The Importance of Research
by Denee Cody (a September 1997 Write Byte)
Author Denee Cody is known for writing medieval romances that both touch readers' hearts and satisfy those who require a great deal of historical accuracy. When she and I first started brainstorming a topic, we had settled on her writing about peopling romances with historical figures. But then she wrote a posting to AARList about the size of her research library, and I knew we'd found her topic, especially since, via the Historical Cheat Sheet, I'm trying to "get at" the reason authors and readers enjoy reading romances set in particular periods of history.
Laurie Likes Books
Historical research is a topic dear to my heart, for obvious reasons. I write historical romance. For me there are two equally important equations at play. History and romance.
I write romance because I am absorbed in understanding the interplay between men and women. I want to explore the numerous facets of the relationship that binds one man to one woman with the most powerful emotions known to humankind. Great love carries with it great sorrow. Those who love the deepest grieve the hardest. Yet people throughout the world and the centuries risk their lives to know the passion of true love. If that isn't a subject worth exploring in fiction, I don't know what is.
The romances I write are historical because I have a lifelong fascination with history. I am deeply curious about how people lived in different times and places. I'm nosy. I want to winkle out the secrets hidden in historical texts. I want to feel the passion of the lives that are described so matter-of-factly in history books. I want to know why people did what they did. What forces of society, belief and culture molded who they were and informed their decisions and actions? I am particularly interested in how women through the ages have lived their lives within the demands and restrictions placed upon them by their societies.
I write stories set in the medieval era. At that time the idea of marrying for love was actively discouraged. Passion, of any sort, was considered an indulgence, a weakness of the flesh to be suppressed and controlled, often for the sake of a higher ideal, that ideal usually being religious. Chastity, inside and outside of marriage, was an objective that people took seriously and that formed their view of society and their own lives. Medieval society condemned self-indulgence of any sort. Sexual attraction was considered untrustworthy, even evil.
Marriage was based on practical considerations. Could this man provide for a wife and children? Could this woman run a household and bear healthy children? If the families were wealthy or influential, how would a marriage increase the familial wealth and prestige? The extended family was a very powerful symbolic and actual entity. The family pride was an important consideration, one the individual was expected to sacrifice their personal desires to, for the good of the whole.
In this context, romantic love could be a powerful disruption of the smooth course of communal life. It threw things out of kilter. It caused strong reactions. It was a problem. Which is where fiction originates.
No one wants to read about people if nothing happens to them. A story begins when you take characters and disrupt their lives. Something happens. Something they must respond to. In a romance, a man meets a woman and both their lives change.
Since what I write is fiction, my job is to weave a romantic story around the core of history. But what of romantic love in an historical context? While I firmly believe that in all cultures and all ages men and women have fallen in love, the idea of marrying because of that infatuation is a fairly modern concept. The idea of marrying for anything but romantic love seems alien to modern readers. So there is an immediate dichotomy between historical reality and reader expectations.
In exploring the relationship between a man and a woman, a romance novel accentuates the romantic aspects of their attraction. Other types of novels emphasize other things. Fiction is a powerful means of exploring what makes us human. A romance can be serious, thought provoking, funny, poignant, tragic, witty. It can touch all human emotion, from joy to despair, from humor to anger to vengeance to self-sacrifice. All fiction is a way of exploring the human soul.
So, my job as an author of historical romance is to build a story about a man and a woman who fall in love, set in a place and time none of us have ever been to but which has formed their character and perception of the world, and make the whole thing real and interesting to the reader. Simple, right?
Fiction is about people. If a writer can create characters that a reader cares about, the reader will "believe" any story the writer puts the people in. That is why there is such a wide variety of fiction available. Writers can make little green monsters from Mars real. But it's when writers make readers care what happens to the little green monsters that fiction works.
There is a contract between a writer and a reader. When I pick up a book to read for pleasure I expect the writer to have created a world for me to lose myself in. That world can be modern day New York City. It can be another planet a million years ago. It can be this world 200 years from now. It can be ancient Rome or medieval London or colonial America. If the writer makes it real, I will believe it.
I know when I read a book that it is made up, the work of a writer's imagination. I know that what I am reading is not really happening, that the people don't actually exist. But the human mind and soul are clever enough to pretend, to daydream, to - if you will - entrance itself, put itself into a trance-like state, and believe the story. We do the same thing when we watch a movie.
The trick, of course, is to make the characters and their world real. Anytime the writer makes a mistake and does anything that makes the reader stop and think, instead of continuing to read, the fictive dream is interrupted. It can be a minuscule break, such as that caused by bad grammar or punctuation. Or it can be a major break that makes the reader stop reading the book.
