History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

08 December 2008

Time and Place

Book signings are such an adventure. When I attend one as fan and not as an author, I am introduced to whole new worlds. One of my regular favorites are the signings at Turn the Page Bookstore in Boonsboro, Maryland. The store is owned by Bruce Wilder and managed by his daughter-in-law, Stacie Aufdem-Brinke.

The store focuses on mass market and trade especially romance, science fiction and mystery. Since the store is less than fifteen minutes from the Antietam Battlefield they also have a healthy collection of books related to the Civil War.

At Saturday’s signing I purchased books by Nora Roberts (who is married to Bruce), Gail Barrett, Elaine Fox, Cathy Caskie, and Dolly Nasby. What a range of stories from Nora’s last book in the sign of Seven trilogy, Elaine’s laugh out loud romantic comedy BEDTIME FOR BONSAI, Kathy’s regency set historical TO SIN WITH A STRANGER(just nominated for an RT Reviewers Choice Award), Gail’s latest, a princess in jeopardy silhouette TO PROTECT A RPINCESS) and Dolly’s book of annotated photographs on Gettysburg then and now, entitled simply GETTYSBURG.

Leafing through the Nasby book which I intend as a Christmas gift, I started to think about “then and now” in the context of writing historicals. London is a wonderful example. There are still pockets of the city that can take you back to the Regency and the Tower of London (minus the tourists) is as close as I have ever come to a time travel machine. But the river is completely different and the parliament buildings are not nearly as old as Parliament itself.

In my own neighborhood, the land and what grows on it has changed so dramatically that it would be an egregious historical error to write a book set in 1808 with the landscape of 2008.

Our neighborhood, within sight of the Chesapeake Bay, is filled with tulip poplar trees many of which are over one hundred feet tall and look as though they have been here forever, yet not one of them is more than seventy years old.

At the turn of the century a squirrel could travel from Maine to Carolina and never leave the branches of an American Chestnut tree. A blight destroyed all of the chestnuts by mid-century and the tulip poplar rook over what land that had not been cleared for tobacco farming. Eventually that was abandoned when the acreage was developed as a summer community of rustic log cabins.

There was another major change in the landscape in the early part of this century when the state of Maryland instituted a tobacco buy-out in which they paid framers to stop growing tobacco. Tobacco is a beautiful plant, elegant glossy leaves that cluster in plants that grow between three and four feet. Now the only sign of tobacco farming are the great barns that were used for drying.

How does the lay of the land influence what you write? How important is it to you to know what a city really looked like or how the farm land was used? As a reader do you care? Oh, and do you enjoy books signings – as a reader!


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Provocative post, Mary! Accuracy of place is very important to me as a writer and as a reader. I like to feel that the place is a character in the story, whether it's a city, a landscape, a battlefield, a cathedral, or a drawing room. I can't tell you the number of chick-lit novels I've read which are set in my hometown of NYC in which characters are traveling in the wrong direction on specified streets. Because I know the terrain, the gaffe makes me nuts and takes me straight out of the book. But if someone set a winery somewhere rural, for example and I wasn't familiar with the topography, I might not be bothered by it, unless I had learned that e.g., the location had bad soil for growing grapes.

As a writer I strive for as much accuracy of place as possible, and if I can afford to visit the actual location, I will. That's harder to do when you're writing historical fiction, but there are some places, as you say, where you can find tiny pockets of time gone by that end up informing your work.

I love other writers' booksignings. I'm always interested in how other authors present themselves and their work and how they interact with their audience. I've often been surprised at how badly some writers read their own work, when they read several pages aloud as part of their presentation. And if there's a Q&A afterwards, I love to ask them questions about the business end of the business, or their editorial process, or marketing ... because it invariably solicits responses from the writers as to how they wish their publisher would do more for them and how difficult it is to promote while you're writing, and how much is expected of authors on the promotion end of things these days.

The author whose signing it is doesn't know I'm a writer, and it tickles me to act like a "plant" in support of struggling writers everywhere. I ask the questions I do of those authors because I know that most of the members of the audience are not writers and haven't a clue as to how the publishing business works. When the author answers my questions and opens up about the whole process, the audience comes away from the event with a deeper appreciation of how hard our job is and how multiheaded it is, as well.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Mary! Like Amanda, I think of the setting as a character in the story. It is harder with historical fiction, but I do my best. I've walked London streets or stood in Berkeley Square, mentally editing out the post-Georgian buildings. I have tons of notes and photographs from trips to England and Scotland that I refer to frequently. Period engravings are also great (especially if you can combine a period image of what say, the Burlington Arcade looked like in the 1820s, with actual memories of what it's like today). If I can't visit a setting I'm writing about, I watch movies filmed in that area, pour over picture books, go online (which makes it so much easier than in pre-internet days).

And like Amanda, I love going to book signings as a reader, particularly if the author is reading from her or his work and/or giving a talk and taking questions (I heard Lauren do a fabulous reading and q & a earlier this year). It's so fun to get a glimpse into another writer's thought processes and learn how they plot, develop characters, etc...

