I am delighted to offer a guest post to an author who has just brought out a book entitled ‘An Unsuitable Duchess’, set in the Georgian era. Her name is Kathleen Buckley and as she says in her biographical details on Amazon, she now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico which, compared to her former homes, is warmer than Alaska and drier than Seattle! She had the very good sense to buy a copy of my book The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman a few years back, and I asked her if she would like to explain the process of writing a historical novel. I knew that she has done a Master degree in English literature, but that is not the same as being able to write a period novel…..
God and the Devil are both in the Details: Writing Accurate Historical Fiction
“About four years ago, I set out to write a historical romance set in England in 1740. I had studied a number of 18th century novels, like Smollett’s Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, Richardson’s Pamela, and Clarissa—all five volumes of it. I knew a good deal about 18th century dress and cooking but quickly became aware of gaps in my knowledge. How do you play basset? What did a Lowlands Scots cottage look like? Where in London would a genteel person live?
Writers are often advised not to “waste time” on “too much” research. This may have been good advice forty years ago, when the only source for most information was books, and limited to what was in accessible libraries. But with the Internet, there is no excuse for a Georgian lady to wear lace panties under her high-waisted muslin gown, or for gas street lamps in the 16th century (!). I hardly knew where to look for sheer embarrassment…
What is “too much” now? The Internet led me to The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, as well as N. Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary (1721), John MacDonald’s Travels (Memoirs of an 18th Century Footman), The London Guide (ca. 1782), A Trip from St. James’s to the Royal Exchange (1744), and a plethora of period books, newspapers and magazines, images, and websites featuring period slang, etiquette, and what books and plays were popular in the spring of 1740.
It took three years to write An Unsuitable Duchess (the working title was A Ducal House but the editor made me change it; she said it sounded like a serious historical study), but most of that time was spent in learning how to write a historical romance, a genre I had not previously attempted. When I found myself wondering what Vauxhall Gardens looked like, I stopped writing and used my browser.
And much of my research was useful in the first draft of my next novel, A Cargo of Muskets (The editor will make me change that title, too: “It sounds like a boys’ adventure story!”), completed ten days before An Unsuitable Duchess’s release. I now know how much a Charleville 1717 musket weighs, how many freight wagons would be needed to haul 2500 of them, and how to load one. Granted, I’ll probably never use those things again, but for that book, I did need to know.
Maybe readers don’t care about accurate details—except for the one reader in several thousand whose hobby is 18th century French arms—but I do. Which brings us back around to “How much is too much”? For me, it was coach steps. A step could be let down so that one did not have to leap out, skirts billowing like a parachute. I don’t know how those steps were deployed, in spite of trying to work it out on paper, like a geometry problem. The Internet was silent upon this point. If anyone knows, please tell me.
If you don’t need to know it for the story, you may not need to research it. But you still need to be aware of the gaps in your knowledge so that your character doesn’t light his way with a kerosene lantern rather than a candle lantern.”