To create a seamless world that holds the reader's attention a writer has to be careful and inventive and playful. To create believable characters in a specific world a writer has to know what the hell she is talking about. This is true of all fiction, not just historical fiction. If I wanted to write a story set on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, I would have to research Wisconsin and dairy cows and modern farming practices so I wouldn't sound like an absolute fool, writing about something I know nothing about. If I write a story set in a future world, while I am at liberty to make that world whatever I want, if the world doesn't have form and unity and logic to it, a reader won't believe it. It has to feel and smell and sound like a real world.
Page after page a writer strives to create a world where characters act out their story, keeping in mind always that it is the characters and the story which are most important. The world, for all the trouble we take to create it, is the background.
So how important is background? For some writers and readers the historical framework in a romance is not important. They are satisfied with the characters and story in a simple setting. It is always true that compelling characters in a great story with a simple setting is superior to uninteresting characters in a mediocre story with a great setting. The story, the characters, are the most important element of any fiction.
For others, a richer texture, a setting with more depth and verisimilitude is preferred. I'm not sure one is better than the other, as long as the characters are powerful and the story believable. I know which I prefer.
I try to write interesting characters with stories set in a rich background full of historical accuracy and nuance. I enjoy creating a world the reader can spend time in. I want the reader to see and smell and hear the world of my characters. To do that I have to know and understand the world my characters inhabit. What did they eat? What did they wear? What music did they listen to? What rituals were important to them? What did they have no knowledge of? What existed in their world and what did not? How would a man or woman raised in this culture react to certain situations? How would the people around them act?
It seems to me that if a writer chooses to set a story in an historical setting, it is then the writer's responsibility to get the history right. It is also the writer's responsibility not to overload the story with historical research. Only the things important to the story should be included. But whatever is included should be accurate.
Having said that, it is the rare historical writer who is always correct in all details. I don't have any formal training as a historian. Whatever I know is because I've read it on my own, in books readily available to the average reader, mostly because I've been interested in a certain period or place or person. No matter how hard I try, there are things I just don't know. And that is where mistakes happen.
One of the easiest traps to fall into while writing is to not stop and question assumptions. I recently wrote a scene where a character opened a bottle of wine and poured himself a drink. I knew wine was readily available at this time in this place. It wasn't particularly important that he had done this. It was just something for him to do, to break up some dialogue. It wasn't until after I'd written it I stopped to wonder when wine was first bottled, and what was used to seal it. Some people might think that so close an attention to detail is obsessive, and maybe they are correct. I only know I try my best not to make mistakes.
I use a combination of what I've read and what I imagine, what I can visualize, to create a background. I use personal experience. I know what velvet feels like. I can have a historical character touch velvet (that is, after velvet was available) and know that a modern reader can understand that.
It's harder to describe something a reader hasn't experienced. For example, if I have a medieval woman riding side-saddle few modern readers will correctly comprehend what I mean. If I go into a lot of detail, it will read like a history lesson. My research will be showing. Yet the side saddle I'm talking about is nothing like a modern side-saddle, which is what most readers will relate it to. I can either save myself the trouble and not mention how the woman is riding, or try to describe it in a way that is unobtrusive and natural, which is damned hard sometimes. By the way, in the medieval period, women rode sideways, with their feet resting on a wooden platform on one side of the horse. But only in the later middle ages. Why she rode like that is an essay in itself.
There are certain questions I ask myself while I'm writing, and especially while I'm revising, concerning the research I do for my novels. I try to write what I know, but sometimes I make an educated guess. If in doubt, I usually either leave it out or look it up. I try to use specific detail. Was the tunic he wore wool or linen? Did the shoe have a heel? If stirrups were in use, what leg position was preferred, straight or bent? Does the reader need to know this? Am I using too much detail? Is this boring? Just because I think some item is interesting, does it really add to the story? Am I too vague?
How much can I assume the reader knows? When should I use a foreign word or phrase? How should the characters talk? I don't want them to talk "forsoothly" but I want the speech to have a certain pattern and tone that makes it different from modern speech. When can I risk using a word that is accurate but obscure?
How much explaining is too much, how much not enough? Am I justified, for the sake of the story, in bending historical events? How far? How much gritty realism about what life was like in the Middle Ages is too much for the modern reader? I want the world to be real to them, but not so real it makes them nauseated. Violent death and disease were common. How much violence is necessary for the story? These people lived in a world saturated with religion. How do I portray that realistically but keep it in the background of the story?
All novelists ask similar questions, whether or not they write historical fiction. Does this work? Is the story stronger, better if I put this in or if I take it out? What makes a story effective is the same no matter what type of novel it may be: characters a reader can care about; a story that is believable and dramatic; and a setting that is real. History is just a part of the setting and setting is of less importance than character or plot.
But it is the attention to detail that makes an unreal world come to life in a reader's imagination. It is that trance-like state we fall into when we read fiction that engages us that writers try to conjure in every novel they write, by whatever means at hand.
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