4:19 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I tend to think of time and place as a character in the stories I write. I am still in the process of collecting research books and immersing myself in my chosen time period. I lived in England for three years, but I was so young (ages 9-12) that my perspective is a bit odd for what I write. However, if I close my eyes I can capture the rhythm of the small English village where I lived and of the stately homes I visited. As a musician I tend to "see" places in terms of rhythm and tone. It definitely helps when I am trying to create a certain atmosphere. The research books I value the most are those written about the stately homes by people who saw them in the times about which I write. Jewitt's England's Stately Homes is a great example. I acquired the two volume set and it has been a gem of information!

And I LOVE going to book signings as a reader. I so enjoy letting those writers who have inspired me, whose work I love, how much I appreciate what they do. And my personally autographed books are on their own separate book shelf. They usually are only read once, if at all. The end result is that I always buy two copies of the books that are signed with a personalized autograph - one to read and one to keep. Hey, I'm trying to support the business!

5:40 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

One thing I love about living near the Bay Area is how "historical" it can feel. Even though a significant portion of SF burned in the earthquake, it's still a pretty marvelous place to walk around when searching for places to put characters.

Place is of the utmost importance to me: my zillions of maps prove that! I never feel comfortable writing a scene unless I "see" it in my head how it truly looked at the time of my setting. If I have my heroine riding down Piccadilly and she doesn't see Hyde Park, or Devonshire House, what is the point of setting her in London?

It's because of this attention to detail that I scour the web for books on particular sections of a major city, reading the perspectives of different people, the history of the area, and hopefully, a description of the smells and sounds encountered. Places also evoke a certain atmosphere--would the gothics of Daphne Du Maurier, Victoria Holt and the Bronte sisters have been as effective as they were had they been set in Surrey or Kent?

When you think Dickens, you think smoky, gritty London of the mid-19th century. Wilde--hard,glittery London of the 1890s. The backbone of a story is immortal, but a specific anchor (setting) gives it a particular quality--isn't that why so many Heyer enthusiasts find it hard to not be drawn to the Regency era of her creation, and want to play in it as well? Because I find setting so important, I am hard-headed about people who hunker down to read a book and claim to care naught for a detailed sketch of the characters' whereabouts. The story is nothing without a setting.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Fabulous comments -- thank you all -- and for the five of us at least, place is a character. I wrote a book once, a contemporary, set in Juneau, Alaska where I lived for three years and the setting was so much a character that it was one of the complaints the editor made when rejecting it. Same goes for Governors Island in the New York Harbor where I lived for five years. So I guess not everyone care as much about place as we do.

I think it adds credibility to a story. Nora Roberts does a masterful job with place and I know she does not always visit the settings she writes about.

The sense of place that Deanna Raeburn conveys in her Victorian mysteries whether in London or outside of is noteworthy and Shana Abe's fantastical world is beautifully drawn melding as it does with Regency England.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Let me add that I am always blown away when authors seamlessly weave "place" into their novel. In my view, a perfect example of this, almost a textbook study in it is Weber's "The Crimson Petal and the White." The reader comes away with such lush and detailed description woven into the sentences with a technique that dramatists call "indirect narrative." So you never get a straight-on descriptive sentence of place or wardrobe, for instance, as though the author was looking at a photo of what he or she was writing about, or studying a painting or diorama of it in a museum, and then regurgitating what she/he sees onto the page. There are some very popular historical novels where this is done, and I admit that I never believe it. I feel like the author is standing outside the place (or the composition in the scene) and commenting on it, describing clothing and furnishings, even in minute detail, but I never feel as though the author is in that place herself, or has transported me there. I don't want to be watching that "movie"; I want to be in it.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Time and... as I'd put it... space rather than place... are critical to my writing, even (or especially) in the erotic scenes. "Physics for dummies" I call it when I give an erotic writing workshop -- sex makes us more conscious of these things, always in new, surprising, changing ways, and it's one of my life's great pleasures to try to get to this...

As for book-signings, I'm weird this way I guess -- or perhaps I simply come from a different tradition. All the years we were part-owners of a bookstore, we never had signings. Always readings or talks. I want an author's words and voice as well as her hand. Authors signed after they read. So I read and (as you can well imagine) talked and signed too, at my bookparty last month.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

At my "signings" I've always read from my work, followed by a Q&A -- and then signed copies of my books. And I've never attended something that was just a signing; I never even heard of such an animal. Even at the CD signings I've attended (my local Barnes & Noble is across the street from Lincoln Center), the artist has always discussed his or her work, or why they chose to record what was on the CD, etc., before they sit down to sign copies of them.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Louisa, I wish you'd stop mentioning the names of books....I can hardly resist buying them, as Mary well knows.

I love to know as much as I can about place when I'm writing. The biggest challenge for me was the road story in The Vanishing Viscountess, because the setting was constantly changing, but, like Louisa, I tried to remember what the landscape looked like when I'd ridden by some of it on a bus tour in 2005. I tend to use maps a lot, even in London--or especially in London--because I want my characters to move around in the setting in a realistic way.

I now have a new treasure to help me sense setting. Several new prints from around 1829. You can see them at Risky Regencies!

Evangaline mentioned the Bay area and I immediately thought of the Chesapeake Bay! By writing in the Regency I forget that I live in a place also steeped in history. I live down the street from the church where Clara Barton nursed the wounded from the Battle of Bull Run.

About the Turn The Page booksigning. You all have never seen ANYTHING like that signing. And to watch Nora greet each fan like an old friend (which some are!) is a wonderful experience.

7:49 AM  

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