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27 January 2014

Writing from Experience

http://tracygrant.wordpress.com/books/the-paris-plot/
I have small white holiday lights strung along a footbridge leading to my house and wound up into the branches of a tree overhanging the bridge. I turn them on every night over the holidays, but I leave them up all year and turn them on if I give a party or on other special occasions. This year several of the strings had gone out, so one afternoon in December I went out to replace the lights. As I wound the lights around the tree branches, it occurred to me that perhaps I didn't want to climb as high as I had the last time I put the lights up. After all, I'm now a mother. Which, I realized, echoes something Suzanne Rannoch, the heroine of my series. frequently thinks. Of course Suzanne is thinking about going undercover in dangerous situations, stealing coded documents and outwitting enemy agents, not putting up Christmas lights. Still, in that moment I understood exactly how my character felt.

I've always hated the phrase "write what you know." I don't particularly want to write about a 40-something twenty-first century novelist in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've always been drawn to historical settings and my characters tend to live lives of intrigue and adventure quite unlike my own. And yet, as I realized string lights along the bridge, there are definitely ways in which my experiences and emotions make their way into my books. In addition to doing historical research, I draw upon my own experiences and those of my friends, when I create the characters in my books. I did this very consciously in the case of  my new novella, The Paris Plot, in which Suzanne gives birth to her and her husband Malcolm's second child. I wrote the novella after my daughter Mélanie was born, and I wanted to make use on my own experiences.

I've written childbirth scenes before, but it was definitely a different experience to dramatize one having gone through it myself. I used details of my own daughter's birth. The baby's birthday and the timing of the birth. My brief moment of panic once her head was out when I was afraid I wouldn't be able to push her the rest of the way. The wonder of the moment they laid her squirming, blue-tinged body on my chest. And yet Suzanne's situation had distinct differences from my own. She is having her second child not her first, and so unlikely to have the hours of labor and attendant false alarms I did. And, in 1816, she is having the baby at home rather than in a hospital and without an epidural. Fortunately, Suzanne is much tougher than I am :-). And, as one would expect of a child of Suzanne and Malcolm's, the baby's birth is wrapped up in intrigue. Thankfully, I was not required to bash a villain over the head with a candelabrum while in the later stages of labor.

And so writing The Paris Plot was in many ways a microcosm of what we do as historical novelists. Weaving personal experiences with details from historical research and fictional elements from our own imagination to create a story that is hopefully true to the era in which it set while touching on emotions and experiences that are universal. I've always felt that historical fiction says something both about the time in which it set and the time in which it is written, and in a very personal sense, the story of Jessica Rannoch's birth does just that.

What are your favorite childbirth scenes in literature? Writers, how do your personal experiences make their way into your books?

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5 Comments:

Blogger Helena said...

"Weaving personal experiences with details from historical research and fictional elements from our own imagination to create a story that is hopefully true to the era in which it set while touching on emotions and experiences that are universal." This is one of the best descriptions of really 'writing what you know' that I've ever read! I'm so looking forward to this book.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I absolutely think my everyday life (and that of my friends) informs my pages. A silly little example is the presence of the dogs. It's not just that I have them, but that when I'm writing, I am always aware of the pets being present. I often hear writers say they "forgot" about the dog for half the book. I can't imagine doing that. The dogs are just as much in the scene unfolding in my head as the hero and heroine are and they make their presence known in small ways all the time (a tail thumping, a cold nose nudging a hand for a scratch, hoovering up scraps on the floor, etc.).

11:19 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a lovely comment, Helena! Thank you! Writing this post really helped me crystalize some thoughts about the writing process and "writing what you know".

1:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love the dogs in your books, Isobel, and I think that's a great example of how details from one's life inform fiction set in any era. It's funny, I've always had children in my books, and I think I wrote them reasonably well. But now that I have my own child, I'm much more aware of where my protagonists' children are at any point in the story, even if they aren't on the page.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I spend a lot of time watching my friends' kids like I'm on safari. It's tough to nail down what specific ages are like when I'm trying to reach back to memories of my siblings when I was 16-25.

12:22 PM  

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