History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

04 November 2008

History with a Side of Banana Creme Pie

You’ve heard it said that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s not just stranger; it’s funnier. Nothing beats the historical record for sheer slapstick.


Back in my dissertation writing days, my research was enlivened by more than a few instances of the human tendency towards unintentional comedy. My dissertation was meant to be about Royalist intrigues during the latter half of the English Civil Wars, all very serious and scholarly, jam-packed with footnotes designed to serve as a cure for any bout of insomnia. After a few months in the archives, my serious, scholarly dissertation was beginning to sound more like a Mel Brooks movie. It wasn't just that I was getting slap-happy after six months of squinting at some of the less legible examples of seventeenth century penmanship. Really. No amount of slap-happiness or overcaffeination could compete with the actual historical record for sheer ridiculousness. All I had to do was transcribe it.

There are too many stories for this post (including the Duke of York running around London dressed as a rather pretty girl, and a bunch of Parliamentarian officers detailed to catch a Royalist spy being diverted by a strategically opened jewel box and charging off in the wrong direction, like bulls after a red cape), but my absolute favorite Royalist blooper involved Charles I getting stuck in a window. Yes, stuck. Legs sticking out behind him and all. Who even needs scriptwriters with material like this? There was a fleet horse waiting below and a ship anchored off the coast, waiting to whisk him off to France. All Charles needed to do was wriggle out the window. His faithful attendant suggested that the bars might be a bit too narrow for the royal shoulders and some filing might be in order. Charles waved the suggestion aside, saying, no, no, he could fit through perfectly well. He couldn’t. Had the royal shoulders been a few inches narrower, Charles might have made it to France, his head would have remained on its shoulders, and instead of the Interregnum and Restoration… who knows what might have happened? But, no. By the time Charles was extricated from the window frame, with much tugging and ye olde profanitie, the ship had sailed and the moment was lost, comedy and tragedy all in one.

Over the past few weeks, my research has revolved around those swashbuckling men of the sea, the privateers of the late seventeenth century. After reading about them for a bit, they’ve come to seem less buccaneering than bungling. Among other stories I’ve stumbled across so far, we have a pack of mutineers who attempted to murder their officers with their eating knives. You can imagine how that went. Having failed in their first attempt, the mutineers tried to shoot the officers, but the accuracy of their weapons being dubious and their powder rather damp, that didn’t go so well either. In the end, the resolute band of rebels finally resorted to just hauling the officers over the side, relying on the sea to take care of what their own skill could not accomplish. You have to give them points for persistence, if nothing else. Of course, it wasn’t just the rovers who were delightfully dim. Another tale—which may have to make it into my book—involved the captain of a merchant ship who blithely gave away all the details of his ship’s sailing schedule, cargo, and lack of adequate defenses to a pirate captain—a pirate captain with whom he had gone drinking before, no less. But with an assumed name, an assumed identity, and a funny hat, the pirate captain managed to pull one over on the trusting merchant, convincing him that he was an out of work sailor looking for an employment on a likely vessel. You can guess what happened to that ship. Never trust a man claiming to be a shipwrecked seaman from Bruges.

Authors, have you encountered similar instances of unintentional comedy in your own researches? And, readers, if you came across instances like these in books, would you assume that the author was playing fast and loose with history?

4 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, this is laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe a book on famous royal bloopers can't be far behind!

Perhaps a couple of years ago I might have thought that "the author was playing fast and loose with history" but all my research on royal affairs and royal marriages has yielded several marvelously absurd anecdotal nuggets.

I have long believed that the true stories are oftener far more imaginative and compelling than attempts to fictionalize them. I've blogged about that here, as I was researching and writing ROYAL AFFAIRS. For example, the story of the real Mary Boleyn is far juicier than the recent fictional and film versions of her life; and I'll take the hijinx of the real Tudors over Showtime's pathetic representations any day of the year!

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Lauren Willig said...

I love hearing about your "Royal Affairs" research, Amanda! The stories you turned up for that are just priceless.

Of course, after I posted my post, I came across yet another fabulous story: a group of inebriated French pirates who tried twenty times to board the same Spanish ship, but were so blotto that they just couldn't do it. After the fifteenth or so try, you have to imagine that the defenders were standing there with their elbows propped against the rail, examining their fingernails and stifling yawns.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fascinating and fun post, Lauren! I love finding things like this in research. I haven't come across anything as fun as Charles II getting stuck in a window. My mom and I wrote a traditional Regency about the trial in which the the new King George IV attempted to divorce his wife, Queen Caroline. The secret investigations, the evidence of the bedsheets, the witness who suddenly could not recall their testimony, are truly stranger than anything I could imagine making up. That's why I love historical notes--to explain just how much of one's seemingly fanciful plot is grounded in fact.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oh, some of the Prinny/Caroline stuff is truly fabulous! One of the witnesses recalled riding past her coach (at what speed, one wonders) and catching a glimpse of her hand on her lover Bergami's [exposed] private parts, and his hand on hers.

Lauren, the saga of the squiffy French pirates is a hoot that definitely deserves to be immortalized!

8:32 PM  

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