History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

08 November 2006

A Sordid Confession

All right. Here’s my confession. I am not obsessed with research. I don’t love it. I don’t stay awake at night thinking about it. I rarely even go to museums, but that may have more to do with my location than anything. I lurved the Smithsonian when we went to D.C., but here in Salt Lake city there are lots of "pioneer" museums and not much else!

I’ve never been to England (not for lack of wanting.) I don’t have a giant map of Victorian London. I don’t own many original sources. And I don't participate in reenactments, though I do love a good renaissance fair. I guess some of us like our history punctuated with cries of "Have a taste of the king's salty balls!"

As for writing and research. . . Ahem. Ready for this? The truth is that I don’t do a lot of research before I write a book. Only if I need to establish location or whether the plot is feasible. I just start writing. This is what it looks like: "The COACH turned the corner, and Emma stared out the window, barely noticing the bustle of XXX Street. She was too busy wondering what Lord BLANK had said to Somerhart. If he’d mentioned her time in CHESHIRE, she was doomed."

Everything in caps still needs to be researched, and I’ll do all that when I’m done with the book. If it’s something that affects the story then, of course, I need to resolve it right away. So I hit the internet. If I can’t find something reliable there (oftentimes the info is clearly from one source and is just repeated over and over), then I hit the books.

Here is a typical moment of study for me: Oooo, a game called Brag is probably the precursor to poker. This is perfect. My heroine would love a game that involved bluffing! I wonder if—Hey! Barack Obama is on Oprah! *click* In short, I love research only so long as I am fascinated and titillated by it. Now that may be true for a lot of you, but I think I need things to be much more metallic and shiny to hold my interest.

Don’t get me wrong. I do my best to get things right. I won’t just say, "Well, that truth doesn’t match my story, so I’ll ignore it." I've even been told I have a great "historical voice". But I research what I need to know, and then I’m done. I don't absorb thousands of details that will never make it into a book, and I get the feeling this is not true for most of you here!

I love history, but I love it in context. I love research books like Courtesans (Katie Hickman) that mix in all kinds of details of women’s lives. I love historical fiction as long as it’s engaging and not the least bit dry. In short, I am intellectually immature.

Surely there are others like me out there? Will anyone else admit to it? And which of you Hoydens have I sent into apoplexy?


Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hah! Vicki, I do exactly the same things! I write sentences like "He turned the corner and found he'd arrived on XXXX street, five blocks from the XXX buildling..." and then I go to the internet to look up the old city, the old building etc.

I don't own many primary refs, a lot of old vet books and horse ref books, but not much else. I do like a good faire, too. But lately, I find myself a little annoyed with people who show up in halloween-like costumes in modern fabrics. Maybe I am more of a purist than I thought...

I love historical details, but like you---when I'm writing, my first mission is to get the story down. If I stopped and looked up facts everytime I needed to, I'd never finish. I've always wondered if that's part of the reason "literary" historical fiction writers take years to write a book. The author of The Crimson and the Petal White" spoke at Keplers and said it took him seven years to write that book. I loved the book and it won praise for Victorian authenticity, but seven years? Gulp. I aim for at least a book a year...guess I'll never be a guest author signing at Keplers. ;-)


8:43 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Never apoplexy, darling. But I will admit I’m kind of the direct opposite . . . I love research. In fact, I think I would have to say research is my first love, writing novels is only a close second.

My world/house/life is filled with research books. And I have something akin to a photographic memory (I might not remember the actual detail, but I always know which book—and sometimes even which section or page—the information I want is in). I’ll make an admission here, during the month of October I bought 27 research books. I think I need an intervention. When in the hell am I going to read 27 non-fiction titles? And you know I’m just going to keep buying . . .

I’m just learning to skip over details that aren’t important to the plot. I had a CP a year or two ago who did this with abandon. She had tags all over her manuscripts ****look up how to restore paintings and insert details of her job***. My jaw dropped. I could never have written that and blithefully moved on to the next scene. Never. I’m still not sure I could skip over something large, but I have learned to skip over little details ***who won the St. Ledger in 1789*** and fill in that kind of stuff during revisions. I like to highlight this bits with a comment in WORD so I can find them easily later on.

8:51 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

But lately, I find myself a little annoyed with people who show up in halloween-like costumes in modern fabrics.

Oh, I get that. It's like, Hey, I spent XX dollars to get in here and you're wearing shiny synthetics? Come on, now. At least put on some stays!

And I loved The Crimson Petal and the White! But seven years? Hooo doggie.

