said...

I try to get as many photographs as I can, purchase/download travel guides and read contemporary accounts of the area as much as possible. My current WIP is set not only in Melton Mowbray(hunting country), but also 1890s Hong Kong--so I have my work doubly cut out for me.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Susan, Google Maps looks great but I cannot figure out how to access the historical maps you mentioned. What am I missing?

It's buried deep down in the menus somewhere. I'm at work now, so I can't access it from here, but I'll try to remember to look when I get home.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I have been to the part of Derbyshire near Chatsworth, Mary, for The Slightest Provocation, but not to Lincolnshire for Almost a Gentleman -- so I used guidebooks, particularly older, wordier, English ones, which my public library oddly, had, and which were surprisingly atmospheric -- perhaps because Tennyson had come from there and had written a bunch about nature, and the guidebooks liked to quote it. I don't at all know if I got Lincolnshire right, but I did imagine a place with big skies and big winds, and wrote what I imagined, so it was fun.

1:35 PM  

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