History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 June 2010

Memories Light My Books

Here it is summertime and the days cry out to be enjoyed outside with picnics, barbeques, or an al fresco dinner with family and friends.

Books tell about wonderful moments like these. Frankly, my favorite part of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is Lizzie’s vacation with her aunt and uncle when she discovers D’Arcy’s beautiful home and what kind of man he truly is. Isn’t it always easier to fall in love with somebody during fabulous weather?

Authors pull bits and pieces from their own history to build their stories. Sometimes it’s big themes – like Hemingway’s autobiographical FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – but more often, it’s the little bits of personal interest or family history that enrich a book.

I’m talking about summer and food. But this post was actually inspired by the BBC’s broadcast of Jane Austen’s iPod. She must have adored music to spend so much time copying it out – and then working it into her novels. That casts a richer light on the ball scene in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, for example.

Perfect summer weather always makes me remember my grandmother’s potato salad. Grandmother Elizabeth had only two recipes in her repertoire, both of them handed down through generations of family cooks. Her plum cake is still a staple of our Christmas celebration and my mother’s version had been welcomed on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. (It’s at least a nineteenth century recipe but probably much older.)

According to all her children and grandchildren, Grandmother Elizabeth’s potato salad was the best in the world. She’d produce a tub of it from her Cadillac’s backseat, like a magician snapping his cape to reveal a rabbit, every time the family held a big party outdoors. We could eat buckets of it, together with hot dogs or hamburgers, followed by a magical slice of ice cold watermelon. Heaven on earth. We’re still peeved that none of us inherited the recipe.

But one year, as a Christmas present, Grandmother Elizabeth did give me a historic cookbook – Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, dated 1879. My Swedish great-great-grandmother had used the original after she emigrated to this country. Grandmother Elizabeth and I spent time discussing the oddities of these recipes. Measurements given according to fine china and timing very delicate dishes by meals I’d never heard of, at least as a teenager. Not to mention some of these recipes, like the different kinds of puddings. (I’m still fascinated that they pulled them off in the pre-refrigeration days!)

After that, Grandmother Elizabeth gave me more historic cookbooks, like The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book, and I started studying the subject of food history more closely.

Now this interest spills over into my books. William Donovan made his wedding to Viola an extremely memorable party for the local by providing that rarity of rarity – ham! – in THE IRISH DEVIL’s 1871 Arizona Territory. THE RIVER DEVIL’s villain’s inability to provide a good meal for his passengers, other than breakfast, proved he was a low-down wretch, in terms of 1870’s Missouri river trade. Morgan Evans disassembled a queen of puddings to teach high-spirited Jessamyn obedience in THE SOUTHERN DEVIL, and Rachel Davis used a lemon fork to save herself from rape in THE NORTHERN DEVIL.

And I still desperately want that high-tech, Regency kitchen where the griffin stepped out of a ruby signet ring in BEYOND THE DARK’s “Caught by the Tides…”

I know there’ll be food will play a role in my next historical’s plot. I’ll be thinking about my grandmother while I research and write it, and all the details I’ve learned about my family since then.

I’ll also wonder if some exceptionally rich tidbits made it into other books because their author was passionate about the subject…

What personal interests do you sneak into your novels? Has an author ever surprised you in a book with a factoid that had to come from their heart?

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Blogger Belinda Kroll, YA Victorian Romance said...

"She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain." - Louisa May Alcott

My characters are always reading. I can't help it. My main characters tend to have a personal library, and it is through their reading choices, or decorations of the library, that their love interests gauge them. At least, that's how it is with my latest book.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm with Belinda on that one.

Plus, in my first romance, The Bookseller's Daughter, my heroine's a dreamy, passionate reader while her brother's a pragmatic, activist medical student. It was only when I was well into writing the book that it occurred to me that all my sibs are pragmatic, activist doctors while I'm... well, you know...

10:46 AM  
Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

My characters often sing. I've yet to write a professional singer, but my characters tend to be like me--able to carry a tune and harmonize, and unable to hear singing without joining in.

