History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 July 2007

...imaginary gardens with real toads in them...

The phrase is well known. But the poem it comes from, by Marianne Moore, isn't easy to understand. Because what counts as "real" in a poem anyway, and what's "imaginary" when in the end it's all only words and lines on the page?

And of course there's no way that Moore meant her finely chiseled distinctions to apply to novel-writing, much less to erotic historical romances like mine. But the phrase continues to haunt me, to make me ask myself what it is I think I'm doing.

Because historical romance is also a mix of the real and the imaginary.

Because I think that the question of what's "real" and what's "imaginary" is equally interesting and quirky in our genre.

And because every historical romance writer creates her own witchy mixture of real and imaginary -- from a basic list of ingredients, a little research (or a lot -- hi, hoydens!) and a mysterious original pinch of inspiration or fantasy, wish or dream.

For Regency romance writers the imaginary garden is often Mayfair or the country estate -- each of these spaces having visible geographical boundaries and as well as more abstract ones -- the laws of property and inheritance and also "the rules of gentility" (to borrow the title of my pal Janet Mullany's forthcoming Regency chick-lit).

And so it becomes equally important to us to learn what the real space was like (as in Kalen and Vicki's posts on abodes) and the spaces of action and power as well (as in Mary's on the expansion of the peerage). And to admire the genius with which Jane Austen was able to bring together the physical and the abstract. Though if sometimes it's hard to delineate exactly where the physical beauty of a Pemberley becomes a moral value, we can all agree that it's a great pleasure to dream of inheriting and a deeper pleasure to imagine earning.

Though to be more precise, I think the pleasure of the historical romance fantasy lies somewhere between inheriting and earning -- just like the romantic garden lies somewhere between the physical and the abstract. The beautiful happy-ever-after Eden of romance isn't to be taken for granted or simply accepted as a birthright, and yet romance is rarely about extremes of upward social mobility.

Because with the important exception of Brummell as the self-made arbiter of British taste (and he hardly started from nothing), the fantasy of being completely "self-made" isn't a dominant one in historical romance. When I say that romance is about the fantasy of "earning" the goods, I really mean it's about the fantasy of almost having it all. Love is the missing element that finally connects the dots, fills in the blanks, naturalizes the garden fantasy.

I think that the magic of historical romance is most often found in the deeply satisfying fantasy of learning to actualize one's own inner "natural aristocracy." Think of Mr. Knightley, who is not a knight -- except, as Jane Austen makes abundantly clear, in name and by nature -- educating Emma to be responsible to Miss Bates in his "she is poor" speech. The fantasy is so familiar, the erotics of pedagogy perhaps going back to Heloise and Abelard -- that we might forget that "natural aristocracy" is an oxymoron. (Though when we remember it, we might ask how many other of our cherished fantasies are also oxymorons.)

Clearly, this garden is also a maze and a labyrinth for me. Oh yeah, and with toads -- which for me, I suppose, are the real historical figures I bring in for occasional cameo appearances. In the book I'm working on now, for example, I've got a brief appearance by a fatuous, dandified 24-year-old Benjamin Disraeli -- yup, the same one who grew up to became Queen Victoria's Prime Minister.

Since I first posted about silver fork novels last December I've read maybe a hundred pages of Disraeli's 1826 novel Vivien Grey. It's a tough slog: arch, mannered, ironic and cranky to the point of dispepsia. Although it was an initial success (until the author's real identity was revealed) the manners and details are idiosyncratic and sort of... off. Because it all came from Disraeli's fraught, overheated, social-climbing imagination. As a Jew he wasn't allowed into the garden -- I don't think he saw the inside of Almack's until 8 years later, but the rest is, you know... history.

The toads in my gardens are the creatures you don't expect to find landscaping it after their own visions. I like particularly enjoy finding them in literary rather than political history but I also enjoy the overlaps -- as in the case of Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, who wrote The Marriage of Figaro and also acted as secret envoy for Louis XVI, helping supply money and weapons to the rebels on the American continent (happy belated 4th of July, everybody). And since Beaumarchais was also a notorious lecher, I enjoyed having him make a pass at Marie-Laure in The Bookseller's Daughter.

