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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 August 2007

Grist for the Mill...or, make lemonade

While writing my unpublished Regency historical, In the Face of Scandal, I had nagging, chronic back pain for months at a time (probably a legacy of a too-long flight to London and back). Yet practically every day, I dragged my laptop off to the public library to write, determined to get the book done on time and ship it off to my agent.

At one point in the story, I needed a convincing reason for the heroine and hero not to have sex at that particular moment. There were no external factors to hold them back: they’d stopped at an inn on the way to London, they were alone, they were married. But for plot purposes, I needed to delay the sex. As I tilted my head forward to jot down a list of possibilities, my neck protested, tightening in a fiery burst of pain and clenching muscles.

Ah, I thought, there’s the answer. My heroine’s been riding in a carriage for ten hours. Her back must be killing her. In fact, her back must be so tensed up and painful that she can hardly move…just like my blasted neck right now. No hero worth his salt could possibly bed a woman in that much pain. And to the heroine’s great disappointment, the hero insists on leaving her untouched that night.

I used the pain of real life in the story, and I think it worked well. The character seemed more real, like a woman who might have existed, because her pain made her more sympathetic. It became one of those details that contributed to the landscape of the story.

Sometimes I read a book that has a lot going for it, but one of the characters seems one-dimensional. It’s usually because the character is a little too perfect. Perfectly groomed, perfectly mannered, perfectly healthy. Oh, she may quibble a little over her feelings for the hero, may make a tiny misstep or two while she’s pursuing him, yet she comes across as though she has all the feelings of a mannequin. Perhaps she’s too perfectly pain free for me to relate to her.

Joss Whedon once said, “Buffy in pain makes for a great storyline.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he’s my writing idol so I hope he won’t mind). In an historical, there is already a veiled curtain over the mores and customs of the characters; when they also carry a veil of perfect health, it’s that much more difficult for me to relate to them.

I’m reminded of some illnesses in Austen: the potentially life-threatening cold that Jane Bennett suffers in Pride and Prejudice; the self-inflicted concussion and coma suffered by Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion. In the latter case, the willfulness of the character led directly to her fall. It made her more sympathetic, at the same time it showed the heroine as much more capable and sensible…a much more fitting wife for the no-nonsense hero.

And yet, it’s all too easy for a book to turn into a “disease of the week” opportunity for educating the reader about a particular health issue that’s important to the writer. I’ll exercise some good taste and not name names here, but I’m curious about when you’ve seen this sort of thing done well. What books come to mind where the characters have flaws that make them seem that much more sympathetic? That much more real, in a “this person might actually have lived” way? And for authors, how have you used your own pain in stories?

An afterthought –

I wanted to start this column with an anecdote about a fictional detective who suffers from migraines, but I couldn’t recall either the name of the detective or the author. (Is it Sherlock Holmes? I honestly can’t recall). My memory loss, brought on by an operation in 2005, continues to expand. It started with short-term memory loss – new facts weren’t being recorded properly in my brain, so when I tried to recall them, I received a “File not found” message. As recently as last year, I could joke that I remembered events from thirty years ago more accurately than events from thirty seconds ago. Now that thirty years ago is starting fade, it’s a little scary.


But it’s all grist for the writing mill. Someday I'll write about a character with memory loss. Perhaps a secondary character, like a mother-in-law or an aging, autocratic father, furious with his diminishing faculties. Oh, yeah. I can use this.


7 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

hmmm, I think it was Sherlock Holmes who suffered from migrains and the morphine addiction he acquired trying to relieve them...

I think the physical weaknesses of heroes and heroines make their characters so much more like the rest of us. We can relate to their aches and pains!

9:20 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If your heroine were in pain, Doreen, what would your (one assumes) abundantly desirous hero be feeling? I love conflicting instincts.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

It was Sherlock Holmes. I like how you used pain in your story--using everyday events as fodder for your current work.

I really liked how Julia Quinn used mental illness and its effect on others in "To Sir Philip with Love."

I agree, Pam. A debillitating health issue rarely negatively impacts just the sufferer. So it makes for an interesting story layer with its own black moment.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hey Gang, big wave from the other side of planet (where it is 9am tomorrow, LOL!).

Someone had a blind hero a few years back, and I loved him. I really wish she'd left him blind though. When he becomes sighted again about 3/4 of the way through the book it just ruined it for me.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Kalen: Read that one. :)

2:49 PM  
Blogger Sue A. said...

The blind hero? What was the name of that book or at least the name of the author? Just curious!

2:42 AM  
Anonymous francois said...

I love any mention of a bad back, being a fellow sufferer. The standout line of a Hank Williams documentary was when someone said that he would have taken more advantage of the ladies...if it hadn't been for his bad back. This is a much more evocative lament to me than a lot of his songs!

4:09 AM  

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