Research: Solving the Puzzle by Linda Bennett Pennell

We writers of historical fiction come in two varieties: those who hate research and those who love it. I come down on the love it side. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I enjoy research so much that I can spend hours chasing details, events, people, and places that yield little to no usable information for my WIP. Old stuff is interesting. I’m in love with it. Some days, I guess you can say that I find myself chasing rabbits!

When it is important, however, I can get very serious about research. Approaching research as a puzzle that needs solving can take the stress out of the job. I’m a big fan of puzzle pieces provided by primary sources. Personal journals, diaries, old newspaper articles, anything written during the time setting of my WIP is pure gold. Of course, winnowing out these sources takes work. The farther into the past we go, the greater the challenge. Ancient history? Difficult, but not impossible. Writers of historical fiction engaged in research can benefit from thinking like historians. Use primary sources first, then check out the published works of historians, especially the footnotes and bibliographical citations. Don’t have access to the resources available to an academic, you say? You may be surprised. Below are listed some ways in which you and I can gain access to accurate historical information, often without leaving home.

I. Google – A.K.A., Writer’s Best Friend!
A. Google Search – Everybody does it. I know I’m preaching to the choir. But really. Is there a better way to put the world at your fingertips? A carefully worded search entry will yield more information than you will probably ever need or use. The biggest problem will be in separating the sites with accurate information from those of lesser quality. Want to know what Regency England looked like on a map? Type in “antique maps of Regency England.” The sources and images go on for pages.
B. Google Maps and Google Earth – Want geographical and topological information on a place you’ve never been? Take a look at the present day location via satellite. While modern roads and buildings will have changed the landscape, the basic overall geography and topography of an area will not have changed all that much. Compare the new with the old maps from your antique map Google search and you will have a pretty good idea of what your location looked like in the past. An added bonus of Google Earth is the references to and pictures of local attractions and historical sites that come with many searches. It’s a great way to travel without the cost and inconvenience of boarding an airplane.
C. Google Books – Lots of good stuff in their library!
D. Google Scholar – This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of academic scholarship for the amateur history sleuth. Type in your particular topic and pages of citations will crop up. Better yet, some of the citations will come with information on where the physical book or article can be located within your own community via WorldCat.org. On the subject of Regency England, Google Scholar lists, among many citations, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, 1811-1901, by Kristine Hughes. WorldCat.org tells me that it can be found in no fewer than six public and college libraries in my area, tells me how far away each library is from my home, provides the Amazon and Better World Books buy links, Goodreads reviews – the list goes on and on.

II. Genealogical Sites
Some charge a monthly fee, but others are free. With a little tweaking and ingenuity, you can view wills, criminal court records, trial documents, and other primary sources. Here is a sampling of sites that offer at least some information free of charge:

http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/top-10-free-genealogy-websites-to-find-ancestors/

http://usgenweb.org/

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/

https://familysearch.org/

One of the greatest fears of many historical fiction writers is that they will unintentionally get “it” wrong, whatever it happens to be. I’m sure we’ve all seen work torn apart by persons who believe they have greater knowledge or insight into a particular era. If confronted in a manner where a response is unavoidable, being prepared with a list of your sources never hurts. When historians get into an argument over details, the words “cite your source” are usually somewhere in the fray. Even academicians, perhaps especially academicians, do not always agree on details regarding the past. If you have done the work and selected details from the best sources available, then merely citing your sources with a confident smile should be sufficient to quell all but the most aggressive critics. As for those types, you know, the ones determined to ruin another person’s day, be prepared for teeth marks on your tongue. It also helps to keep repeating to yourself, “Bless his heart, he probably forgot to take his meds today.”

So what about you? What research secrets can you share with the rest of us?

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Never-ending Search for Balance

New house, new job, loss of a job—you know the list of “stressful life events.” I love the opportunity changes like these represent, but I know myself. No matter how much preparation I do or how positive my attitude, I get sick within two months of a big transition.

Retirement is no exception. I’ve been “transitioning to retirement” for a few years, and in the twelve months leading up to it, I knuckled down with my budget, sought help with applying for Social Security and Medicare and made “How do you like being retired? Any advice?” part of every conversation with retired friends.

128px-Feet_on_scaleStill, when a good friend  retired six months ahead of me and not only gained twenty pounds but came down with a severe case of bronchitis, I knew it would take more. I watched the bathroom scales with a vengeance and made it a point to get fresh air every day. And all was well until… last week.

