When it comes to research – How much is enough?

Tags

, , , , , , ,

This provocative title – for both readers and authors – comes from today’s guest, Katherine Kayne author of debut novel Bound in Flame, described as historical romantic fantasy and set in turn of the century Hawaii. [That’s the turn from 19th to the 20th century.]

Kayne writes: “Old Hawaii was ruled by chiefs and chiefesses called ali‘i. By 1810 the rule of the island chain was consolidated to one man, Kamehameha the Great, later known as King Kamehameha. Once the western notion of a monarchy took hold, Hawaii was ruled by kings, and finally one queen, for eighty years. That is until the islands became caught within the twin coils of international diplomacy and capitalism. In the late 1890s, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group of mostly American businessmen, with military backup from the United States. A kingdom was lost.”

When it comes to research – How much is enough? ~~ by Katherine Kayne

Damn. It happened. I’ve been told these things happen to all authors but still… I’ve been told that this is inevitable when you write historical but here I sit…with a note from a reviewer calling me out on a research point. And double damn, they MIGHT be right.

It’s a minor point, mind you. And the reviewer likes the book anyway. But I am still kerfluffled.

My debut book was just up for pre-order, the ARCs had been out for maybe six weeks when the note arrived. “I like your book very much and I will recommend it.” Relief floods me. Because I’ve been told that early on these things are unpredictable. Dicey even. Sometimes early reviews seem overpopulated with nasty-grams. Then I see the final sentence.

“But” followed by an explanation, polite but firm, of a research point I may have missed.

I know this happens. Sometimes the reviewer is right. More often they are off base at least a bit. Or missing a nuance. Authors possess varying levels of grace in how they handle such events. It is now my moment to determine how much grace I possess.

So here I am, new to the author game, at sixes and sevens. What to do? Yes ladies and gentlemen, I have questions. I pray that all of you have some answers.

Question #1 – How much research is enough? I admit that one of the things I love about writing historical is the thrill of the hunt. The rush of the capture of that nugget (the more obscure the better) the neatly knits up your dangling plot twist. I for one have been known to do a happy dance a la Snoopy upon such discovery. Who hasn’t?

But there is a problem with research. The act itself is without a doubt a most pleasurable distraction from actually writing the book. And provides a comfortable dodge when loved ones ask how the book is going. “I’m still doing the research.

So how do you know when to stop?

Question #2 – How much do you document? One thing I have learned is that there is research and then there is RESEARCH. For me the capitalized variety are the ones I document. Up to this point they have been the things upon which the plot turns or that I think might be questioned or that I know I will never find again. But Is that enough?

Here again I find that there is a time and distraction problem. How to document? Note cards or Scrivener? File folders or Evernote? I unfortunately have never met an office supply I did not like. Or an app. So the research for this current book spans multiple media.

And still, even though I am CONVINCED that the point made by this reviewer is invalid, I can’t prove it if I can’t find the damn thing in the book/app/clipping/folder where it is hiding.

What do you document? And where?

Question #3 – Do you even respond to these things? I follow lots of authors I admire on social media. That means over time I have witnessed a variety of responses to reviews. They range from just ignoring the commentary to responding with detailed citations.

Fortunately this comment came to me in a personal note so responding will be easy. But what if it had been in the body of a review? My author friends with multiple books tell me two things. First, never read your reviews (easier said than done). Then never respond to them (hide my keyboard). My friends tell me readers find it creepy if authors respond. That reviewers have their own community and authors should not intrude.

So how do you defend a research point? Or do you just get over yourself and let it go?

Unfortunately, getting over myself is not my strong suit.

Let me just say this. I have learned enough to know that I am grateful for each and every review I get, even negative ones. The last thing I set out to do was write a bland book. Who does? So every time a reader cares enough to take the time to write a review of the book it’s a win.

But still, my researcher’s heart wants to jump in when it comes to the history. What about you? What do you think? I look forward to any comments you might have.

Many thanks, Katherine. I hope many readers and authors who follow this blog will chime in with their thoughts.

Bound in Flame by Katherine Kayne ~~ Letty Lang is a suffragist of the most fearless kind, with a bullwhip, big plans, and ancient power she doesn’t understand. Will a fast horse and a stubborn man derail her dreams?

Banished to boarding school to tame her wild temper, Leticia Lili‘uokalani Lang sails home to Hawaii, bringing her devotion to animals with her. She’ll be among the first female veterinarians in history—most remarkable in 1909 when women still cannot vote.