Real and well-known personages I've brought in for walk-on roles in my books have been William Blake, the Marquis de Sade, and Benjamin Franklin. It goes without saying that I'm particular fascinated by the self-created Disraeli. But I especially love using lesser-known fixers and businessmen rather than more creative figures. The bookseller Isaac-Pierre Rigaud of pre-revolutionary France built up a comfortable living by selling radical philosophy and smutty fiction, smuggled in past the censors and lots of it a challenge to the ancien regime. The silver fork novel publisher Henry Colburn, who also appears in the book I'm writing now, is said to have cleared 20,000 pounds a year (twice as much as Mr. Darcy) by publishing society novels that helped create the Regency's image of itself.

In future posts I'd like to write more about these minor but interesting figures. Because although I enjoy the garden fantasy, it's important to me to know (and perhaps to suggest) that the happy garden of exclusive society was never a static untouched oasis, but something that changed as public opinion did. And that public opinion -- and history as well -- have sometimes been changed by strivers and dreamers and fixers and arrivistes.

So. Readers, do you enjoy meeting real historical figures in historical romance? And how do you authors feel about it?


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Pam, I love reading historical romances that use historical figures, even if only in a minor way. It anchors the book for me in the real (albeit fictional) world of the novel. It's sort of the condiment to the meat of the book. And they don't have to be huge historical personages like Lady Jersey and the other patronesses of Almack's, they can be minor or even just a mention of going to the theatre and seeing the Kembles or Edmund Kean.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love it when they serve a purpose, or they are there to be themselves (esp useful for lesser known people). I find it a bit off-putting when they're used as furniture (e.g. Prinny puts in an appearance for no good reason other than that, well, he’s a fixture; same with Brummell or Lady Jersey), and it really drives me crazy when the author trots them out to do something antithetical to their known character and predilections.

I tend to use the figures of the late 18th century sporting set in my books (no surprise there). I love being able to have a small bit with a fencing champion, prize fighter, jockey, etc. I don’t know if most readers know—or care—that these are real people, not made up characters. In fact, I think it might be best if it’s unclear who was real and who I made up!

9:58 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I enjoy "meeting" them in the books I read and,as a writer, use historical personages when I run across ones that fascinate me -- the French spymaster, Fouche, being the most recent. He is never in a scene but, true to his life, manipulates the story from backstage.

Pam, I was fascinated by your spot on description of historical romance as both fantasy and reality. It often occurs to me that authors of historical novels (esp romance) are building worlds as complicated as any science fiction writer.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I do like seeing historical personages as long as, like Kalen says, they serve a legitimate story purpose and don't behave in ways contradictory to their known character and views.

As for inheriting vs. earning, I think I'm unusual in that as a reader and even more so as a writer I love reading and writing about the extremes of upward social mobility. Heck, that's part of why I thought Ratatouille was Pixar's best in a long time. It was all about the hero succeeding at something he was supposedly born too low to do, after all, and that's my "bulletproof kink." (Bulletproof kink is a term I've seen in fanfic for the type of story you love so much that you'll at least try ANYTHING that fits the pattern.)

One of the now-obscure historical figures I'm especially fond of is Francois Lefebvre, one of Napoleon's marshals. (What, doesn't everyone have a favorite Marshal of France? OK, OK, I admit it. I'm weird.) He was one of several who rose all the way to the top from the ranks, and I read an anecdote about him meeting an aristocrat who boasted of the great deeds of his ancestors. Lefebvre said that was all very well, but he'd rather do his own great deeds and become an ancestor his descendants would boast of. That's my kind of guy, and I'm planning to have him make an appearance in one of my manuscripts as soon as I get a chance.

All that said, the protagonist of my alternate history WIP is an aristocrat. He insisted. I was going to have an Everyman type. But to satisfy my own kink, I'm planning a nice secondary character romance with a blacksmith's son and a viscount's daughter...

10:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It's interesting, elizabeth, what major historical characters the patronesses of Almack's have become to us (though may I take this opportunity to ask if anybody knows if Lady Jersey was still patronessing in 1828, or if not, who was?)

As for Prinny as fixture, Kalen -- I suggest we have a contest on this page someday to see how many fictional secret children of Prinny some energetic romance reader could list...

Mary, I'd love to talk at length with you about how science fiction fits into this mix -- you're making me remember how I began thinking about these issues sometime in the mid-80s when I reviewed Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, not so much sci-fi as dystopian fantasy, and had to think about what it means experientially for a reader to enter a world by learning a new vocabulary and set of rules; I also wrote about cyberpunk during those years. I can also recommend a novel with Fouche as a main character -- Love and Terror, by Alain Jolis. (and hey, does anybody know how to put in diacritical marks on blogger?)

