Hunting Down History
This was a guest blog I wrote while on my virtual book tour for My Dearest Mr. Darcy for the website Hist-fic Chick. “Hunting Down History” is something I have to do all the time as diligently as possible. Here is a bit on how that process goes for me, plus a tidbit of history thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!
It goes without saying that when writing historical fiction one must be accurate in their history! In general a serious writer will carefully research the era they are setting their story in until they know the atmosphere, language, culture, and so on as if they lived it themselves. It is relatively “easy” for a writer to remember to get the big stuff correct – like the clothing they wore, carriages they drove, books they may have read, real-life people they could have hobnobbed with, etc. The difficulty comes with the mundane. That’s where we are bound to mess up if not careful. And fortunate enough to have great editors!
First off, discovering the proper commonplace, day-to-day customs for a given age can be really rough. People do not find it necessary to record what toilet paper they use or how they kept their cuticles trimmed or how often they washed their underwear! Of course, these functions are unsavory and boring so thus easily ignored in the typical novel. You will be forgiven – and thanked – for glossing it over.
What I have found to be the easiest to mess up on are those aspects of life so ordinary and accepted to us that we spare them no thought. For instance, in one of the first short stories I wrote it was Mr. Darcy’s birthday and I wanted Lizzy to gift her then fiancé with chocolate candies having decided that I was going to give Darcy a weakness for the sinful sweet. I wrote the whole section before it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea the history of chocolate! For me, chocolate is a normal part of my life so I couldn’t imagine a time when biting into a mouth melting piece was not possible. Thank goodness the niggle in my brain caught my attention because chocolate as a solid bar was not available until the 1830s. Instead Darcy was written as a man who loved a steaming mug of chocolate. Problem solved!
Trust that niggle in your brain!
And trust eagle-eyed editors or critique partners.
In my most recent novel – My Dearest Mr. Darcy – I wrote a section where Darcy takes Lizzy to a French restaurant while they are vacationing at the seaside. My research into their holiday was inclusive, but I honestly did not think much about the existence of a restaurant. After all, I knew pubs were a mainstay of a traveler’s life in offering food and beverage, so why not a fancy restaurant? My editor questioned it, however, and although I really wanted to have them dine in this romantic atmosphere, I had to admit it was a valid question since I had given the inclusion no historical corroboration.
I was seriously bummed at the idea of deleting the sequence, and since my insatiable curiosity was now piqued, I took the time to delve into the topic. I am happy to report that in this instance I was in luck and the scene could stay! (And, no, I won’t reveal how often I was not so fortunate and had to change something!)
It was a close call, though. Establishments such as pubs, coffee houses, and cafes have been found throughout history in all countries, with the primary purpose to restore a traveler’s strength before they journeyed on. The French word restauer means “to restore” and is where we derive the word “restaurant.” Some doubled as meeting places where folks would relax and socialize.
Restaurants as we think of them with menus, fine cuisine, and the ability to order specifically arose out of the ashes of the French Revolution. The highly skilled chefs of the French elite suddenly found themselves without a job when their aristocratic employers fled or died. The rising middle class hungered – pardon the pun – for a taste of all that the upper crust had lavishly enjoyed, and the subsequent dissolution of the controlling guilds made it easy. Entrepreneurial chefs wisely capitalized on the market and public dining rooms opened up. How many is unknown, nor can we be sure how rapidly the notion spread to other parts of Europe, but there is enough evidence and lists of actual businesses in England and even America to allow me to breath freely over placing one at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Whew!
The moral to the story? Trust your inner voice when something feels wrong. Take the time to look up everything! Praise the maker for Wikipedia. LOL! Never take a fact for granted and especially consider those bits that are commonplace. If all else fails, be vague or leave it out. I can guarantee that no matter how obscure it is, there will be someone who knows you got it wrong and delight in telling you so! I know I have shaken my head over errors in novels before, although now I have more sympathy for the writer. How about you? Any glaring mistakes you caught while reading a book?