With one mad leap into the ocean to save a horse, Letty sets another destiny in motion. She is a mākāhā, a Gate to the healing fires of the land, her beloved ‘aina. Letty must fight to harness the ancient power that lives within her, fueled by her connection to the islands. But the price of power is steep. Her inner flame burns hot—hot enough that her kisses can actually kill, a precarious inconvenience since the horse’s owner, Timothy Rowley, lights another kind of fire.

Can Letty learn to master her power to have a chance at life and love? Or is the danger of the flame too great?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Truth in Historical Story-Telling by Tara Cowan

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Tara Cowan, author of Southern Rain, has been writing novels since she was seventeen. We connected through Instagram where she is @teaandrebellion – now that tells you something about her interests, doesn’t it? Tara is also an attorney and lives in Tennessee.

~~~

We’re all troubled by historical inaccuracy, aren’t we?  A wrong date, a poor retelling of events, a word from the wrong era, a fashion choice three decades too soon… All of these can snap us right out of the world we are trying to create.  I’ll call these “easy fixes” that can be prevented with historical vetting and a great deal of research (even though there’s nothing easy about that at all!).

But you can get all of that right, and still there is a deeper level of accuracy for which we need to strive: our characters’ beliefs about moral or social issues of their era.  For me, this has become one of my greatest struggles as a writer and reader of Historical Fiction.

So much of what our historical characters do or believe can be mind-boggling or even morally wrong to modern eyes.  Slavery is the obvious example from my novel, Southern Rain, and, of course, it takes everything within the modern author not to be heavy-handed with the message, “This is an affront to human dignity!”  But would my Civil War era characters have thought so?  Perhaps on some deep, primal level they would have known it within themselves, but would they have said it?  Unless they were staunch abolitionists, unfortunately, no. If you look at writings from the time, you see a very broad spectrum of beliefs relating to slavery, ranging from “necessary evil” to “positive good” to “bad for the economy” and “a danger to the balance of power.”  You’re wanting so badly for someone to just say that it was demoralizing and inhuman. And you can find those beliefs, but not as often as you would wish, and largely only among staunch moral abolitionists who were considered by their peers a bit radical at the time.  And so you, as the writer, are faced with a choice: tell the story like it would have been or sugar-coat the past?

That seems easy to answer, but it isn’t always.  We fear that the reader will dislike our characters if their beliefs are outdated or wrong.  That if our characters feel indifference on a subject about which they should feel strongly, our readers will turn against them.  The idea also presents itself that our readers will think that our historical characters’ beliefs are our beliefs.  Sometimes we just want to give our characters a break already in what could be a really punishing world.

Think about Lydia Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.  She is engraved on our memories as a flighty girl because everyone in the Regency Era would have said so.  A more modern pen might have taken a more sympathetic look at the full picture (she was young, her father was absent-minded, her mother was driving her to be married, etc.) and ultimately ended on a more forgiving note that really wouldn’t have been accurate to the Regency Era.  Things like this happen all the time in otherwise great books: the characters aren’t as shocked as they would’ve been, the characters don’t take something seriously enough…

I think a lot about a book by Tamera Alexander titled Beyond This Moment. (Spoiler Alert!) The Reconstruction Era heroine gets pregnant, as they would have said then, “out of wedlock.”  And she pays for it over and over and over.  Even in a succeeding book the townspeople haven’t fully forgiven her. When I read the book as a teenager, I hated that town so much.  I thought the author had drawn them too starchy and the repercussions too dramatically to put a nice, happy-ending bow on the story.  Now, of course, I realize that she was just being truthful, and my hat is off to her for that!

I see writers struggling all the time with the choice between sticking with the rules of an era on the one hand and giving their stories a more modern twist on the other. The bold Victorian woman who swears off corsets and goes to college has become so common in literature that the proper, buttoned-up Victorian woman seems to be the anomaly.  And those stories can be great– many of them currently fill my shelves!  However, I do believe we need to be very careful to frame those stories in an accurate way when we’re pushing the boundaries of history.  We need to tell those fabulous stories of women who had amazing scholastic or professional accomplishments because they did exist. We also need to remember that only an extremely small percentage of women was able to go to college in the Nineteenth Century because they were prevented from doing so.