Susan, you go, girl, with your blacksmith.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

It often occurs to me that authors of historical novels (esp romance) are building worlds as complicated as any science fiction writer.

I think it's actually more complicated, as we have to do research and strive to represent something that actually existed, whereas sci-fi and paranormal writers get to make it all up!

1:21 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

One of the reasons why I admire writers of historical fiction and romance is the amount of research writers do, and then the way writers weave all that research seamlessly (hopefully) into the work, so that it doesn't sound like info dump. What do you all think of footnotes in romance and historical fiction? Susan Johnson used to be big on that.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I'm not a footnote fan, because to me they distract from the seamlessness of the narrative experience. I am, however, a BIG fan of author's notes that give more historical background, tell what liberties s/he took with what really happened, give suggested nonfiction reading, etc.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

whereas sci-fi and paranormal writers get to make it all up!

Except for those of us doing alternate history or historical fantasy--we have to do both! I love my WIP, I really do, but if I'd realized just what a worldbuilding AND research task I'd set for myself before I committed to it, I might've told my muse to go away and come back with something different.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Except for those of us doing alternate history or historical fantasy--we have to do both!

Sort of . . . but once you step out of the historical fiction box and into the alternate history box, or the paranormal history box, etc., you gain the ability to change ANY aspect of the past that cramps your plot. You also can’t be criticized for writing an historically impossible plot. It’s like a magic get of jail free card. You need to get enough of the basics right to give the “feel” of the era you’re shooting for, but you can pretty much play fast and loose with the details. I mean, once you allow vampires to marry into the British royal family, or dinosaurs to roam the American Wild West, or dragons to fight in the Peninsular Wars it’s just not historical anymore. It’s fantasy.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I mean, once you allow vampires to marry into the British royal family...it’s just not historical anymore. It’s fantasy.

In some ways I agree with you, Kalen. I mean god knows that in The Slightest Provocation I followed the true chronology of the Home Office provocateur's whereabouts until I bruised my brain.

But I also think that romance fiction is more like fantasy than you would have it -- because everything in those pages must dance to the tune of the meeting, coupling (even if only -- only! -- emotional) and uniting of 2 lives.

The romance writer is like a clockmaker god, winding the universe on a tight mainspring. Everything turns about the small axis of this couple's fortunes; historical details are chosen to be foregrounded or ignored on the basis of it. It's a very very formal fiction, like a set of dance steps. We choose the historical setting for its costumed glamor but also for its familiarity. The aspects of history we choose are those that will shape a macrocosm of the HEA story -- even if (as in TSP) workers haven't gotten to vote or women aren't generally respected, we know that the surrounding story will eventually have its happy, egalitarian ending, one that the h&h have predicted and demonstrated in the microcosm of their story.

Or something like that.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

but once you step out of the historical fiction box and into the alternate history box, or the paranormal history box, etc., you gain the ability to change ANY aspect of the past that cramps your plot.

Well, only within the boundaries of the rules you set for yourself. My alternate history doesn't have dragons, vampires, etc.--I just changed the outcome of one specific event and am letting the consequences flow from there. So, by my own rules, I can't change anything my inciting incident wouldn't have influenced. For example, two of the real historical figures who play a major role have annoyingly large families that I feel like I have to account for, at least to explain why they're NOT accompanied by their band of brothers or chaperoned by their gaggle of aunts. But I can't just make them have smaller families, because there's nothing in my inciting incident that would prevent their parents and grandparents from reproducing.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I just changed the outcome of one specific event and am letting the consequences flow from there.

Counterfactual fiction fascinates me -- one of the best books I read in the last few years is Philip Roth's The Plot Against America -- about what might have happened if Lindbergh, an admirer of Hitler, had been elected president in the 40s. And then there's Steampunk -- cybernetic technology in the 19th century: in Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, which features Byron's mathematician daughter, things turn out much better for Ireland. VERY rule-based stuff; you have to know the real history really well.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

I love weaving real historical characters into my stroies--I *try* to do it seemlessly, so that as Kalen says hopefully you can't tell where the real characters leave off and the fictional begin. I've used Lord Castlereagh several times (because he was Foreign Secretary and the plots of the books in question called for the Foreign Secretary's involvement), Wellington, Lord Fitzroy Somerset (in person in "Dark Angel" and by reference in "Secrets of a Lady), Emily Cowper quite a few times, Lord Palmerston. Harriet and Granville Leveson-Gower, Sir Charles Stuart, lots of others at least by name. it's part for me of anchoring the world I'm creating in historical reality.
Susan, a friend of mine's teenage son asked me who was my favorite of Napoleon's marshals, quite as if it never occurred to him i wouldn't have an answer (I did--Marmont; his is Soult).
Speaking of alternate history, Joan Aiken wrote a fabulous series of young adult books set in an alternate early nineteenth century Britain. There's no magic or paranormal elements, but the Stewarts on on the throne so there's a made up King James IV or V and a made up Prince of Wales and there's a Hanoverian Pretender in Hanover and a series of plots by the Hanoverians which figure in several of the books.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Joan Aiken wrote a fabulous series of young adult books set in an alternate early nineteenth century Britain.

I'll have to try those, along with the Philip Roth that Pam mentioned. (Which sounds a bit similar to Jo Walton's Farthing, which is set in the late 1940's in an England that fought Nazi Germany for a year or two but ultimately made peace with them.)

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

The Joan Aiken books are "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" "Black Hearts in Battersea", "Night Birds on Nantucket", and "The Cuckoo Tree". She wrote more in the series after I was grown up, which I keep meaning to search out and read.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I'm full of admiration for writers who can legitimately introduce real characters into fiction. I find it very intimidating and I don't believe I've ever done it.

One character I'd love to introduce is Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's librettist for the Marriage of Figaro; he had an extraordinary life, which was much, much stranger than fiction (and even stranger than his heavily self-edited autobiography, which, sorry to say, I didn't find that interesting). There's a bio of him that was published recently, The Librettist of Venice, by Rodney Bolt, which is on my TBR list.

And thanks for the mention of my book, Pam!

6:09 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I have always loved historical fiction that gets me into the mind of a famous figure---if an author can do that (in deep POV?) and shed a little light on why the character might have done what they did or made a decision which changed history, I am sooo hooked!

Great post, Pam!

6:30 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

THE LIBRETTIST OF VENICE is a fascinating book, Janet. DaPonte did indeed have an amazing life. All the people he encountered along the way ... Mozart, Casanova ... reads like a Who's Who of the era.

I have to confess that I read more historical fiction and biography than historical romance. That said, I'm all for putting real-life people into a romance novel because it takes the book to another, more sophisticated level -- (that's a very personal comment; When I pick up a novel I'm one of those readers who is more interested in the people themselves than whether they fall in love) as long as the writer has done his or her research.

4:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to post anonymously, but I rarely feel the need to chime in.

I really enjoy the discussions, I’ve only been reading the blog a short time, and I wouldn’t normally post, but I’ve been thinking about the Historical Romance vs. Paranormal/SciFi/Fantasy Romance discussion.

It seems to me that all Romance is Fantasy. If any of the things that
happen in any kind Romance were common then there would be no need for Romance to be written. The question of who is working harder seems useless and without merit.

The effort that goes in to research to make certain of the finest point of realism in a historical novel is rendered fantasy by the sheer fact
that the detail is then used to enhance the believability of a character that never existed in the first place.

As with all writers, the details only help those who write well and
distract from the story when the writer is not skilled enough to blend the details gracefully. The quality of the world building in both cases is the power of the storytelling. To contort the past to fit your needs with such elegance that your fiction becomes reality or to create a fictional world of such solidity that causes the reader no pause, nor breaks the flow of believability, these are rare and powerful skills in any writer’s arsenal.

For every time I have rolled my eyes at some poorly created fantasy or
paranormal plot disaster, or ridiculous last-minute save-the-day,magic “get out of jail free card”, I can cite an equally distressing historical blooper, that shows all the same lack of craftsmanship and

In the end it is not “what is easier,” because anyone who writes
will tell you that whatever you are writing it is not easy. It is the skill, passion and conviction of the storyteller that makes a great story.

Read what subject matter you like, but if you must critique talk about
skill, what works to progress the story or stops it dead. Try to refrain from who’s subject is the most difficult, it shows a lack of respect for the craft that we all strive to be worthy of.

--A Writer and Reader

8:23 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If any of the things that
happen in any kind of Romance were common then there would be no need for Romance to be written.

Well put, anon, and I agree with the thought as well. Reality and story are not the same thing -- reality is complex and multivalent as the weather. We pick and choose, slice and dice, in order to make it a story.

2:16 PM  

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