Thursday, July 30, 2009

History v. Perceived History

It's no surprise I have a degree in history. I spent my college career researching details until I could go no further. A proper historian grinds and grinds because we certainly don't want someone saying we are wrong or we didn't find that one glaring detail which would change everything we presented. In academia, that's pretty important. In historical romance?

We try to be as accurate as we can. I've been known to spend days trying to figure out if the word "chandelier" was used in the 18th century. Or if someone living in London would have a water pump in the house or would they need to go to a public pump. As details go, these are pretty sniveling and really shows how a historian type can get bogged down. Most readers aren't going to know and even if they did, it isn't going to affect the story. My new rule of thumb is if I can't find the answer in five minutes, it probably doesn't matter. Unfortunately, I hold other authors to the same standard. If I can find the answer in five minutes, they should have too.

This is where I'm probably unfair. There are details which our society assumes are correct and no one would think to check it (except for me). For example let's take cotton fabric. When we think of cotton we think of cheap material. We think of those old time calicos or the denim jeans we wear. Our undergarments are made of cotton. So wouldn't it make sense that poor or lower class characters would wear cotton? Except that the cotton gin hadn't been invented until 1793. Previous to that, cleaning the cotton from its seeds was a difficult, laborious process there for the fabric was prohibitively expensive. Therefore it was a fabric for the rich.

So is this important? Does it impact a story? No, not really. Not many readers are going to make the connection. There are far worse mistakes to make. And there are some historical facts which can be used where a reader through their perceived sense of history are going to think are dead wrong. I once used a certain swear word in a WIP and got criticized because it was too jarring and certainly couldn't have been used at that time. Sorry folks, it wasn't a cuss word until later in the 19th century. You can find it in court records as a regular ol' descriptive word for intimate relations. Or having an unmarried woman use the title "Mrs." If my heroine is a housekeeper or a professional woman of some respect, she will be called Mrs. no matter her marital status. But most readers won't know that and I would have to spend precious words on an unnecessary infodump.

I think the problem is that worrying about the small stuff can bog down the writing or, and I've read it before, can make the author look like a show off. The amusing thing is, as curmudgeonly as I am about historical accuracy, one of my favorite historical romance authors from the '80's wouldn't have known an accurate historical detail if it bit them on the nose. However I was so engaged in the story and the characters, I had no problem ignoring it. And that's the crux. If the writing is good and entrances the reader, then the small details don't stand out so much. But as writers obsessed with history, where do you draw the line?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Review: The Tory Widow

I've always loved reading novels set during the Revolutionary War. The struggle of a young nation against one of the most powerful armies on Earth makes for a thrilling read.

That's why I was quite excited to pick up Christine Blevins' new novel, The Tory Widow. Set in New York during the early days of the American Revolution, this lush historical novel tells the story of Anne Merrick, a young widow whose elderly husband ran a Tory printing press. After his death, she's struggled to make ends meet, even if it means printing opinions she doesn't agree with - mainly those that support the King of England.

Jack Hampton is a staunch patriot and participates in a raid that ransacks Anne's home. The spark between the two flares to life and Anne becomes involved in the Rebel cause - and opens her long-closed heart to Jack.

From the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord to the occupation of New York by the British, The Tory Widow weaves a complex and intimate story of two people in a tumultuous time who find liberty and love.

What truly struck me about The Tory Widow was the amazing amount of historical detail Blevins included. It literally appeared as though she stepped back into time and sat and recorded all that she saw. I can't imagine the immense amount of research she must have done, but the effort was well worth it. She describes the printing process in fascinating detail and perfectly captures the mannerisms and attitudes of the time.

Jack and Anne are wonderfully complex characters and I thoroughly enjoyed watching their relationship grow. There's a great cast of secondary characters - Titus, a black man who becomes Jack's best friend; Sally, Anne's Scottish maid; David, Anne's brother and an officer in the colonial army and Sally's beau; and even George Washington himself.

This is the first book in a three-book series on the Revolutionary War and I must say, I can't wait until the other two books come out. I was completely swept into this world and am looking forward to what happens next to Jack and Anne.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Blast to the Past

I've been in a little bit of a writing funk. Not a bad one. I'm just tired of what I've been writing. I imagine it happens to everyone. I crave a world different from the one I've been writing in.

So I've been toying around with a historical romance I started awhile back. It's tough to get back into it after spending so much time dedicated to a contemporary world. My voice doesn't change, by my style does. Essentially, I run the words through the "translator" in my head and write them down. Takes longer. I need a dictionary and a thesaurus nearby to find the words and find out if they existed in the time period I'm writing in. Research is tough because I can't make it up as I go along, but honestly, I've done so much research, that really isn't all that hard anymore.

Anyway, I started this blog a long time ago when I was writing historicals and now I've decided to revive it in the hope it helps keep me focused. I'll post tidbits that I find and explore the particular issues that go along with writing the historical novel.

For those of you who are interested either as readers or writers in historical fiction and romance, what issue do you feel are important? Is there something missing you'd like to see? Too much of something?