RESEARCH (yes, in caps!) is a vital element of every writer’s work, but it is especially important for the writer of history-based stories. Believe me, if you get something wrong, some reader is sure to notice—and may not hesitate to tell you about it. Let us hope that most mistakes more subtle than the Regency writer who based her story around some old photographs found in a desk. In the Regency period? Early 1800s?
Before I wrote my first book, Willed to Wed (it’s to be re-released by Kensington in e-book format), I spent several months immersed in the Regency period. I have a whole drawer full of note cards from that study. (Told you: I’m old fashioned.) Of course I had been reading Regencies for a hundred years—since I was 13!—and soaking up the milieu. In writing Willed, I tried (and still do) to be faithful to the history of the period and events. The only real deviation in that book was the introduction of the waltz. This dance was brought to England in 1812/13, but probably had not gained the degree of popularity I gave it in 1813/14. But other “background” events and things are true: the frost fair on the frozen River Thames, the problems of soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars, efforts of people like Josiah Wedgewood and Robert Owen to better the lives of workers, distances and time for journeys.
I still do a lot of in-depth research for each and every project. For stories even tangentially related to the Napoleonic wars, I have boned up (anew) on Wellington’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula. I also double-check issues of social problems in England during the Regency—the Luddites, smashing machinery, people’s fear of new technology. In Enemy Hands required that I immerse myself in WWII, from D-Day to VE Day. Currently I am dividing my time between the 19th C. American West and the post WWII period—as well as keeping an eye toward the Regency!
Research is vital—and I personally love doing it. Occasionally research itself sparks a story. The Wagered Wife (also to be re-released in e-book format) was inspired by throw-away background information in a biography I was reading. It seems two old men were gambling and the loser’s son had to marry the winner’s daughter. Their children, then aged 18 and 14, hated each other on sight, but they were, indeed, married, and the new husband promptly escaped his matrimonial duties by going off to the continent for four or five years on a “grand tour.” When he returned he went to the opera one night and fell madly in love with a woman in the audience. You got it: she was his wife, whom he now proceeded to court. The book said the courtship must have been successful for she ended up bearing him fourteen children! Well, this event nagged at me. Finally, I made the young man himself the gambler and later sent him off to fight in the Peninsula before returning to England to fall in love with his wife.
Research is vital—but it must not be allowed to overwhelm the STORY. It is far more important for the writer to know esoteric details than for the reader to do so. Less is often more—in the art of fiction as well as other art forms. Three of my favorite Regency writers know this very well: Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh. Check them out!