We can make a person a man or woman of his or her time and still give them break-out moments. An example from one of my earlier manuscripts is a perfect Antebellum wife who, for an entire novel, allows her husband’s word to be law in their household.  Then he goes too far, in her estimation, and she absolutely fillets him. Do I think there was precisely that sort of drama in Victorian marriages?  Oh, yes, most definitely.  And I think that female character was quite strong in her own way for taking a look at the rules in place and concocting subtle ways to get around them, as women have done for centuries (even if she wasn’t ready to throw her corset out the window!).

For the most part, I try to stick to accuracies, however distasteful or foreign, of the era without imbuing the story with modern morality and ideas.  In Southern Rain, my otherwise-delightful male lead feels very hurt when his wife says that she wishes she could have the vote so that he would not speak for the both of them.  To us, she’s doing nothing more than wishing to exercise what ought to be her rights.  But to a Victorian husband, that would have been painful to hear, since voting went to the heart of his Victorian head-of-household rights and duties. If he were a modern man, it would have been out of character, but I had to do it.

I fear making it seem like it would have been easy if all of my characters think it’s great that a Nineteenth Century heroine wants to enter what was considered to be the masculine realm.  I fear trivializing the struggle of the enslaved by making all of my characters abolitionists.  We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them?

One of the best examples of a book which accomplishes this is America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie.  The book follows the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, and the authors mention something in the notes about not deviating from what she really would have felt.  She defended her father on matters no one would defend today, while also growing blazingly angry with him on others of which we would have been more forgiving. We see her caught up in Revolutionary fervor in the belief that slavery must and shall end, we see her slap a slave in anger, we see her changing towards complacency when slavery became an economic necessity, and eventually, we see her fighting for abolition as First Lady of Virginia against all odds.  The alternations in her feelings ring so true when you look at the nuances of things that humans do and feel over the course of their lives.  We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it was.  For just a moment, you might be overwhelmed, thinking: I can’t do this. I can’t portray characters who have such odd beliefs!  But you’ll be surprised to find how much is similar in humans across the ages.  We can write characters whom we like, and even admire, who hold beliefs that wouldn’t wash in the modern era.  And we’re missing a great opportunity for exploring the complexities of human nature if we make everyone just as he or she should be. And our readers are very sharp! They know that they are reading a work of both fiction and history, and they know when something rings true.  Readers of Historical Fiction want accuracy, and they want to be transported to another time and place and maybe learn something along the way.  Otherwise, we might as well be writing modern books.  And I, for one, can attest to the joy that Historical Fiction has brought me over the years!  So dig in, find the truth, and tell it boldly!  Happy writing (and reading)!

Many thanks, Tara. Best wishes for Southern Rain and the series that follows. Love the idea of breakout moments.

Southern Rain by Tara Cowan

Charleston, Modern Day:
Adeline Miller, a preservationist, gets a call from a Charleston psychiatrist who wants her to restore his Battery Street mansion to its former glory. Thinking this might be her big break, she relocates to Charleston, moves into the third floor of the mansion, and gets to work. As she begins to discover secrets from the past about the family who once lived there, her future begins to get a lot more complicated than she ever expected.

Charleston, 1859:
Shannon Ravenel, the daughter of wealthy rice planter King Ravenel, is destined to marry into South Carolina’s elite planting class. That conclusion is thrown into question when her brother brings home his friend from the Naval Academy, Massachusetts-bred John Thomas Haley. Love aside, can a planter’s daughter and an abolitionist’s son forge a future in a nation that is ripping apart at the seams, or does fate have other plans for both?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Laudanum and Babies in Jane Austen’s time

Tags

, , , , ,

Molly Greeley author of The Clergyman’s Wife reflects on how those living in Jane Austen’s time coped with their infants. Anyone who’s been involved in an infant’s care will empathize; some might even wish that laudanum was common in our times! Welcome, Molly.

