History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 March 2008

How Our World Influences Our Writing

The answer to the title question is in your hands! I've thought a lot about it but, to be honest, I am distracted by my deadline.

Tracy wrote a wonderful essay last week about unrest in the England of 1817 and asked us to comment on how much we use what is happening in the world in the books we write.

Her question was fun to answer but as I was typing away I wondered how much what is going on in our world today effects what we write. “Our world” can be defined on so many levels. I thought about those different levels as I considered the subject.

My first thought was the world view we all share through the myopic eye of the media. The easiest one for me to pin down is my writer's response to September 11th. I have close ties to New York, children who live there and friends who died that day. In the long term though I was struck by how life can change in an instant. The first book I wrote after 9/11 – a novella for Kensington – had at its core what happens to a woman when her world is destroyed in a minute and without warning. In Carolyn Morton’s case she was suddenly responsible for a seven-year-old child who was made an orphan by the disastrous riot that led to her parent’s death in revolutionary France.

That story will always be one of my favorites, most probably because I could write with insight and the writing gave me more of the same.

Personally, I think that the increased popularity of the paranormal genre has a lot to do with the way our minds and hearts are trying to deal with terrorism – a culture with a mind set of hatred and murder that most of us cannot understand. The paranormal plays with the concept of the unknowable on a more bearable level and shows us one of two things: that compromise is possible or that we can beat the paranormal and reclaim our lives.

On another level stories come from personal life experience that influences our writing. In my case, the death of a friend, the wedding of our youngest son, the fabulous spiritual insight from our church community – all these have had a significant influence in what I have written and am writing now.

Even more micro are the moments or observations that give birth to a story. It is one of my favorite questions to ask a writer: What was the seminal idea for this book? Here's one of mine: a Christmas gift -- the Admiral Gardiner Shipwreck Coin -- was the object that made me wonder “what if this were magic” and that question became my novella “Poppy’s Coin” in The Bump in the Night anthology.

Would you care to share how the world view influences what you write? On the macro or micro level. And does anyone have an explanation for the increase in the number of romances featuring spies or former spies like the one that I have coming out in October? By the way I began writing this book more than five years ago?


Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

Great topic!

While I think I eventually would've written about the Napoleonic Wars regardless, my desire to do so was strengthened by having a nephew who's served in Iraq and is getting ready for a tour in Afghanistan. Writing about a war that happened 200 years ago sort of frees me to write about warriors without dealing with current political controversies--at least not overtly!

8:43 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes! Perfect example, Susan. Thanks. Care to tell us what the seminal idea for that book is/was?

8:46 AM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

The seminal idea for my first war story was just "I wish I could find something like the Sharpe books, but in a romance," combined with, "I have this character from a previous manuscript who's in an unhappy marriage to a cavalry officer--she could go to Spain with him, and then he could die and she could have adventures with someone better." But my nephew and the other military men in my family influenced my hero and his brothers-in-arms.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Mary! I'm very flattered that my post in any way inspired it :-). The world around me, on both the micro and the macro level, definitely influences my writing, consciously and sub-consciously (sometimes I look back and see influences after a book is finished). I think that fact that I'm the child of Depression-era liberals who was born in the sixties and came of age in the eighties is part of why I'm drawn to write about the Regency, a politically reactionary era following the ferment and upheaval of the late eighteenth century (which is when many of my characters were born or grew up). And like Susan, I find the Peninsular War and the Napoleonic Wars in general a fascinating way to explore issues about fighting in another's country, national self-determination, insurrection, the ambiguities and many sides of a conflict, in ways that are a bit removed from today and yet I think still have thematic resonances with the world we live in.

As to the seminal ideas for my recent books--with "Secrets of a Lady"/"Daughter of the Game," it was looking at two secondary characters in a never-published Regency I wrote with my mom years ago, a girl who was a French agent and a young British diplomat. They almost got married in that book, and I thought, "if these people really did get married, it would be very interesting to see what happened to them in about seven years." With "Beneath a Silent Moon," it was asking myself what events would crystalize Charles's conflict with his father.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Clearly, I was influenced by life these days in these United States when I wrote The Slightest Provocation. My questions had to do with what happens domestically when a nation is threatened from outside. Britain's suspension of habeas corpus clinched it for me.

