Friday, September 12, 2008

Blog Chain - Storyworlds and Authenticity

Time once again for a Blog Chain post. I am skipping ahead of turn a bit, as our wonderful Mary is currently holed up in her house hiding from Hurricane Ike. All our thoughts and prayers with you Mary!! Stay safe! So, just for this round, I will be posting after the incredible Heather, who started this chain. And the adorable Kate will continue the chain after me. Our other blogmates are listed in the roll to the left.

The topic for this round is - How do you as an author choose or create your story-world and give that setting authenticity?

I love this question!!! Choosing my setting is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a story. I write historical fiction, so I need to pick a location, but also a time period. One of the reasons I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in history is because I love getting lost in other times and places. I can’t wait to write a book set in ancient Egypt or Greece, I have ideas for Italy and Russia, I want to delve into the old royal courts and medieval countrysides. I even have a small novella project set in the old American West (not something I ever thought I'd write, but I'm always up for a challenge). I am very partial to England, Ireland, and Scotland, and my first two novels are set in those regions.

Where I set my books sometimes depends on if there is a particular event I am writing around. For example, the story I mentioned a few blog chain posts back, of the girl who escaped an arranged marriage…this took place in England in the late 1100s or early 1200s. So, my location and time period was set for me. Treasured Lies is set in Victorian England, because I wanted my main character to be a clumsy, quirky character that was a little out of place in her refined world. And I needed her to be able to travel by train. So, Victorian England it was. My current novel is set in England in 1665 – why? Because I love that period in time and I wanted to get lost in a world of huge, fluffy dresses, ringlet hairdos, and sword carrying, swash-buckling men.

But in order to get lost in these time periods, and most importantly, in order to suck my reader into the past along with me, the setting needs to be believable. A woman in a huge satin ball gown, walking through the palace of Charles II, had better not have a cell phone ringing in her handbag.

Which brings me to how I give the setting authenticity. The answer…a LOT of research. I research everything, from clothing (down to the undergarments) and weaponry, to money values and housing availability, to who was on the throne and what the political setting was like. In order to make my reader believe that they are really in whatever time period I have chosen, I have to make sure the historical tidbits that I have sprinkled throughout the story are authentic and accurate.

This has made for some interesting emails on my part. I’ve emailed horticulture societies to find out what kind of flowers bloom in January in a certain region of England (not so odd). But, I did once get to ask a bone expert if a body that has been buried for a century would still have any hair (it wouldn't, in most cases). I have researched things as odd as what a laudanum bottle would look like in 1755 England, to when crowbars came into existence and what exactly they were called, to whether or not toilets were commonly used in 1855 England (they weren’t).

Setting a story in the past is a tough job, much tougher than I ever thought possible before I started to write. It is amazing how easily modern phrases and mannerisms make their way into my books. (This is where incredible critique buddies come in!) For Treasured Lies, I would often watch the movie An Ideal Husband in order to get into the Victorian mindset – so I could get the speech patterns and mannerisms in my mind before I began to write. And when I found myself starting to write too “modern,” I would often have to stop for the day until I could get in that old-fashioned mindset again.

But it is an absolute thrill for me to get lost in the past. Which is why what I do. I write historical novels because I can use the knowledge I have been acquiring over the years, indulge my love of research, mix it all up with the stories that are percolating in my head, and get lost in a world that was once real. I choose a place I want to go, a time period I would love to have seen (at least for a short visit) and create the perfect characters to live in them. And it’s a grand adventure every time :D

Next up, as stated earlier, is the fabulous Kate. And don’t forget to head over to Heather’s blog to follow the chain from the beginning!


H. L. Dyer said...

Yay! Great post! I am so excited about this topic.

It is megacool to hear from a writer of historical fiction on this. Awesome email topics... my email box is much less interesting. *snort*

TerriRainer said...

You make a very logical argument about your settings!

I'm afraid I might scare people with MY answer to this post.

I applaud the fact that you received a degree in history...I HATED history in school! In fact, I hate to admit this, but my senior year, I actually failed World History!

I now seriously regret not being interested in history, considering I also write historical romance!

I will be sure and rely on your expertise in the future!

Great post!

:) Terri

Anonymous said...

Great job! I think you should hire yourself out for all the research. I absolutely hate researching, that's why I just can't write historical novels. It's just so much work! But I can see how it would pay off in the long run, and if it's something you like doing then I guess it's not that bad. Good post, Michelle.

Abi said...

I want to be lost in your worlds! I have always enjoyed reading books with historical settings and imagining myself there. I too have had some very interesting email correspondence. Very interesting post. Great job.

Sandra said...

Kudos to you for asking experts for help! I'm so shy about approaching people that I haven't done that--I just stick to what I can find out on my own.

I also like your idea about getting into the right frame of mind before writing about a different era. Music helps with this too.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I'm with Elana - I don't like to do a lot of research! But I am so impressed by people who not only do it, but also are able to weave it so seamlessly into their work!

I also think watching an Ideal Husband to get in the right mindset is so cool! I have to admit while reading Outlander my internal monologue did develop a slight Scottish brogue. Ya ken?

Archetype said...

What wonderfully detailed research! Do you use the internet a lot for your research, or do you use other resources?

My sister does costume design, so I know what it's like to be around someone all immersed in getting the details of the clothing and other similar details correct. It's so neat to watch someone doing that kind of research.

Oh, and your Old West comment made me think of this book series called Writer's Guide to Everyday Life...
There's one called The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West by Candy Moulton. I don't have that one, but I have the one on the 1800s and it's an interesting collection of info...!

celticqueen said...

Kate, your comment made me want to go read Outlander again!! And I just had to laugh because while I am reading them, I swear I do speak with a tiny bit of a Scottish accent :D

And Archy, once upon a time, long long ago, I used to rely mostly on books :) But now I live in a tiny little town, with a tiny little library, and there are just so many incredible sites out there I now do most of my research online. And if there is something I can't find, I find an expert to ask :) And I am definitely going to look up those books!! I make a point to collect books that I think will help me in my writing someday. And I just like to look at them in the meantime :) (I was one of those kids that would read encyclopedias for fun) :D I have several collections of Time Life books for that exact reason :)

And believe me, Sandra, I was terrified the first time I sent an email off! And I don't do it often, but sometimes, the easiest and best way is to just go to the source :)

Anonymous said...

You were a history major! I have a new resource...Um, I mean, that's wonderful. :)

The intensity of research behind historical fiction always awes and intimidates me.

I enjoyed your post.

celticqueen said...

well for the history, I focused mostly on Europe and Russia - both in school and in private studying for fun :) But I do have a lot of fairly useless knowledge floating around my head, so ask away whenever you want :D I even took a class on silent film in grad school (my masters is in English and it counted as an English class because of all the dynamics it takes to make a film without sound) - it was very interesting. Not sure I'll ever use the info again, but interesting :D

LeahClifford said...

It was really interesting to see this question answered by someone who writes historical. I don't read the genre too much, only because I have a really tiny book budget right now and YA is first this month because that's what I'm writing. I did read Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night a few months ago and was astounded. The writing, the plot? Not so much. The details were just amazing...I mean I was THERE. Honestly, I have total respect for anyone who writes historical. Nice to see what goes on behind the curtain! Great post!