Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Research Wars - The Struggle is Real

I write historical romance novels set in early nineteenth century England, a time and place better known as the Regency Era. The average romance reader has gained most of her knowledge of this era from reading Jane Austen and / or Georgette Heyer or from watching BBC's Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson's beautiful film version of Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen's works are the best source of information about this time period as she lived during these years. Georgette Heyer isn't a bad resource as she lived not too long after this era and had access to people who remembered the time period.

My point is, the average romance reader is unlikely to spot historical inaccuracies in a historical romance novel. HOWEVER, there is a large contingent of Regency romance fans out there who have spent years reading this genre and can spot a historical inaccuracy like a mother-in-law can spot a speck of dust on the table you just spent five hours polishing. And their reaction can make that mother-in-law in full meltdown look like Mother Theresa visiting an orphanage. A Regency author lives in fear of ...


These readers pour over the latest Regency historical romance like a ninth grade English teacher trying to flunk the quarterback because some jock broke her heart back in 1952. There are serial killer stalkers featured on Criminal Minds that don't follow their next victim the way some of these readers follow an author in whose work they have found a single mistake. And if you don't think these readers post reviews in excruciating detail and call an author out on Twitter and Facebook I have ocean front property in Arizona I want to sell you.

The only thing worse than a devout Regency reader having you in the cross hairs is a fellow Regency writer having you in theirs. A couple of rappers Twitter-bashing over song lyrics is a walk in the park. We Regency writers have turned the Research Wars into a blood sport. How many times have you heard of a RWA Chapter Forum devoting two days to arguing over whether chamber pots were present in Regency era dining rooms? They were, by the way, and men thought nothing of getting up from the table and using them - USUALLY behind a screen, but still in the same room. And you thought frat boys had a corner on EWWWW behavior.

With all of these people chasing an author down like the villagers after Dr. Frankenstein, the question is, exactly how historically accurate does a historical romance have to be? A romance novel that reads like a history book is not likely to attract many readers who are looking for a smoldering romance, some hot sex, a couple of balls and some carriage rides. And lest anyone forgets...


One of the truly glorious things about writing historical romance is immersing the reader in a different time and place without pushing their head under and holding it there. I have over 260 Regency research books in my library. I have countless notebooks and binders full of information about the minute details of life during this amazing era in my second homeland - England. I spend hours researching seemingly silly details like how a gentleman's shirt buttoned - hey, if you know how it buttoned, you know the quickest way to get him out of it! It is these little details that create the Regency world into which I invite my readers.

Research, when done correctly, is seamlessly blended into the story. It is very like walking through a beautiful home and noticing the window dressings, the comfortable sofa in the den, the arrangement of throw pillows in the formal livingroom. This includes the research pertaining to human behavior, manners, societal norms. If a writer has done her homework and has the skill, a reader will believe a man can be forced to marry a woman whom he simply kissed on the cheek. If the Regency world is real to the writer it will be real to the reader. When a writer has the skill to invite you into a world, to wrap that world around you like a cozy blanket before a warm fire with a mug of cocoa in your hand and their book in the other, it is because that world is sometimes more real than the one in which the writer lives. 

The Regency era was a real time and place in England. Not a single writer writing today lived during this era. Not even Nora Roberts lived during this era. (Don't tell her I said that!) Many of the research wars I have observed on historical romance writers' loops have been about people's behavior. It is a touchy topic. 

"No well-bred young lady would act like that in the Regency era!"

I received my two bachelors degrees at an Alabama Baptist women's college founded by the same people who founded Vassar. The college emphasized academic excellence and ladylike behavior. Our Dean of Women addressed us after a scandalous event involving the daughter of a major university's football coach, a young cadet from the military academy, and a hasty exit from a dorm window. She said something I have never forgotten.

"A lady can do the very same things as a tramp so long as she doesn't do it in the street and scare the horses." 

The way a shirt buttoned or the presence of a chamber pot or the number of times a man might dance with a young lady without causing a scandal was unique to this era. Human behavior was dictated by the rules of society, but as we all know, in love and war - rules are very often broken. The key is to do so in a way that doesn't snatch the reader out of the world the writer has wrapped around them.