Week Four of Blissful Retirement. I reached a point with my WIP—book four of the Lakeside Porches romances—that I could set it aside and do a complete review of book two, which has sat in my editor’s queue for six months without comment. Why not do a start-to-finish edit, I thought, incorporating all I’ve learned about style since I submitted it? And making sure the characters are consistent with where they are headed in books three and four? And, generally, cleaning up every little misspelling, grammar slip and punctuation error?

And so the workaholic in me—the one I thought had retired!—went on a five-day mission to do just that. And the reward was heaven sent: just as I logged in to send the revision to my editor, she emailed me to say she would start on my book in two weeks time. Yes! I proudly sent her the full revision to use as her starting point and told her I hope it makes her job easier.

And logged out. And noticed the pain and swelling in my hands. And feet, and so on, as an arthritis flare took over my body. It’s a painful lesson… that my unhealthy tendencies came right along with me in this latest transition. Big sigh.

Having more time to write is a blessing, but writing to the exclusion of other important opportunities—rest, relaxation, time with friends and family—is unhealthy.

Important as they are, watching the bathroom scale and flossing every day are not the whole answer, any more than minding the budget and keeping a calendar. My never-ending search for balance and wellness continues in this new phase of life.

I know we all struggle with balance in our lives as writers. How are you achieving balance today, with all the obligations and opportunities in your life? Please share your wisdom!

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Setting It Write

World building is my second favorite thing about creating a contemporary novel. The first is getting to know my characters, everything from their astrological sign to their favorite sport in high school. The world building begins with designing their now-as-adults home base, and filling their closets. Then there is their career and current/past family dynamics, recreational and music choices, and how all of the above disguises the baggage they lug around in their daily routines. Even their luggage is an aspect of world building and why I have to write contemporary romances. I like having the choice of using a backpack or wheeled carry-on when traveling.

Contemporary environments are diverse and tangible for me because I can go there or at least experience the architecture, local festivals, and weather stats via the internet. The chosen career presents another setting to directly reflect the strengths and challenges for the characters. Exploring the careers your characters inhabit as a world instead of a setting can add a dynamic level of your story.

Corporate world is different from scholastic world. Data mining and diamond mining use different tools but being caged in a computer cubicle could reflect searching for precious gems underground. Consider the differences between the Nike Campus, to the Intel Campus a few miles down the road, and both companies recruit from college campuses. Within large manufacturing or financial companies there are different worlds and satellites between the design divisions and customer relations. Will your characters enter a carpeted elevator or navigate a gangway?

A basic two tier gangway

A basic two tier gangway

For example, in my novel Checkmate First Mate, there is a scene in the beginning of chapter three where my hero, who is recovering from hip surgery, is taunted into descending a long outdoor staircase from the bluff to the water level. These steps are grated metal, narrow with railings, and are shallow and often steep enough to resemble a ladder. The base of the stairs is anchored on a floating platform to rise and sink with the water level and can feel bouncy, or like it sways. Traditionally these are referred to as “gangways” but I’ve never called them that and don’t in my novel.

As someone with life-long knee issues I hate gangways. They can easily be 30 to 50 steps long and are the only way to get from the marina parking lot to the floating docks where our boat was moored. I know those long, narrow, shallow metal staircases really well. That was my only access to marinas along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers for years. In 2005 we sold the cabin cruiser that had 100 gallon gas tanks. We soon took up kayaking.

Posh gangway for yachts

Posh gangway for yachts

I recently returned to that setting where my hero has to test his hip on a gangway but the staircase has been replaced with a concrete serpentine ramp to a wide flat platform that connects the ramp to the docks. In this case the floating restaurant is now more accessible for patrons with mobility challenges. Restaurant patrons no longer take the stairs above thirty feet of steeply piled rocks to dine on the water.

A quick drive to other marinas revealed only a few of those staircase type gangways have been replaced with wide, and steep, ramps. Of course I decided to try out this new version of a gangway. The grated steps have been replaced with a surface like large grit sandpaper and it felt like I was walking down a super-long playground slide. My knees would have preferred the shallow steps even if I was hauling stuff to my boat with a wheeled cart. Of course that cart couldn’t be heavy or I would have lost my grip and it would have spun its way down the ramp to splatter the contents on the dock, or even dumped cart and all into the river. Hmm, maybe a scene for a different novel?

World building is where it really makes a difference to use what you know as fact when everything else is for creating fiction.

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The Agony of Research

Hi Everyone! Meggan Connors here.

