History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 November 2006

Research with Elizabeth Rolls

Research and the things we do for it; or, how far are we really prepared to go?

Having read Victoria’s post, I had to laugh. Like Kalen, I’m a research slut. I love it. I love buying research books; my shelves sag with them. Clothes, houses, interiors, furniture, landscapes, flora and fauna. That said, I don’t research every single little detail before I start. Anything that needs checking is put in BOLD.Clothing tends to be left until I have enough questions to spend a few hours answering them. Setting I prefer to do before writing a scene. It helps bring it to life for me – often it can change the emotional flavour of a scene.

We’re all different. We all write different stories, we all have different writing techniques and we obviously all have different attitudes to research, both how to do it and how to apply it. I don’t have a problem with this.

But how much research is enough? And how much is too much?

Diane Gaston once reduced me to hysteria by telling how she got into trouble in the name of research by taking photos in a Special Exhibition at the British Museum.

Wow! Here was an author ready to Risk All for her Regency. And what you might ask was the subject of the Special Exhibition? Er, condoms. Regency-era-risk-management made out of sheep gut, to be secured with little red ribbons. These items were expensive, I am reliably informed, and fully recyclable. One can only shudder at the job description for a Regency valet. I’ve been toying with the idea of a runaway heiress masquerading as a valet for some years now . . .

I was even more impressed when Diane very kindly emailed me the illicit fruits of her foray. My husband was more than slightly startled when he found them lurking in C Drive. So far I haven’t showed them to my mother-in-law, and I’m not planning to ask the local butcher to provide me with some sheep gut for dodgy experiments.

I also drew the line at experimenting with opium for the background to the plot of His Lady Mistress.

But how far do we need to go in the name of research? How much do we need to know as opposed to how much our readers need to know?

In the case of the condoms my editor decided that my readers didn’t need to know at all. Too Much Information. I argued that my readers would want to know that Dominic was responsible about his sex life, but my editor nixed them regardless so they have been banished back to C Drive to await a plot where they will be so vital to the story that Linda can’t expunge them.

And that is the crux of it – the setting of any romance is just that; a setting. Something in which a pearl of great price – the romance – is displayed. In this context historical detail is valuable for the light it can shed on the romance, the plot and/or the characters. Hopefully at least two of those at a time, but certainly the romance. The love story is central to a Regency as much as to any other romance, and in a novella, where word count is tight enough to scare a tick, there’s no room for extraneous detail.

When I was asked to write a Christmas novella I knew enough about historical Christmas traditions to realise I had some work ahead of me. Christmas had to be part of the story and for once I needed a few details before I could start writing. In general I have a character in mind and then have to search for the setting. This time it was the other way round. I had the setting and had to wait for the character. So while I waited for someone to show up I started researching Christmas.

Originally I had in mind that the story would lead up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Once I had the basic story line of the scarred soldier arriving home to find that he was expected to play the role of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, that was how I structured it. Oops! I hadn’t factored in the whole Christmas Season which ends with Twelfth Night on January 6th. I realised my error as soon as I started researching specific customs and had to rethink my plot structure and timeframe.

By then I’d found all sorts of fascinating details. Snapdragon sounded like fun. Traditionally played on Christmas Night, raisins are snatched from a flat dish of flaming brandy. Hmm. Not in this house they aren’t! Still, I could see the potential for my story and even wrote a scene where Pippa is jogged at the crucial moment and her sleeve catches alight.

I knew Christmas trees were Out. But greenery was in. Holly, ivy, rosemary, bay. Remember the Boar’s Head Carol? The boar’s head in hand bear I, bedecked with bays and rosemary! And I pray you my masters be merry! Quod estis in convivio! Ho hum. Boring. How was decorating the house going to be romantic? It might get a brief mention just to set the scene, but no more. And the boar’s head was definitely medieval like the carol. And as for a kissing bough! No fear. Everyone has one of those!

But ice skating! Now there was some potential drama and excitement and a chance for some properly heroic behaviour if the ice broke. That scene was written too. But Dominic and Pippa weren’t co-operating in this. And I just didn’t have the space. There was that play to be rehearsed and performed after all. In the end I realised that the amateur theatricals, which Dominic’s ex-betrothed had arranged to re-snag Dominic, were going to be the thread on which the whole thing hung. Which didn’t leave me much room for extra Christmassy stuff.