Also, since I always wanted a horse growing up and never got one, there's usually at least one beautiful horse in my books. So far I've written a hero who breeds Arabians, a protagonist who becomes fond of a plain-looking brown hunter mare (as he begins to mature enough to look beyond the surface of things in general), and an Andalusian mare my heroine's cousin buys while serving in Spain.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Almost everything, LOL! My characters tend to be horse and dog people (or to discover they are during the progression of the book). Little tidbits of my life (or my friends’ lives) creep in all the time. For example, in my upcoming book, there’s a scene where the characters get dive-bombed by Starlings. My graduate advisor (Frances Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame) has serious issues with birds, and her office overlooked a small courtyard that was always full of students being attacked by Starlings. I totally stole her antipathy for them and gave it to my heroine.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh, Belinda, aren't libraries wonderful! What a fabulous way to court somebody. (Wonder what folks would think of mine with the cookbooks sitting next to Weapons 101? LOL)

And, Pam, I know exactly what you mean about the difference between siblings. We could probably do dozens of posts on how real life feeds into our books!

Susanna - I love to sneak music into my books, too, although I've never written a professional. I adore horses but that's a passion indulged from afar, since I'm very allergic to grasses.

Kalen - I want to read the Starlings scene! My dogs were dive-bombed by a pair of mockingbirds once. Alas, the birds couldn't get through the thick Tibetan Terrier fur and the dogs couldn't imagine what the birds were thinking of. I think the dogs won, since the birds couldn't stampede them. But it was a close call.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

What a wonderful, nostalgic post, Diane! I weave elements from my theatre background into my books, particularly in ALL FOR LOVE, where the teenage Mary Robinson, soon to be the toast of Drury Lane, has to audition for theatre managers and acting coaches, one of whom is David Garrick, who did indeed become Mary's mentor. My contemporary novels set in NYC were filled with little personal tidbits and inside jokes, theatrical and otherwise, including yet another audition scene where my actress-temp heroine spent a lunch hour away from her survival job to audition for a famous soap opera, only to be told by the casting director that she was an excellent actress but wasn't "pretty enough" to go on to the next level of auditions, which was an on-camera reading that would be sent out to Hollywood to the producers. The casting director suggests to Alice, my heroine, that she get a nose job, to which Alice replies "Again?"

Sad to say, that exact thing happened to me, though I had a hoot fictionalizing the audition script and mocking all the ludicrous plotlines of popular soaps. And I "got a bit of my own back," as Eliza Doolittle says, with the way I depicted the high and mighty casting director's looks and dorky wardrobe.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

The hedgehog pet in my manuscript The Raven's Heart is a composite of two hedgehogs I had as pets for almost 15 years. Their sweet little faces and their wobbly walk are just too cute not to include in a novel.

The heroine of my current WIP has a penchant for reptiles, which I have had for years. I had quite a menagerie of large snakes and lizards for many years. Gradually as old age took them my collection dwindled and now I am reptile-less, but they are fascinating creatures and I have had fun researching the sort of research being done in herpetology during the Regency.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great, evocative post, Diane! Like Amanda, I love to work theater into my books, whether it's backstage visits (I had a lot of fun with that in "Secrets of a Lady") or characters attending a performance. Any my characters have a habit of quoting Shakespeare. I also love to work in opera and music references (I'm very excited when I go to the opera or symphony and see something that's old enough for me to use in a book). And my love of clothes tends to show up in my books, I think, translated into historical terms. I sometimes amuse myself by imagining which designers my characters would wear if they lived today :-).

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aren't old cookbooks wonderful. I have collected several. Some of my grandmother's recipes just haven't turned out right, but that is mainly because of the measurements (lard the size of an egg in a cookie recipe).
My mother and grandmother had some great recipes, but after my mother died, my step-mother threw out all my mother's recipes and books. My grandmother made the best rice pudding. I think I have finally found an old cookbook with the right recipe in it.
Food is important and it is nice to see it used in stories. It makes them more personal.

7:10 PM  

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