Now, I want you to know, I don’t go searching for errors in the historical romances I read. I find them, sometimes, but I don’t look for them. And if I’m really honest, even when I do find them, a little poetic license doesn’t bother me a bit. (Big errors are annoying, though)

But, as those of you who are historical authors know, there are people who will read your work and search for even minor inaccuracies. Or, they will ask very pointed questions, like, “If he was so broke, why was he using a beeswax candle, since they were more expensive than tallow?”

Uhhh…. Because tallow stinks? Yeah. That’s it. Tallow smells bad. (Because I had to find this out, if you really want to know, tallow does smell bad, which is why wealthier people used beeswax.)

I have a friend who is an amateur historian. She’s also quite brilliant. Give her anything about the Regency era, and she can tell you about it. You need an obscure factoid about Hanoverian treatises on law? She’s your girl. She reads mostly nonfiction, mostly biographies of people from, you guessed it, the Regency era, so if you botch your history, she will call you on it. That woman knows more about naval history than anyone I’ve ever met, and when she writes about ships, her depth of knowledge shows. But heaven help you, sister, if you mess it up.

I find it…intimidating, because I know she’s not the only one. If she were, I’d just say, “Girl, read my work and see if I got anything wrong.” She has done it before with other stuff, even though the Victorian era isn’t her era. But she’s not the only one who can pick apart historical factoids, which might be why I’ll write the time periods before and after the Regency era, but the Regency era itself sort of scares me (seriously, my hat’s off to those of you who write Regencies. So many rules. So many historical and cultural nuances that must be followed).

Writing historicals is often a gamble, because if you make an error, someone will call you on it, and sometimes sources will vary in the information they provide. When I’ve looked up common weapons of certain eras, I’ve found differences in the years the weapon was used, which is annoying. If the nonfiction books I’ve read can’t agree, then how am I supposed to know? I’ll admit, I have spent hours trying to figure out the speeds of trains in the Old West, or determining how long a journey from the Orkneys to Leith would take if by coach and by boat, as opposed to walking or riding horses overland. Or how long the same journey would take depending on the type of boat, which got super tedious and made me want to poke my eyes out.

I am loath to admit it, but I once used ALBEGRA and TRIG on the same night to figure out distances and times and the angle of the sun and something else that I don’t recall right now. The whole process felt very “if a train leaves New York going 44 mph and another leaves Boston going 120 mph…”

And, because it did, I threw down my pencil with a cry of frustration and made my husband figure it out, because, while I am many things, I am not a math geek. That’s husband’s forte, so I left it up to him. Even though he grumbled, he was a good sport and did it for me. Granted, my statement of, “Oh, I have to do this math. I can’t cook right now,” might have had something to do with it.

Accuracy is important, no matter the genre you’re in. Sometimes, a fact will seem super obscure, and you’ll think, “Do I really need to know this?”

The answer is probably not, but you should find out anyway. Because if you get it wrong, someone will call you on it.

If you need me, I’m in the back, attempting to do math. If my times are off, it’s not because I didn’t try to do it. It’s because I forgot to carry the one.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done in the name of research? I’ll go first: it’s a toss up between the Algebra and Trig night, and the time I visited a museum on prostitution in the old west in order to get a better idea about undergarments (being honest, where else is going to display Victorian era underpants?).

Posted in A Memo from Meggan, Historical Romance, Readers, Writing | 5 Comments

A Book in the Hand is Worth . . . Five eBooks

464px-1881_Kramskoi_Frauenportraet_anagoria

The title of this post speaks to the cost of buying books, not the degree of reading enjoyment, though, I’m sure there are those who’d argue the latter as well.

I’m of an age, that until a few short years ago, everything I read was a good old-fashioned print book.

Christiansborg Palace Library, Copenhagan

Christiansborg Palace Library, Copenhagan

I love books. I love libraries and I love bookstores.

But I also appreciate the convenience of my Kindle and IPad.

My historical novels have all released as eBooks first, and then released as print novels several months later. Oh, I was thrilled beyond obnoxious when my book babies released into cyber space and were available to purchase for the cost of a white chocolate mocha; two shots, please.

I didn’t think anything could top that euphoria . . . until I held my print novel in my hand.

A book. A real book. My book.

Several of my family and friends held out for the print version, refusing to read an eBook copy, even when I offered it to them free of charge.

“I want a real book,” one teacher friend said.

“I want your autograph, so I’ll wait for the print version,” a doting auntie advised.

I explained there were digital autographs available, and she looked at me like I’d sprouted another head.

She declared, “I want to see you sign it.”

Okay, I can’t argue with that.