Tonda, I'm glad to hear you're not ashamed of me. . . and you clearly need help. *grin* I told my husband that I'm beginning to think you may be independently wealthy! I'd suggest that you open a store, but I'm sure you couldn't part with even one page.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Not independently wealthy, just single and child-free (and instead of having a shoe fetish I have a book fetish). My girlfriends spend their play money on designer purses and eating out at Michael Mina’s. I spend mine on books. It’s an inherited malady. Every generation in my family has at least one book hoarder (when I’m old I won’t be the crazy cat lady, I’ll be the crazy book lady).

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Mary Blayney said...

Fascinating differences in how we pursue THE END. Though I think we all care about historical context and that is the core value that brought us together, right?

If we are making a confession, I think I must be somewhere in between Vicki and Kalen when it comes to love of research. I can get completely lost in books on art and architecture, and clothes, but usually do no more than skim the political side of things so I get the details right.

The word (research)is scattered throughout any manuscript and is my word find for details I have to study more -- just details though. The big elements have to be solid before I can go on.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Cathy Writes Romance said...


It sounds as if I may absorb a little more research than you, but I confess to not living to do research. I'm not THAT into history. I love certain aspects of historical research, mostly around architecture.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Diane Perkins said...

I'm in the stop and research right now category and it is a pain sometimes to spend half a day on some piddling detail. I'm trying to (hyperventilating here) just let it go and move on.

I have the same book disease Kalen is blessed with (cursed with?) and I think we have infected each other with the casual mention of a "good research book" (quick! get me to abebooks.com Now!)Unlike Kalen, however, my memory is more sieve-like and I'm disorganized enough to spend another half day looking for the darn book that I think has that obscure detail in it.

I am surprised I love the history as much as I do. I love knowing about the Regency time period. When I started, I didn't know I would feel this way. I delve into the books more to feed my idea pool though, which tends to dangerously run dry.I'm more likely to read the book first then get the story idea, then research as I go along.

My idea for The Wagering Widow came from The Courtesans, Victoria! Loved that book.

I also LOVED Beau Brummell by Ian Kelly. And it kills me that the American edition was shorter than the English one.


12:39 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Yes, Diane, curse you! I find my main problem with being such a research slut (as my sister likes to call me) is that all that information is just THERE in my stupid head when I'm trying to relax and just be a reader.

It's really annoying when I'm reading along and suddenly some nitpicky detail is wrong and I'm jerked out of the story, "Oh no he didn't." And once I’m yanked out it’s hard to get back in.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't like to be wrong on details, but I'm usually satisfied when I get enough to suggest a certain depth of verisimilitude. I love this quote from J.M. Coetzee's ELIZABETH COSTELLO, quoting from ROBINSON CRUSOE:

"Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. 'I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them,' says he, 'except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.' Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and have become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes."

If I can find a few of the right hats and caps and shoes to signify a historical home for my made-up people and plot, I can get on with the work of writing (and I also think there's a lesson here for the erotic part of the writing).

2:37 PM  
Blogger jennifer echols said...


(I am Vicki's critique partner and she is about to send me a manuscript with a lot of capitals.)

4:33 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

suddenly some nitpicky detail is wrong and I'm jerked out of the story, "Oh no he didn't." And once I’m yanked out it’s hard to get back in.

This is exactly what I'm trying to avoid, though I'm not saying I'll succeed!

All of my research is done just to avoid tainting the story with inaccuracies. Then I'm done. That's what works for me, and I'm relieved to see I'm not as far from some others as I'd feared. Kathrynn, it's so funny that our manuscripts look the same!

Of course, I don't consider reading Jane Austen or Crimson Petal as research, per se. I enjoy it too much. I'm thinking a lot of you feel the same way about costume construction or reading political treatise!

Thanks for not kicking me out of the club!

4:37 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...



Ha! I'm so glad you stopped by!

4:40 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Loved that quote, Pam. I'd never heard it and it's wonderful. Yes, you never, ever want a reader to pick up on the fact that you spent two months researching ships' logs. *g* Our skill is making it look effortless!

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You had me at I am not obsessed with reasearch!

7:30 PM  
Blogger Denise Patrick said...

As much as I love history, I'm closer to you than Elizabeth on this one, Victoria. I prefer reading about the big historical picture and a little bit about everyday life. As my family would say, I know just enough to be dangerous!
And, because I'm not a pioneer person (I admit, American history does little for me), I have to leave the state occasionally to get my history fix.

8:41 AM  

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