~~~

The first few months of my oldest childs life will no doubt sound achingly familiar to many parents.

My daughter was born with her eyes wide open; I can vividly remember my first glimpse of her as the midwife held her up above my suddenly empty bellyserious dark eyes above the smush of her cheeks, her brow raised and wrinkled in an expression of deep concern. Over the next few weeks, she would continue to express her concern over her new circumstances by crying almost constantly; if I wasnt holding herand even sometimes when I wasshe screamed and screamed with ceaseless energy. She only napped or slept in my arms; nights were a blur of walking and rocking and singing increasingly edgy, clench-jawed versions of lullabies, and my days were devoted to holding her. One of my deepest regrets is that I didn’t appreciate those baby cuddles while they lasted, but with a new mothers severely sleep-deprived, slightly manic certainty, it seemed like my life was never, ever going to belong to me again.

At one point, sitting on the sofa with my sleeping child in my arms, I remember looking dazedly around at the mess my house had become and wondering how on earth parents centuries ago had dealt with this phase of life. Not so much the very wealthyI assumed the well-off could hire wet-nurses for cluster feedings, nannies for general childcare, servants and cooks to ensure the family was fed and their house didnt look like a disaster zone. But what about the poor? Despite the incredible overwhelm I was feeling, I was privileged that the worst that happened as a result of my arms being exclusively my daughters domain for several months was that our house was messier than usual and we ate pizza a lot more often than we used to.

But what about womenbecause, lets face it, it would generally have been women who bore the brunt of childcare work in addition to their other responsibilitieswhose familieswell-being depended on them being able to keep up with their other work, even while there was a screaming newborn to care for as well? Women who had to do the grueling work of washing the laundry by handtheir own, and perhaps otherstaken in to supplement the family income? Who had to haul water, or there would be no water that day; who had livestock to care for, clothing to mend or sew entirely by hand, meals to cook over a fire that had to be kept burning, crops to sow and harvest? What if they had to go to work in a factory? Did they just put their babies down and let them cry it out (and if so, how did they deal with the resulting fraying of their nerves?). Did they (and in my mind, this was a sort of dark joke) drug their babies to keep them quiet?

Years later, when I sat down to write my debut novel The Clergymans Wife, these questions came up again. Set in Regency England, its the story of Charlotte Lucas (of Jane Austens Pride and Prejudice) after her marriage. Because Charlotte in my story has an infant daughter, I spent a lot of time researching how women in that time period balanced the incredible amount of work required simply to survive with the incredible amount of work required to keep a small baby content. What I discovered is probably not news to writers and readers of historical fiction from around this time period; but it was news to me. That half-hysterical mental joke I had with myself about new mothers drugging their babies so they could get on with their other responsibilities was, in fact, a grim reality.

The first name I stumbled upon in my research was Godfreys Cordial, a combination of laudanum (a tincture of opium) and sweet treacle to mask the laudanums bitter taste, which was first sold in the 18th century. Laudanum use itself was widespread among adults, recommended for every sort of ailment from diarrhea to menstrual cramps, but Godfreys Cordial, was one of several concoctions marketed directly to parents and nurses to help quiet their charges when they were fractious or teething, with predictably tragic results. Some children died of overdosethe medicines were unregulated, and amounts of opium could vary from bottle to bottle, so even following the same dosage every time did not guarantee the same amount of opium was administered every timewhile others simply wasted away, too lethargic even to cry when they were hungry. Though concerns were periodically raised over the high rate of infant mortality and though you can still find cartoons lampooning the use of such products for children, it wasnt until the early 20th century that these drugs started to be regulated.

Luckily for baby Louisa in The Clergymans Wife, Charlotte is fortunate enough to have both help with her child and enough money that she neednt turn to medicinal means to keep her daughter quiet while she works (though it should be added that it was not only the poor who turned to such means; nurses of well-off families sometimes used these soothingmedications as well, and the use of both laudanum-based medicines and toxic teething powders was widespread). It is, however, a historical nugget that stuck in my mind even after I finished writing, one that eventually formed the basis for a new novel (currentlygulp!in the editing stages). As with so many other things we discover when we delve into the nitty-gritty of history, facts are sometimes more disturbing than fiction.

Many thanks, Molly. I’m sure Jane Austen fans will be delighted with The Clergyman’s Wife. I’ll never listen to a crying baby in quite the same way! 

The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley ~~ RELEASES DEC 3, 2019 ~~ Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, is the respectable wife of Hunsford’s vicar, and sees to her duties by rote: keeping house, caring for their adorable daughter, visiting parishioners, and patiently tolerating the lectures of her awkward husband and his condescending patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Intelligent, pragmatic, and anxious to escape the shame of spinsterhood, Charlotte chose this life, an inevitable one so socially acceptable that its quietness threatens to overwhelm her. Then she makes the acquaintance of Mr. Travis, a local farmer and tenant of Lady Catherine..

In Mr. Travis’ company, Charlotte feels appreciated, heard, and seen. For the first time in her life, Charlotte begins to understand emotional intimacy and its effect on the heart—and how breakable that heart can be. With her sensible nature confronted, and her own future about to take a turn, Charlotte must now question the role of love and passion in a woman’s life, and whether they truly matter for a clergyman’s wife.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.