On the flip side, I know numerous people who are horrified at the notion of actually holdingAmazonKindleUser2 and entire four hundred page book in their hands. One young man waved his phone at me, his phone, mind you!

“I do all my reading on this,” he said proudly, a bit of an arrogant grin on his face.

Hmm, just wait until he need reading glasses. He’ll be reading one word at a time on that thing.  Trust me, this I know. I had Lasik surgery in April and while my distant vision is now 15/20, everything up close and personal is a bluuurrry.

I have to confess, that given a choice between print novels and digital ones, I prefer print. Now don’t get me wrong, I read lots of books on my Kindle, but there are some things I just prefer about a print book.

For instance, it’s much harder to go back and reread something in an eBook. I like real bookmarks, although I often turn down the corner of the page to mark it. I don’t like how difficult it is to go back to the beginning of digital book, and I don’t like the font on my Kindle either. Yes, I know you can change the size, but I still don’t like it.

Plus, the darn thing needs charging.

I don’t ever have to delay reading a print novel because the reader needs charging. I am the reader, and I’m likely quite charged on coffee already. Granted, I can buy five eBooks for the cost of one print novel, so I reserve my print book purchases for those that I absolutely do not want to read on my IPad or Kindle.

Buecherladen-in-istanbul

If you had to choose between only reading print novels or eBooks, what would you choose?

Let’s do something fun.  Vote for your favorite reading medium.

Award Collette Cameronwinning, Amazon best-selling, and multi-published historical romance author, Collette Cameron, has a BS in Liberal Studies and a Master’s in Teaching.  A Pacific Northwest Native, Collette is married, has three amazing adult children, and five dachshunds. Collette loves a good joke, inspirational quotes, flowers, the beach, trivia, birds, shabby chic, and Cadbury Chocolate.

You’ll always find dogs, birds, quirky—sometimes naughty—humor, and a dash of inspiration in her novels. Her motto for life? You can’t have too much chocolate, too many hugs, or too many flowers. She’s thinking about adding shoes to that list.

Collette would love to hear from you! 

Website     Blue Rose Romance Blog   Twitter   Facebook  Regency Rose Newsletter

Her latest release, The Earl’s Enticement, is available from Amazon.

TheEarlsEnticement3_850 3rd

All images except author picture and book cover are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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What We Learned About Writing From a Furniture Commercial

Recently we saw a commercial for a furniture store that had a universal writing truth in it.

The commercial basically said that you spend a lot of time with a piece of furniture, so if you don’t love it don’t buy it.

 

commode2We have several pieces like this. One is a solid wood commode, or very large end table. It’s dark wood and heavy-looking and not at all our current style, but it we will never give it up. Partly because we love it so much, and because it was the first piece of furniture we ever bought as a married couple. The other piece of furniture that has stood the test of time in our home is an oak dining table that Catherine finished. Again, it’s big and heavy and doesn’t fit our Southwest décor. We spent a lot of time looking for and working on these two pieces, and we spent a big chunk of money purchasing them in our lean, first-married days. Even though they are not southwest style, which is how we like to decorate now, these pieces will always be in our home.

How, you ask, does a furniture ad compare to writing? If you don’t love it, don’t buy it translates to writing as, if you don’t love it, don’t write it. Your book, like the furniture in your house, is something that you will be spending a lot of time with. It takes time to craft a book, and writers often start a project with no guarantee that they will ever be able to sell the book. In the creation stage, we spend months developing the story, researching, getting to know our characters, plotting, and more months writing and revising the book. When you finally sell it in today’s virtual ebook-never-go-out-of print scenarios, that puppy could be tagging after you for eons. Make sure you want to live with your story that long before you invest in it.

So, how can you be sure this is a story that you love? How do you know it will stand up to the test of time? Will you love it as much when you finished as you did when you started? Here are a few things to consider.

  • Does this story idea excite you? When you pitch it to an editor or agent have they ever said, “I can see you are passionate about this book.” If they have, then you have a story that vibrates with excitement in the telling. A story that you love enough to carry to the end.
  • Do you love your characters? When you do it will show on the page and in your writing attitude. You can’t wait to get to the next scene that he, or she, appears in. In our first book, one of the minor characters had that appeal for Catherine. She loved writing his scenes. They always ended too soon for her. Her critique partners loved that character, too.
  • Do you start to talk like your characters? This happened to Catherine. The not-so-nice words one of the characters always said starting coming out of her mouth. Words that Catherine did not use. The character came alive.
  • When you write a romantic scene do you need a cold shower? When you write a sad scene do you cry? Does your heart pound when you’re writing that chase scene or highly dramatic, dangerous scene? If so, this book touches your heart. You will never lose interest in a book that touches your heart.
  • If your book is a series do you get anxious to finish the book you’re working on so you can go to the next story? If so, you have a series that you love. One that will propel you forward.

