Friday, October 06, 2006

Research & Writing Historical Novels

On Wednesday, Jaye was kind enough to ask:
"I have a question about research. I've always wanted to tackle an historical. But despite my education, which is heavily history-related, I'm intimidated. Do you research as you go or is there a lot on the front end? Even though it's paranormal, since it's in an historical setting you can't get too crazy with the world building, right?"
Thanks for giving me a blog topic, Jaye. I'm always in need of one.

As for how I combine research and writing my novels, the short answer is: I research as I go.

But that's partly because I've been writing, reading, and watching historical fiction for a long time. So, like you, Jaye, I already have at least a sense of the era.

I know the basics about what the people wear, how they travel about, what conveniences they have and don't have, etc., so when I sit down to write a book set in the past, I have enough information just to be dangerous.

But the fun part comes as I'm writing, because that's when things start to happen. Usually, I have the bare bones of a plot, but not the details. And the details, in my opinion, are what makes a book. And the details are what I research when I'm in the process of writing.

When I have to make decisions--about what someone is wearing in particular, about where a certain house or building is located, about what they might eat at a ball or fete, about a political event that's happening--that's when I do the research for that particular thing. I stop writing and start searching.

I think this works partly because it keeps the whole process from being so intimidating. I don't have to know everything before I start! You can't eat the elephant all in one bite, as one of my bosses used to say--and that's a great mantra for historical research.

For example, in Unmasqued: An Erotic Novel of the Phantom of the Opera, I didn't have the best sense of 1887 Paris. I had enough to start off (I'd read the book, seen the movie), but I didn't have the details.

So when I had Christine and Raoul take a drive through Paris, I had to find out what it might have looked like, and what they might have seen. I was able to answer this question by using three tactics:
  1. Googled "Paris 1887" and got lots of stuff
  2. Looked at paintings of Paris that were done in the late 19th century
  3. Read fiction set during that time period
Paintings particular were helpful to me, because I'm a visual person, and seeing a picture of Paris with the Eiffel Tower just being built gave me an image to work from.

And reading fiction written (and set) during the time in question is really valuable. I can hear how people speak, what words they use, and often get little details that I wouldn't have found otherwise.

So it was fun for me to learn, through this research, that in 1887, the Eiffel Tower was just being built and the Parisians hated it. They thought it was a monstrosity.

And so I found a way to include that little tidbit in the book.

And that brings me to another serendipity about research, and why I do it as I go: it's the gems I find. The little nuggets of detail or information I'm not looking for, but I find accidentally. If I did all the research up front, I may not find these pretty little things.

Here's another example: I'm currently writing the third Gardella Vampire Chronicles book, which opens in Rome. I had to decide where a particular church that is important to the Venators (the vampire hunters) is located.

I guess I didn't really have to exactly identify where the church was, but I wanted to. It gives me a better sense of place, too. So I spent about three hours, literally, poring over a book about Rome and then validating my decision to locate the church of Santo Quirinus in what is called the Borgo.

When I started researching the Borgo, I found a lot of interesting information about that area; details that I included in the setting: that the umbrella makers were relegated to this quarter because the wet silk they used smelled so bad, that rosary makers lived in the Borgo, and I even found a painting of the area.

As to the second part of your question: I don't think that paranormal world-building in a historical setting is any more difficult than it is in contemporary settings. In fact, in some ways it might be easier.

It's a lot of fun to take a historical fact and twist it to fit my world-building. A perfect example occurs in Rises the Night. I introduce John Polidori, who is the author of The Vampyre (the first book that really portrayed vampires as aristocratic, mysterious creatures that lived amid Society).

My research taught me that John Polidori died in 1820, which is the year in which my book is set. How convenient is that? I also learned that there was some mystery surrounding his death. Hmmm.

Some said he died from poison. Others said he died in an accident.

I decided that he died from a totally different reason--related to the world I've built--and made that an event in my book.

So, to sum up, let me just say that for me, as far as research goes, once I have the basic idea of the time period, the research is just for little details. But the little details (hopefully) are what give the book its flavor and color and authenticity, and paint the picture.

I don't use everything I learn. I don't describe my characters' dress every time they come on the scene, or every single carriage or room. I give enough to paint a wide swath, with a few well-placed details, and that usually works to give a good flavor of setting without bogging the book down.

I hope this answers your question, Jaye--at least from my perspective. I'm interested to hear from other historical authors (and contemporary authors, too, because they have research issues too!) how you handle research when it seems so broad, and so intimidating.


Blogger Jaye Wells soliloquized...

Excellent post, Colleen. Thanks for answering my questions.

I approach my contemporary research much the same way. Although they need less research than yours since I've been to the cities I'm writing about and live in the same era.

Now you've got me thinking about historicals again. Perhaps once I finish out the series I'm working on. It seems there's a whole new subgenre of historicals just waiting to be written right now. In the meantime, I can't wait to read your books.

Friday, October 06, 2006 9:50:00 AM  
Blogger Heather Harper soliloquized...

Great post, Colleen! I do not write historicals, but I think your guidlines on research can be applied to contemporaries too.

And don't eat the entire elephant. Gotcha!

Friday, October 06, 2006 9:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Kate soliloquized...

This was an excellent post, very informative. I am writing historical fiction, learning how to do it as I write, and am researching as I go along, although I am pretty steeped in the historical period already through my studies. Robert Harris' Pompeii is a good example of how detail can be added to a ready made plot to try to make the scene authentic. Although for me it was rather too obvious where his sources came from. But to a reader not all that familiar with the writers of that period, it would probably be a very good read!
Sounds like you are very busy writing at the moment Colleen. I hope to find time to read some of your work over the next couple of months!

Friday, October 06, 2006 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Annie soliloquized...

What a terrific post!! I'm not much of a researcher myself; it's something I don't take much joy in doing (which is why I'll never be a writer). It's nice to see someone who enjoys that part of the work.

Friday, October 06, 2006 1:27:00 PM  
Anonymous SciFiChick soliloquized...

Very interesting, it's great to get your perspective.

Friday, October 06, 2006 1:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous soliloquized...

Great post, Colleen. I really have to get my stuff together and start linking to writerly-posts on my writing blog.

Would you agree that it's necessary to know more than you use? I personally think yes.

Friday, October 06, 2006 3:26:00 PM  
Blogger Carl V. soliloquized...

And here I was all set to volunteer to be the person you sent to Paris to research your Phantom book...darn!

Friday, October 06, 2006 5:06:00 PM  
Blogger Alyssa Goodnight soliloquized...

Love the idea to use paintings, Colleen! I definitely Google (who doesn't), but I also like to read books both written and about the era I'm writing in. For me the researach breaks up the writing--gives me a little break now and then.

Sounds like you're having a blast and including all those great little tidbits I love!

Friday, October 06, 2006 5:55:00 PM  

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