History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 May 2007


I've got an area on my website called Errata and Outtakes, where I periodically make myself an honest woman by fessing up to any historical error I or others find in my books.

And I'm overdue for a new entry -- the howler in question being from Almost a Gentleman, It's in the words of the pathetic Lord Crashaw, who is touchingly (to my mind, anyway) and hopelessly in love with Phizz Marston, my heroine in disguise. Ruefully envious of my hero (who he thinks also prefers men), Crashaw tells him that:
...after all, you’re one of those rugged, handsome sorts. Vigorous, not at all nancy on the outside: you’re the type no one suspects.... young, rich, got that title that goes back to the Stone Age...
At which point, if you've got better historical chops than I did when I wrote this, lights should be flashing and sirens blaring out an ear-splitting, code-red Anachronism Alert. Because in 1823, no one could or would have said Stone Age. In a world whose history was bounded by the Bible and the classics, the concept of human pre-history simply didn't exist -- and wouldn't for another generation, until the Darwinian revolution in thought.

What I find a bit ironic and more than a bit frustrating, though, was that when I wrote poor Crashaw's lament I was hitting the reference books bigtime. To try to express a reasonable simulacrum of how a secret homosexual might speak to another. And I flatter myself that the period word nancy worked pretty well -- so well that my attention was entirely diverted away from Stone Age.

Well, it's hard enough for a historical writer to remember that in 1823 your hero couldn't just strike a safety match to light his cheroot. But for me what's vastly more difficult is getting a grip on people's vague frames of reference -- the sort of things they wouldn't know thoroughly, but might know enough about to mention, perhaps having picked up reference in their idle reading, or from popular small-talk. In late Victorian times, Lord Crashaw's Stone Age sally might have been very effective indeed.

Or course, I don't want my story choked with arcane or technical knowledge. There's nothing more deadly about the historical novelist who creates contemporary detail by means of musings like, "Ah, Mercator... he'll be a great map-maker someday."

But I do like the occasional dash of hyperbolic speech -- especially, as in the case of poor Crashaw, when it masks intense emotion. Or in The Bookseller's Daughter, when my heroine finds herself thinking there isn't enough oxygen in the small space of the bookshop for herself and my hero. Because in 1783 bookish, free-thinking Marie-Laure could have known that oxygen had been named and understood as a component of air just a few years earlier, by both the French Antoine Lavoisier and the English Joseph Priestley.

As a history hoyden, btw, I can't resist telling you here that neither of these great chemists were done right by history. Priestley had his home and laboratory in Birmingham burned to the ground in 1791 by a "Church and King" mob, for his support of the French Revolution. And in France three years later, Lavoisier (that's him with his wife and scientific partner) was executed by the Terror for having held office as a tax collector before the Revolution.

But as a novelist, I try to keep that kind of information from running roughshod through my books -- or at least to excise it from the second drafts. Still, I have to admit that I always feel the temptation to set a romantic story of personal transformation against the real-life details of political and scientific upheaval.

And I wonder, you writers out there, how you deal with instances of period knowledge while you write your romantic story?

While as for you readers, do you like these bits and scraps of throwaway erudition? When do you think it works and when do you think it doesn't?

And everybody, please let me know about any errors you find in my books, and I'll cheerfully (ok, not so cheerfully) post them on my Errata page.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ah, Mercator... he'll be a great map-maker someday."

That is exactly the kind of thing I hate! Any sort of in-joke that smacks of smugness on the part of the author, reader and characters. I don't mind them making an educated guess, it's psychic powers and foretelling the future that get my goat.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've seen a lot of "cavemen" and "Neanderthals" running around Romancelandia loooooooooong before the discovery of such (announced to the world in 1857). So you're not alone, Pam.

I think it's hard for us to get our brains to backtrack, to lose knowledge which seems so very basic to us now. My editor caught me using "masochistic" in my book. It was in a scene where I'd worked REALLY hard to describe other things in period terms (can't use mesmerized, or hypnotic, damn!) and that very modern “masochistic” just slipped right by me. :::blush:::

9:06 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I got the Mercator thing (though not the exact words) from a historical novel -- and NOT from something as lowbrow as a romance (she said a bit resentfully).

