History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 April 2013

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in

I'm working on the second book in my Lively St. Lemeston series, Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], and I just did something that I've done before, that I'll probably do again, and that I always feel conflicted about:

I'm stealing a story. I'm taking something that happened to a real person, and giving it to my heroine. In this case, it's this anecdote, cited in a footnote of Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England, concerning “treating,” or the practice of patrons providing free food and drink for electors prior to a poll.

I had a vague recollection of this anecdote...he ran out of ale, so he opened up his expensive French brandy? I couldn't remember where I'd seen it, but I thought I might have posted it on my blog. After backreading for half an hour, I almost gave up. I don't need the real anecdote, I thought. It's fiction. Maybe I can improve on it, make it even better than the real thing.

Then I found the real thing. There is no improving on this. This is perfection. Unless it's apocryphal and someone's already improved on it! Who knows? Either way, I covet the glory of this anecdote for myself, and I will take it.

At the 1768 Northampton contest, the Earl of Halifax exhausted his store of mature port and turned in desperation to his choicest claret, whereupon the “rabble” deserted his side and joined the forces of the Earl of Northampton, “turning up their noses and vying ‘never to vote in the interest of a man who gave them sour port to drink.’”

In Crimson Joy, this happened to my heroine's grandfather. 

But I feel guilty. I feel like I'm cheating the Earl of Halifax somehow, or something. 

There's a similar piece of theft, of stealing directly from real life because nothing could possibly be more dramatic than the plain truth, in Sweet Disorder. 

In Life in Wellington's Army, Antony Brett-Jones devotes a bloodcurdling chapter to "The Wounded and Sick." One sentence wouldn't let me go: "From the windows of one convent amputated arms and legs were flung down into a square among wounded soldiers who lay waiting their turn to go before the surgeons, if they lived long enough."

I moved that to the aftermath of Badajoz and took it for my ex-officer hero (who didn't undergo an amputation but does have a limp and some chronic pain). Because I couldn't resist.

Who, exactly, am I stealing from? What are the possible negative consequences, to anyone, of moving a real event slightly in space and time? I don't really know. Sometimes I do genuinely, firmly oppose tweaking history for a story: when it covers up or simplifies injustice, and/or when it might be hurtful to people alive today. I made three tumblr posts on the subject just last week, one about Nazis and Captain America, and two about lobotomies

None of that really applies in these cases. But I can't avoid a lingering sense of unease, as if I'm picking history's pocket.

What do you think?

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Blogger Elena Greene said...

I think this is more of an inspiration, like using an item for collage, especially if you're not messing with history in a major way.

Maybe I'm just assuaging my own guilt because I've done this, too. When I was reading about the Lake District and read about someone during the Regency finding a stone circle on his property, I knew my hero had to have one, too.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Erika Correntin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Erika Correntin said...

Something similar happens to me when I do my research for a book I'm currently writing T.T for me, the conflict lays primarily over the fact that history is -at its heart- about people and their sufferings, and taking accounts of someone's exploits and anecdotes in any way feels a little too much like betraying their confidences... but then I think to myself: I am human, as were they, and human experience IS universal, their suffering and love and happenings(the remarkable ones and the ordinary too)are shared in some ways with all mankind, and it helps build everyone's identity in a weird way. Much like when one studies ones country history, even though your family probably wasn't around you always think of it as yours, and I don't think that's wrong at all. So I made up a rule: if it isn't going to scar for life any descendants, if the deceased would probably approve of the retelling of that event and if it's done respectfully and not about something "shameful" then I'll consider using it.

I also think an important factor is how much time has passed, so modern and contemporary history feels so much closer than, say, the 3rd century BC.

PS: sorry if my english is less than perfect, I´m busy studying and this is my "leisure time" so I can't proofread this :(


9:00 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Stealing from history is just another way of saying you find inspiration there and incorporate into your books to make them richer. Pretty much all my books have a real person or event behind them that inspired me to create a story of my own. I think this is the BEST way to write historical fiction.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Ugh, sorry for the delay, this ended up being a ridiculous week! Thank you guys all so much for your thoughtful responses. Elena--wow, who could resist a stone circle? (...and, now I'm trying not to make a joke about the size of your hero's stones. I mean, I was initially going to totally innocently ask about the size of his stones, and then I realized how incredibly dirty that sounds...)

Erika--I love that, that it feels like betraying a confidence, but that if it's done respectfully, it can help build everyone's identity in a weird way.

Much like when one studies ones country history, even though your family probably wasn't around you always think of it as yours

That's so funny you should say that--it's so true, although I sometimes have the opposite problem that I want to disclaim the sketchier parts of US history by saying "My family wasn't even here!" and then I have to remember that I'm still complicit if I'm benefitting from the results, which I usually am. Also, I feel like I've gotten proprietary in that way about BRITISH history through studying it so much--I have to firmly resist the instinct to say "we" talking about it even though my family has NEVER lived in England at ALL except for one random cousin.

Isobel--thank you! That's very reassuring to hear. :)

7:38 PM  

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