The idea for The Bookseller's Daughter came from something closer to my personal life. I was reading a study of the book trade in pre-Revolutionary France, which took as one of its case histories a particularly successful (one might also say predatory) bookseller, Monsieur Rigaud. This was a few months before the first Borders opened in San Francisco. My husband and all the other independent booksellers we knew were fearing for their businesses; I comforted myself by dreaming up Rigaud's threadbare competitor, Monsieur Vernet, and his bookish daughter Marie-Laure.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Oh see, I LOVE where ideas come from. Pam that was fascinating -- I have to admit I never would have made the Borders/Booksellers connection in Booksellers Daughter.

Tracy - thanks. I loved Daughter of the Game (GREAT title) and it would be fun to go back and read about Charles and Melanie before they were the main characters.

7:26 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

I love reading where stories come from. Such a little thing - an idea, a song, something you see - and a whole world of possibilities opens up in your imagination.

My novel LOST IN LOVE came from a writing exercise my CP in Arizona was doing in a class she was taking. I was stuck on the book I was writing. She told me to write a story using the words - glittering, cave, journal and soldier. That was it. Just use those words in a story. I wrote the entire chapter of my novel as a result. The rest is history.

My newest is a Gothic Regency and it all came about when I was doing some research on Suffolk, where I lived for 3 years as a child. Dunwich is in Suffolk (of H.P. Lovecraft fame)There were some fabulous photos of Dunwich in the mists. Photos of places that no longer exist because the village has been gradually falling into the sea for over a century.

It also has a situation in it in which one incident changes the lives of everyone who witness it forever. I have a complete understanding of that. Fourteen years ago a state trooper showed up at my door and my life changed forever. My husband was killed by a drunk driver. We buried him on his 33rd birthday. My life has never been the same, but it has not been all bad. Lately it has been very good, but a very different life from what I might have had.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I know that in my case, I tend to draw from my personal life and present surroundings despite writing historical romances with predominantly white British characters. It's because of this that I am both consciously and unconsciously drawn to the questions of race, feminism and politics, and using them within the historical context is "safe" and I also feel it further allows my (future) readers to see that whether folks lived 100, 200 or 300 years ago, the basic questions we raise today existed.

On that note, can I say how creepy it is to discover oil diplomacy and the struggle for mastery in the Middle East existed in the 1900s?

9:49 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Mary, I loved yout post! In addition to looking at where the big themes come from, don't you always marvel at the little details that get dropped into books based on whatever the author is reading or thinking or doing at the time? I always tell people I could never write the same book twice because so much depends on whatever the accidental stimuli are while I'm writing. I remember hearing that Eloisa James put a whole butter churning scene into one of her novels because she was reading the "Little House on the Prairie" series to her daughter at the time and the two just happened to mesh. In my own books, one of the major characters, Lord Vaughn, developed because I was in Vienna the summer I started the book and saw, in a museum, a pair of candlesticks shaped like writhing serpents, and thought, hey, those would be great in the home of a potential villain! And from that random viewing of snake-entwined candlesticks, a whole personality was born. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to my series had I gone to a different museum that day....

9:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Doglady, it's wonderful you've been able to channel the very tragic loss of your husband into your writing.

Lauren, loving Lord Vaughn as I do, I'm very glad you went into that particular museum on that particular day! I'm fascinated by the all the various things that influence the creation of a book in a big ways and small. I think you're so right, not only wouldn't different authors write the same story differently, the same writer would write the premise differently at different times. I once made a list of all the things that had influenced me in writing "Secrets of a Lady," and it included everything from "Murder One" to the "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" :-).

Mary, thank you for the nice words about "Daughter"/"Secrets"! The characters in the unpublished book who inspired Charles and Mélanie Fraser were a bit different, and their back story was different, but I did keep the names Charles and Melanie from the characters in that book and the basic set up was the same.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Acck! I'm late again. I always come late to everything.

This post really resonates with me. Somehow it brings back that 9/11 feeling. It is bittersweet that it was shortly after 9/11 that my friendship with you really began, Mary!

My next book Scandalizing the Ton, due out also in October 2008 (!)was inspired by the intense paparazzi interest in poor Britney Spears and the media furor over poor Anna Nicole Smith. I got to thinking, what if a regency lady was under such media scrutiny?

Susan W, I know my interest in having soldiers for heroes stems from being an Army brat! so I can relate.

7:34 AM  

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