Light dawned during a working bee at the kids’ school one morning. Probably because I was breaking my back lugging piles of instant turf around. I knew that the greenery was not brought in until Christmas Eve and that the whole household would have been involved in the decorating. I still didn’t want that kissing bough, but Dominic, damn him! really wanted to kiss Pippa. In the end the decorating scene in the Great Hall became central to Dominic’s realisation of how much Pippa meant to him. Somehow decorating the Hall became very romantic, and I even got the boar’s head in there. Bays, rosemary and all. And a kissing bough – because one of my characters needed it.

Because that’s what a romance is all about – the realisation of two people that they really don’t want to live without each other. Not a whistle stop tour of historical Yuletide customs. Only traditions that supported the story made it onto the page in any detail.

I love doing research. Most of it never reaches the page. Often the end result of research is that I don’t put in something that simply ought not to be there. Like the boar’s head. I really wondered if Dominic could have one on the wall, but apparently wild boar could still be found in Britain (just) until about the end of the 17th century. So I made it a very old, tatty one and if any readers call me on it for being out of period, I’ve got an answer for them.

--Elizabeth Rolls


Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Ho ho. The condom rises again! I must say that research in the British Museum is worth it! This had been a special exhibit and, because I had been told in the Elgin Marbles room that photos in the museum were permitted, I was blithely snapping away, until some British lady told me it wasn't permitted. Not wanting to be a brash American, I went to check and found that photos were not permitted in the special exhibits.
Darn! I had just been about to photo graph some prints of Vauxhall Gardens!
One of the fun parts of researching the Christmas novella was learning about the holiday customs of the time. Greenery, kissing boughs, and Twelfth Night appear in my novella, too. A Twelfth Night Tale written under my Harelquin Historical name, Diane Gaston.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

If you want to see a Regency era condom without risking being banned from a museum click HERE.

From the BBC’s History of the Condom:

Casanova and James Boswell, and condoms - which in those days were used more than once - can be seen in the backgrounds of contemporary paintings, hanging up on hooks to dry, ready for the next excursion.

For the curious, here's how to make a sheep-gut condom, according to a publication in 1824. Soak a sheep's intestine caeca in water for a number of hours, then turn inside out, and macerate them again in weak alkaline, changed every 12 hours. Scrape them carefully to remove the mucous membrane, leaving the peritoneal and muscular coats, and expose them to the vapour of burning brimstone. Then wash them in soap and water, inflate them, dry them and cut to a length of seven to eight inches. Finally, border the open end with a ribbon to tie round the base of the penis, and before use soak the condom in water to make it supple.

Condom shops soon started popping up to sell animal-gut condoms. There was a condom shop run by a Mathijs van Mordechay Cohen in Amsterdam in the 18th Century which sold homemade condoms, and by the middle of the same century the condom trade was flourishing in London.

The two most famous condom sellers were Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins, who produced competing pamphlets to promote their shops, and Mrs Phillips also had a wholesale company on Half Moon Street on the Strand. For those who could not afford the services of Mrs Phillips and Mrs Perkins, Miss Jenny did a roaring trade in washed, second-hand condoms.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Uh, Kalen, there is a yuck factor to responsible regency sex I'd never appreciated before. Thanks...I think. ;-)

Interesting to learn it was sheep gut, not cat gut, that was used.


8:50 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Talk about To Much Information!! (actually I'm copying it for my files post haste)
Just a reminder...the condom was not to protect the woman from pregnancy but to protect the man from "social diseases."
Kalen, your condom looks just like mine! I'll bet it is the same one, all washed out and dried and ready to go.

One more thing. I do not have a condom shop. That's a different Mrs. Perkins!

11:32 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

ROFL, Diane!
You mean you aren't THAT Mrs Perkins? I'm shattered.

All the background stuff is fascinating, isn't it? Not that I put any of that in - it's a great example of the author having all the background info, but not using it directly. That condom does look awfully like one of the ones Diane sent me.

I still don't think I'll ask the butcher for sheep gut though!


1:50 PM  

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