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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 February 2011

History in the Slow Lane

I’m all happy right now because I just discovered that the Royal Mail from Bath to Bristol in the late eighteenth century took roughly two hours.

It might sound like an odd reason for jubilation (not like I have any letters in that mailbag!)but my plot depends on my heroine being able to reasonably take a day-trip from Bristol to Bath without it being a big, multiple day on the road, let’s-stay-overnight-at-an-inn-and-why-don’t-we-get-you-out-of-those-wet-clothes kind of thing.

Back in my youth, I found geography inconceivably boring. I couldn’t understand why they made us go to the trouble of memorizing those cities and rivers, coloring those boundaries, reciting those counties. History was enthralling, but geography? Blegh. When my former historian father told me that geography was crucial to history, I thought he was crazy. To me, history was personalities. It was kings and queens and scheming courtiers. Geography was lines on a map. Booooring.

Okay, Dad, you were right. I was wrong. History is geography and geography drives history.

As a writer of historical fiction, I find myself aware of and constrained by geography in ways I never would have imagined twenty years ago, when I was confidently telling my father that geography was boooring. In our current era, we’ve grown accustomed to a mind-boggling degree of mobility; in an early nineteenth century novel, travel and information are constrained by the speed of one’s horse and the quality of the road. A trip we dismiss as taking a few minutes might take a few hours. For example, that Bristol/Bath jaunt, which on today’s A4 would take roughly half an hour (discounting traffic) would have been a minimum of two hours for a speedy mail coach in 1785, while the full run from Bristol to London took sixteen hours.

Once we leave the roads, we’re talking even larger distances. Someone recently asked whether I could have the American heroine of my ninth book go back and forth between New York and Paris, since it would be kind of fun to see both places in the book—- to which my answer was that we wouldn’t see much of either, but we’d see a lot of time on board ship. No Jet Blue, no Concorde. The heroine of that book has been living in Paris for a few years and has only the vaguest idea of what life has been like back home in the Hudson Valley; letters that reach her are always already several months out of date. Even farther away, I shipped a bunch of characters off to India for my sixth book. That meant five months at sea, assuming the voyage was accomplished in a timely manner. It also means that any information going in either direction is delayed by five to six months. No email, no phone, no Twitter.

From a plotting standpoint, this means having to think very carefully about where you set your novel and where you take your characters, especially when young ladies are involved. I can get away with sending my heroine on a two hour drive with my hero to Bristol; a multiple day journey with an overnight would have been much harder to explain away. If there is going to be a journey, that journey has to be part of the story or carefully evaded by dispensing with it via ellipses or sticking it in between two chapters (aka “After three days on the road…”). For the purposes of characterization, it provides a salutary reminder of the limitations of our characters’ worlds—where they would have been able to go, what they would have been able to see, in a world before railroads, steamboats, air travel, and the internet.

10 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post and so true about the constraints! In Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game, I originally meant to have Charles's aunt live in Bath, but when I worked out the travel times, I realized I couldn't have Charles and Mélanie on the road for so long with the clock ticking on their son's abduction. So Lady Frances moved to Brighton. For another book, I had the idea of a plot involving the characters actually going to St. Helena and seeing Napoleon until I look at where St. Helena is and how long it would take to sail there and back (which makes sense, considering Napoleon had already escaped from Elba). I spent half a day on Vienna Waltz figuring out which city was the right distance from Vienna for the hero to have traveled there and back in the amount of time I needed him to be gone.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Funny, I was intending to begin this comment "great post and so true" as well.

I do a lot of this kind of math too -- in THE BOOKSELLER'S DAUGHTER, it took my heroine nine days to get from Provence to Paris by stagecoach -- in her seventh month of pregnancy, no less, but that was another kind of plotting math -- for other plot reasons, I wound up giving her toxemia and letting her have the baby a month or so early.

Poor heroine -- what a lousy trip to Paris she had. Cruel author -- but sometimes you need to combine history, geography AND biology.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

I was one of the weird students who loved both history and geography (biology made me almost physically ill LOL) so I've not had the problems ferreting out how long it takes my characters to get from one place to the other in Civil War era America, but having a character be a battlefield nurse? Well, the blood and guts that horrified me in my youth are now fascinating..go figure.

I think as we age, we recognize that the accomplishments of today are built on the horrors of the past, whether that be the length of a trip to India and back to London, or a case of gangrene brought on by lack of surgical sterilization.

Great post and as an aside, I totally devoured both Pink Carnation and Black Tulip and look forward to the rest...Lauren, you have a fan for life!

1:07 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thanks so much, Linda!

Pam, I love the way the realities of your heroine's journey fed into the plot and vice versa.

I find I feel like I write better stories when I roll with the historical constraints rather than trying to fight them. And-- although I know that this will sound a little nuts-- when the pieces all fit together as they sometimes do, it feels like ratification, as if someone were saying, "Okay! This is the way the story was supposed to happen-- go for it!"

1:38 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I love maps, especially old maps. I love the idea of plotting a route through Regency London for my hero to walk from a house where he's had a horrible fight with the heroine to a cemetery some distance away. It was fun to trace the routes he could have taken and then to take him over Waterloo Bridge which, in the year my book is set, was just being finished and would open in a few weeks. I am fascinated by the times and means of getting from London to everywhere else in England. Rather like planning a road trip you only take in your mind.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

For THE SOUTHERN DEVIL, I needed to know how long it would take to ride across Colorado's Sangre de Cristo mountains in 1872 at a certain point. The best passes through those steep mountains have since been carved down for railroads and automobiles. I spent weeks researching the 1872 modes of travel (horses? mules? mixed?) but I still didn't know the exact route. Imagine my joy when I learned bike racers use the ancient routes - and travel at approximately the same speed! Which was exactly what I needed for my plot. I swear I celebrated for days.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

For my historical YA, my heroine had to get from Philadelphia to New York. Well it turns out there was no Penn Station or tunnel yet, so she had to get off the train in NJ, take a ferry across, then take a conveyance up to what was then called Grand Central Depot to continue her journey to upstate NY. Not exactly the 1 1/2 hr ride by Amtrak or the 3 hours by bus that it takes today.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

My second League of Second Son's book (which I think is going to be titled Ripe for Scandal) has MULTIPLE road trips all over England (starts with the abduction of the heroine and ends with a kidnapping of a child). It's been a major headache figuring out the timing of all the trips, esp when I have multiple characters dashing all over the place. And to be perfectly honest, I try to keep it somewhat vague . . . but your info about Brighton to London helps me!!!

9:27 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Lauren, isn't Bristol only something like 12 miles from Bath? I know it's quite close. I remember visiting Bristol from Bath, and it being something like 2 stations away by rail. It is the end of the rail like that stops at Bath, I think, if memory serves.

I always agonize about the math on journeys and getting it right. For the first Marie Antoinette novel, there was a last-minte glitch at the handover or remise on the Rhine, and a barrage of correspondence flew back and forth from this little spot (Kehl) to Vienna. And even though it took Marie Antoinette and her entourage almost 2 weeks to get there because it was like a royal progress where they stopped at numerous towns along the way so she could be welcomed, etc., I had to have a chain of couriers in place for those letters to fly back and forth more or less in a day. I wanted the dates around and of the remise to be accurate, so I might have used my literary license with the couriers and the correspondence.

1:04 PM  

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