I wonder whether I've ever used "hypnotized," or "hypnotic." I'd know better than to use "mesmerized," but until today I didn't know that hypnotized was "due to Dr. James Braid of Manchester, who in 1842 introduced the term neuro-hypnotism for ‘the state or condition of nervous sleep’, and in 1843 used the shortened form hypnotism, when the context made the sense plain." (Thank you, beloved online OED -- the problem of course, is knowing when to consult it.)

11:52 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oops again. Mesmerism is earlier than hypnotism. Permissable for a character who might have known about Mesmer's experiments in the 1770s.

(Pay no attention to the nerd-lady obsessing behind the curtain).

12:05 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

1829 from mesmerism, borrowed 1802 from Fr. mesmérisme, named for Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), Austrian physician who developed a theory of animal magnetism and a mysterious body fluid which allows one person to hypnotize another. Transf. sense of "enthrall" is first attested 1862. Mesmerism is attested from 1802.


Sadly none of these does anything for my 1780s setting.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You're right, of course, Kalen.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's so hard. I'm constatly consulting my O.E.D., and usually end up with a whole list of words to double-check when I go through the galleys, but I still get tripped up my words/phrases I just don't think to look up. I used "maverick" in one my early Regencies co-wirtten with my mom. In a more recent book, I used "sadist" but did catch it and fix it in the editing process. I'm sure I've made tons of other similar errors I haven't caught.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

You guys are making me worried. I am sure my first book is filled with historical errors, even though I tried hard to catch them . . . .

I think I might have to set up an error report page on my website, too, Pam. Great idea. Sorta therapeutic. Getting them out there makes me feel a little better---absolved for the sin of historical inaccuracy! ;-)

Oh, if those were the least of my worries.

Sign me "Kathrynn Dennis, she who has a 13th century knight dressed in a button down shirt on her first cover." LOL!

9:07 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I agree. Just getting them out there with a mea culpa has got to be good for the soul. I already know of at least two word problems in my book and it's not out till August!!! Yikes.

But I love what Kalen said: "I think it's hard for us to get our brains to backtrack, to lose knowledge which seems so very basic to us now." Exactly. Some things you're just so glad to catch (How the hell is my heroine going to "replay" something in her head?!), and some things just would never, ever occur to you to look up. Mesmerize, for example. Glad I'm waaay out of that restriction in 1843.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Sign me "Kathrynn Dennis, she who has a 13th century knight dressed in a button down shirt on her first cover." LOL!

Kathrynn, you've got to ask for one of those naked heroes next time! Duh.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

How the hell is my heroine going to "replay" something in her head?!

LOL, Vicki -- been there, caught that.

While as for Kathrynn's button-down knight -- yet another reason why the publishers like 'em naked. Before I was published in romance, btw, I fondly assumed that publishers hired some kind of fact-checker person to catch the howlers. Which showed how few romances I'd read back then.

I'm not sure how much the specifics matter, though I know I'll continue to agonize over it, as a way of trying to get beyond the limitations of myself in the here and now.

Ultimately what I want is for my reader to dance to a rhythm set by the alternating stresses of the familiar and the surprising. I want to give her the fun of returning to a familiar historical theme-park locale, and I want to create a few shocks along the way -- like, oh yes things really were different then.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes! to the discussion of the challenge of placing OUR minds in the 19th century mindset (in my case)AND making the character's beliefs acceptable to the reader.

In my current WIP, the hero is a man of science (how I miss scientist -- speaking of words not yet in use) and I have been wondering how he balances his interest in science with his belief in God.

I have been doing some reading and am still not entirely satisfied with how the post-enlightenment man of science viewed the world of religion. Any suggestions where to look further?

