Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Research by Sandra Schwab

I am finally back and mostly recovered from RT (though I seem to be sick today). Apologies for the lapse in blogs--RT usually takes the stuffing out of me! Fun but draining.

Today, I have invited a fairly new author, Sandra Schwab, to talk about research. Her book, Castle of the Wolf, is a May release from Dorchester/Love Spell.

Sandra says: I’m one of the people who loves doing research: I love delving into the history of everyday life and digging up old gossip and scandal. However, research often proves to be a difficult hurdle for beginner-writers of historical romances.

What is the best way to research a specific era of history? How and where do I find relevant material? And how do I incorporate the research into my novel and keep the balance between historical detail and the story? So let’s have a look at this:

What is the best way to research a specific era of history?
Research should always move from the general to the specific. While most romances do not greatly touch upon political events, it is a good idea to read a general overview of the era you have chosen as a setting for your story. This enables you to gain a basic knowledge of that era, which will become the basis for all of your future research. Once you've got a general idea of the political history of the time, you'll need to find out what the everyday life of people was like. Things you should research include
  • architecture and housing (what did the houses look like? what was the set-up of a castle / a Regency town house? how was an estate run?)
  • fashion (things to wear for your heroine and hero!)
  • food (what kind of food was available for normal people / for the nobility? how was it served? how was it eaten?)
  • entertainments (what did people do in their leisure time? where there fairs or parks? what kind of games were played?), etc.
There are special overviews for writers available on different eras of history. These books contain articles on various subjects (food, fashion, shopping, etiquette, etc.) and bibliographies listing further relevant literature. Thus they can be used as starting points for your further research. E.g.
  • The Writer's Guide series from Writer's Digest Books, ranging from Sherrilyn Kenyon's The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages: The British Isles from 500 to 1500 (1999) to Marc McCutcheon's The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition Through World War II (1995)
  • Sharon H. Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
All in all, it is relatively easy to find books on various subjects, e.g.
  • on architecture and housing: Christina Hardyment. Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses. London: National Trust, 1997.
  • on fashion: C. Willett Cunnington. English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. 1937. New York: Dover, 1990.
  • on food: Jane Pettigrew. A Social History of Tea. London: National Trust, 2001.
  • on entertainments: Catherine Perry Hargrave. A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming. 1930. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000.
Try to go for books with many illustrations: these will help you to visualize settings and objects; e.g.
  • books which are published by museums (e.g. the V&A in London) and which highlight specific parts of their collections. These books usually contain many photographs.
  • children's books like the See Through History series or the Eyewitness Guides: they contain many, sometimes very detailed illustrations with easy explanations
  • guidebooks on specific castles or stately houses (neat for creating your hero's manor house)
Another good way to get an impression what life at a specific time in history was like, is to look at primary sources, e.g. literature, letters, and memoirs, but also cookbooks, travel guides, etc. from that specific time. When I wrote Castle of the Wolf, I used a 19th-century guidebook to add details to my heroine’s journey down the Rhine, like the fact that from Rotterdam to Cologne there was nothing much to see but dykes on either side of the river.

How and where do I find relevant material?
Thanks to the internet, research has become very easy today: you can visit websites of various libraries and museums worldwide, you'll find collections of primary literature online (e.g. the Project Gutenberg), you can order books online (I absolutely adore abebooks -- it’s wonderful for finding old books!), and you'll also find an enormous amount of pictures and photographs online. So don't be afraid of the research! It's easier than it was ever before.

How do I incorporate the research into my novel?
In fiction writing you always have to find the balance between pure background description and the story / your characters. Historical background is just one facet of this. Some suggestions how to handle historical background:
  • When you build scenes, use illustrations and photographs to help you visualize the setting.
  • Include historical background in an unobstrusive way, i.e. don't throw your readers out of the story by giving endless, most detailed descriptions. Instead, make it part of the story: in The Lily Brand, Chinese decorations add to the apprehensive atmosphere of the reunion scene and foreshadow the hero's animosity: "Lillian's gaze was caught by the black dragons that curled threateningly across the bright red wallpaper and chased each other on the Chinese lanterns on the lacquered side tables. The feet of these were formed like the paws of a lion, with sharp golden claws that might tear through a man's flesh and bone." => escalation when hero enters the room: "Black dragons curled on the walls on each side of him as he strode toward them, tall and broud-shouldered, as graceful as a big cat."
  • Try to keep explanations short.
  • Never let a character give an explanation that is obviously only included for the reader's sake.
  • Credit your readers with some intelligence: some things don't need to be explicitly explained, sometimes the context is enough, e.g. the betting book at White's is a) pretty much self-explanatory, imo, and b) by now most readers of Regency romances would know that there was a betting book at White's

And now ... Happy history hunting!


Thank you Sandy! This is terrific information. I just finished writing a book revolving around Elizabeth I, and I was up to my ears in books, maps, pictures, charts, and a ton of material from the Internet--and I already knew quite a bit about Tudor history!

Never be afraid of research, though, as she says. You will be amazed at how many ideas for characters, plots, and incidents you can find while leafing through historical material.

Read more about Sandy's intriguing and different historical romances at: