History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 September 2010

Second Time Around

Not so very long ago, an interviewer asked me what I would change if I could go back and do my first book all over again. I laughed, not because it was a silly question, but because, bizarrely, I found myself in the position of doing just that. My publisher was reissuing my first book in mass market paperback and they had just offered me the opportunity to make any changes I felt necessary.


How often does one get to go back and do it all over?

I began writing The Secret History of the Pink Carnation in 2001 as a wee little twenty-four year old grad student (naturally, I thought I was old and wise and sophisticated), finished it in 2003, and saw its release as a hardcover in 2005 as an elderly and jaded law school 2L. It’s 2010 now. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge.

I firmly believe that any work is the product of its circumstances, rooted in a specific place and time. I couldn’t write The Secret History of the Pink Carnation today, any more than the girl I was then could have written the much more cynical Betrayal of the Blood Lily. Read any author’s work and you’ll see marked divergences as she changes and as society changes around her. Are there things I would have done differently about Pink if I were to write it now? Probably. Would I go back in my magical Reissue Time Capsule and change them now? Absolutely not.

Except for one small thing.

Yes, I admit it. Despite all my philosophical convictions, I did go back and change one line. It wasn’t a particularly big or important line—it was what I think of as a throwaway line—but it had been a thorn in my flesh since the book’s publication in 2005. Contemplating the prospect of an evening at Almack’s Assembley Rooms, my hero muses, “The prospect was enough to send anyone into a precipitate decline that would make the consumptive Keats and drugged Coleridge look like strapping specimens of British manhood.”

The line was intended as a deliberate nod to the Blackadder III silly poets episode, Ink and Incapability. (Hello, my name is Lauren, and I’m a Blackadder addict). Sure, I knew that in spring of 1803, Keats was only seven years old, but, hey, people knew this was all tongue in cheek, right? It was a nudge nudge wink wink between me and the reader. Besides, who would care?

You can see the train wreck coming, right? My little throwaway line blew up into a huge internet firestorm as the electronic lines started clacking. Before I knew it, people—who hadn’t read the book—were claiming that my hero had engaged in a whole discussion about Keats, in which, and I quote, he had called Keats a “pantywaist” for refusing to engage in the war effort against Bonaparte. ?!?! (My hero, Lord Richard, would like me to point out that he would never have used the word “pantywaist”. He is deeply offended by the implication and would demand satisfaction if he weren’t currently busy being reissued.)

That experience taught me a cardinal rule of historical fiction writing: no matter how clever you think you’re being, never throw the reader out of the story. It didn’t matter that I’d done it deliberately or that I knew exactly how old Keats was in 1803; the minute I lost the reader’s trust, the game was over. It wasn’t a fun lesson, but it was a valuable one.

And, in the end, I cut the line.

What about you? If you had the chance to go back, what would you change?

6 Comments:

Blogger Audra said...

I was holding my breath the whole time I read this post, wondering what you changed and if I'd have to run out and buy another copy of Pink Carnation... I'm relieved it was one line -- interesting at the response it provoked!

11:29 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'd be happy just to fix the errors that got left in the final edition, even though I'd flagged them for a fix in the copyedits (the heroine's horse's name and the title of the hero's mother; both things that got messed with as we changed the date of the book's setting and bumped the hero up the peerage). *sigh*

Though if I was doing a HUGE rewrite (which I may, once I get my rights back), I'd take out the entire murder subplot that my editor had me put in. *double sigh* I’ve never really like it, and I still get emails about how the book would have been better without it.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post and topic, Lauren! I got to do the same thing when "Daughter of the Game" was reissued as "Secrets of a Lady" and then with "Beneath a Silent Moon." I remember sitting down with trepidation to read the books through, afraid I wouldn't be happy with them. Actually I was pretty happy with how they read and didn't change that much, though I did tweak a few things. One, as I mentioned in my comment on Diane's post yesterday, was the piece of music with a precise chord that always brought tears to Mélanie's eyes. I had struggled over this and after the book was published I saw a production of "The Marriage of Figaro" and decided it should be the Countess's aria "Dove Sono." So I changed that. I made a few other small edits. And I added epilogues (letters from Charles to Mel) to both books, so they'd included new material. Those were fun to write.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh dear, when I get those chances I just go for the garbled sentences. No way to change the huge howler of a historical error that mars THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION (the Marquess would NOT be a magistrate, dammit!).

I didn't make any changes to THE EDGE OF IMPROPRIETY (mass market coming out 5/11). The dress-falling-off-her-back cover (soon to be made public) makes it look like an entirely different book.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Svea ~Muse in the Fog said...

What a way to learn a lesson! It isn't often one has a chance to correct those mistakes that stick with us in the back of our minds. So glad to hear you did not change anything else! Your book was/is exceptional :)

I love how you spoke of the way our situations, surroundings and life experiences constantly change the way we write!

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Lisbeth Eng said...

Hi Lauren,
I totally agree. Historical errors (and other mistakes) can take the reader right out of your story. I blog about this very same issue today (Oct 16) at www.seducedbyhistory.blogspot.com. Do careful research (which you did) and never underestimate the knowledge of your readers.
Now, if anyone finds errors in my recently released World War II romance, IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY, please be gentle and email me privately!
Thanks for an informative post.
Lisbeth

8:39 AM  

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