I launch myself down the rabbit-hole of research about the Regency era because I want my books to be historically accurate. I am enough of a history geek to be a bit obsessive about it. I read books about and take courses on writing craft because I want to be able to incorporate all I know about this wonderful era into my books in such a way that it is no longer historical research. I want to do my job so skillfully that the reader is surrounded by the very real, vibrant, exotic, romantic world of 200 years ago. I want that world to become so real and all-encompassing that when my readers get to the end of the book and close it, they feel as if they have just awakened from a vivid and magical dream. I want them to feel as if they have lived and experienced the Regency, even if only for a few hours.

My goal is to write books in which the romance is real beyond all else, in which the research and the world are as accurate and vivid as they can be, and in which the Regency Nazis can find no fault. Because in spite of the fact I might tease those RN's, they keep me honest and keep me on my toes. May we all be blessed with readers and fellow writers such as these.

How about you? If you read or write historical romance what things make you nuts about historical inaccuracies or do you not care so long as the story is good? In other genres, as a writer what sort of research do you do to create your characters' world? As a reader are there things you demand a writer do to keep you in their book world? And for those who read and write paranormal romance - what are the problems of creating an entire world? What do readers of paranormal romance want and / or hate about the worlds that paranormal romance writers create? Is contemporary romance easier or harder to write than genres set in other worlds? Join the conversation. Let the research wars begin !!   




Collette Cameron said...

I absolutely loved this post, Louisa! You are spot on. I grinned when I read the bit about not scaring the horses!

Shirlee Busbee said...

What a great post! It was full of slyly given information and humor. Loved it.

Amy said...

I LOVE this. I was terrified to write Regencies because of the experts. I will never be an expert in this time period, but it's all about the story for me.

As a reader, the inaccuracy has to be pretty big and pull me out of the story for me to not finish the book. But if the characters are good and the romance is good, I'll keep reading.

Great post.


Louisa Cornell said...

LOL Glad you liked it, Collette! Our Dean of Women was quite a lady and I have never forgotten what she said. And you know all too well how much time we spend getting the details right!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thank you so very much, Shirley!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks so much, Amy! And never worry you won't be an expert. All it takes is time and a willingness to ask questions. I thank God every day for resources like the Beau Monde loop. I have learned of so many Regency resources through this loop. Like you said, the story is the thing, the romance!

Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

You write the best posts, Louisa!! As you know, I take my research and historical accuracy very seriously. One must know the rules in order to be able to break them in a way that makes sense.

Lexi said...

I research all sorts of things from catfish to cars and clothes when I write. Mr. Google is my bestie! I am working on a fantasy right now and, yeah, world building, and just the other day I looked up medieval cookie recipes, because leavening wasn't invented until like the 1800s. Don't know how anybody, no matter what genre they are writing, builds a story without research! I mean, for Pete's sake, I had a ferry in my story and couldn't remember port from starboard. Had to look it up!

Great post! I love Regency, but this very thing would make me hesitate to write it!

Betty Bolte said...

Loved your post, Louisa! I also love to research for my historicals (romance and women's fiction) and also for my contemporary paranormals (set in a haunted plantation). My favorite time period is 18th century America, the Revolution to be exact. Often the details discovered in the research influence the plot of the story and the characters' reactions. Just today I wanted to use the phrase "like fireworks on the Fourth of July" and my quick Google search revealed an article specifically on the first fireworks on July 4! Lo and behold, the very year of my story is when Charleston, SC, had their first fireworks display! So that got added to my character's thinking about how she felt with her guy. Cool stuff like that is fun to add to enhance the context of the character's lives, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on researching for stories!

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Ella! And you are one of those go-to people who keeps me honest when it comes to historical research. Your reasons are precisely why historical research is important! Once you know the rules, everything about them and know the period, everything about it, you can write characters who break those rules in believable ways - something at which you excel!

Louisa Cornell said...

Oh I am excited about your fantasy novel, Lexi! And you are so right. No matter what genre you write there is always a certain amount of research involved. Our readers depend on us to make our story worlds as real as possible.

Louisa Cornell said...

Bette, don't you love those serendipitous finds in research that make a story so much better? Research is a passion of mine and I can spend hours researching the littlest things. It is important to get the research right and the blending of it into the story even more right.