Before you start your next story, take some time and consider if you love it enough to live with it. If you don’t, look for a story that sparks your interest and your passion. Doing so will make writing fun again.

Do you have a story that stands the test of time for you?

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My Top 5 Favorite Sports Romance Authors

Football - 123RFWe’ve watched Germany win the Soccer World Cup, baseball season is buzzing all around us, and we’re heading into the dog days of summer, so everyone knows our favorite football teams will be sweating through training season to get ready for kick-off. In America today, we can live and breathe some sporting event every single day. Live, streamed, recorded, you name it. We’re a sports-crazed nation. Many of us grew up playing a sport in high school or college. Or we have a natural love of baseball, soccer, football, volleyball, basketball, golf . . . the list goes on and on. We have fathers, brothers, husbands, and spouses who love the game, whatever the game might be.

CourtingCinderella_400

Courting Cinderella will be released by Soul Mate Publishing on August 13, 2014. The heroine is a member of the U.S. National Volleyball team.

So what is it about contemporary romance novels with a sports theme that draws women to them in droves? Is it the hunky Alpha hero? The details and action of the sport itself? The taste and smell of the baseball stadium or the sounds and sights in a hockey arena that get us going? Maybe it’s the significant other who is a font of sports trivia? I’d content it’s a combination of all of those aspects and more.

I had to look at my top favorite sports romances of all time and the real-life quarterback I adore most today (RGIII) to figure out why I loved romance novels with jocks at the center of the story. First, it didn’t really matter to me what sport was portrayed in the romance novel. Even if I detested the sport out of the gate, somehow, the author won me over by the end of the book. I didn’t like hockey at all before Rachel Gibson pulled me into her Chinooks series. I’d had a love-hate relationship with football before Susan Elizabeth Phillips introduced me to her Chicago Stars football team. But after It Had to Be You, I was hooked. Thank God there were several others in the series after that one. So how’d the author do that? She did it by using good characterization and an authentic understanding of the sport. Giving me characters that I loved who were sometimes at the top of their game, sometimes struggling, but always ready (whether they knew it or not) ready to tumble into love with a feisty heroine.

Essence Cover - 200x300

Essence by Mackenzie Lucas is available now. The hero, Pace Daniels, is a pro-golfer.

For me, yes, the visceral action of living through the highs and lows of a sporting competition is huge. I love the drama. The intensity. But what I love more is the stories behind the character. The integrity. The core of steel. The struggles and the triumphs. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s the love story that trumps. Give me a good love story with either a sports hero or heroine at its core, make me love them, and, honestly, you’ll pretty much open my eyes to a whole new field of opportunities. I watch football today because I reconnected with the sport after reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I began to adore hockey after Rachel Gibson’s books. I still search diligently for any and every sports-related romance series out there I can find to read, and I know there are other readers out there just like me. So, I’m going to give you a short list of my favorite contemporary romance sports-related novels (in no particular order).

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Chicago Stars Football series

It Had to Be You

Nobody’s Baby But Mine

Heaven Texas

Dream A Little Dream

This Heart of Mine

Match Me If You Can

Natural Born Charmer

First Lady

Rachel Gibson

Chinooks Hockey series

The Trouble With Valentine’s Day

Nothing But Trouble

Any Man of Mine

True Love and Other Disasters

See Jane Score

Simply Irresistible

Jaci Burton

Play-by-Play series

The Perfect Play

Changing The Game

Taking A Shot

Playing to Win

Thrown By A Curve

One Sweet Ride

Holiday Games

Melting the Ice

Mindy Klasky

Diamond Brides Baseball series

Perfect Pitch

Catching Hell

Reaching First

Second Thoughts

…more to come soon …

Molly O’Keefe

Crazy Thing Called Love (hockey)

Please feel free to chime in with comments on your favorites, because I really am always looking for good contemporary romance with a sports angle.

Mackenzie Lucas also writes sports-related contemporary romances. Essence, her debut contemporary romance published by Soul Mate Publishing is about a pro-golf hero who fights over a piece of land with a spa owner in St. Augustine, and Courting Cinderella, her August 13th release with Soul Mate, is about a heroine who plays volleyball for the U.S. National team and a sexy photographer/ex-Marine who threatens to expose her deepest, darkest secret.

 

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