As for words, my biggest challenge was finding the right word for "ego" -- have pretty much settled on "pride" -- "masculine pride" since it is usually my hero's problem. And how I wish "normalcy" was an early 19th c word. A copy editor caught that one!

2:14 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I like pride for ego, Mary. Self-regard? I like this quote from Emerson I found in the OED: "This little superfluity of self-regard in the English brain, is one of the secrets of their power."

The religion and science thing's a toughie. Have you read The Lunar Men, by Jenny Uglow, a monumental study (as the subtitle has it) of "Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World" -- Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgwood (with a large supporting cast). It's largely late eighteenth century, pre-romantic, but there's a fair amount of discussion of the different men's approach to religion. I also seem to remember some useful stuff re William Godwin, in William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys. But it's such a big question.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Pam, it is a big question but one that defies time. So the challenge is to put whatever answer I come up with into a regency voice.

I will check into the books you mention,thanks. I may have an answer (for my story) in time for the copy edit.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Aaaaah!!! *runs to cleanse 1812 wip of "mesmerize"* And I'm writing about historical conjurors, too... Bad Jane, bad.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

"ego" and "mesmerize" two of the words I most often start to type!

In some ways I love the challenge of catching these modern phrases and finding a Regency alternative. I must record the words "enthrall" for mesmerize (found that one on etymonline.com) and "self regard" and "pride" for ego.

Thanks, ladies!

7:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love that we're all tortured by the same words. LOL!

Mary, a lot of the "men of science" were atheists during this period. If that doesn't work for your book, then think about the religious scientists today. My grandmother, when confronted with "science" just says, "Isn't God's work marvelous?". She's a deeply religious woman, who took me to every dinosaur museum in the country. She doesn't see any contradiction at all with the Bible and Darwinism (who says "our" day is the same as "God's" day?).

9:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I just returned from a first-time visit to charming Charleston, SC, where of course, I had to make the most of my two and a half days touring everything 18th-century, and in some cases, even earlier. Imagine my dismay when, in the Custom House, a building that dates from 1771, in the upstairs room where President Washington was feted in 1791, there was a Strauss waltz piped in! It was making me nuts, not only because no one waltzed in 1791 America, not even in 1791 England, but STRAUSS?? Couldn't the DAR ladies who run the place have come up with some proper music that would have been contemporary to the period? The guide sounded amazed when she mentioned with a twinkle in her eye that Washington danced with upwards of 200 ladies at the ball given in his honor. Well ... if you've done an English country dance or a reel, you can go through a lot of partners if the ballroom is long enough to accommodate many couples!

Downstairs, there was an audio-animatronic postmaster, also supposedly representing 1771, and the mannequin had a full beard and mustache. "Get me outta here!" I whispered to my new hubby.

So when I read a blooper in an historical novel, depending on the gravity of it, I'll grant the author his or her "oops," even though most of the time we should know better; and alas, our editors and copyeditors rely on us to have done our research -- they won't catch an historical error 99 times out of 100. (it's that 100th editor I can't wait to meet!)

But when the historical societies on whom we historical fiction writers rely to give us the straight scoop goof -- and do so glaringly -- I despair. All that "bad history" being lapped up by kids and their parents, and by us geeky scholarly types who hope to add a great tidbit or snippet of arcana to our novels for verisimilitude. I wanted to put up a "Danger: Bad History Offered Here" sign at Charleston's Old Custom House.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

I absolutely LOVE your columns of arcane information! Right now my verbal challenge is whether in 1167 a child's toy that moves( like a wheeled cart) could be referred to as a "machine?"

5:13 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Lynna. Hmmm, machine... that's so interesting. I mean, in 1187 your characters aren't speaking a modern language... so how do you decide what sounds "period?"

Like Amanda, I've gotten pretty philosophical about bloopers in historical novels (mine and everyone else's), especially since my husband found one in War and Peace (Countess Rostov asks someone to play a nocturne a year or a few years before the form was invented). Which is, however, a far cry from a Strauss waltz in an 18th century setting (yikes).

10:34 PM  

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