Historical romance author, Merry Farmer, is joining us with the third book in her Montana Romance series, IN YOUR ARMS.
Surprises of Historical Research
Every time I’m asked how I come up with ideas for historically-based stories (and writers are always being asked how they come up with ideas for stories), I always answer that since I majored in History twice, I have a lot of knowledge to draw on. Across my two degrees, I’ve studied most of the western world between about 1750 and 1920, and a little bit of the Middle Ages. With all these classes—the books I’ve read, the exams I’ve taken, and the papers I’ve written—I’m always surprised that for every fact that everyone knows, there are a hundred other facts that people would never guess at.
That’s right, what we think we know about history could probably fit into a thimble with room to spare compared to the vastness of what actually happened, the motivations behind it all, how real people lived their lives, and all of the details that were never recorded. It drives me a little bonkers that a teensy selection of facts have become the benchmarks for “accuracy” in historical romance. My personal least favorites are when anyone begins a “factual” statement with the words “A respectable young woman of society would never have….” No statement that begins that way is ever going to be accurate, because no two people have ever viewed “society” and “respectability” the same way. All it takes is a little digging to find the exceptions to the rule.
For example, I recently read the fascinating story of the Ladies of Llangollen. Respectable young ladies of the 1770s were expected to behave with propriety, to dress in finery and seek to marry the best match, right? Well, in 1778, after several dazzling marriage proposals, Lady Eleanor Butler decided she would much rather run off and set up house with her friend, Sarah Ponsonby, and live a different sort of life entirely. So they dressed in men’s clothes, cut their hair short, and ran off together to buy a house in Wales.
Ah, but surely their families didn’t approve, right? Surely they became pariahs, outside of all proper society like all rule-breakers, right? That’s the price that anyone of that era who dared to do what no respectable young woman of society would do had to pay, right? Actually no. Their families got used to the idea and supported them, their house was constantly full of company, including names like Lady Caroline Lamb, Wordsworth, and the Duke of Wellington, and even years later, Lord Byron wrote of them in a favorable light.
It’s funny, though, how digging into one aspect of history—how young ladies of society behaved in the real world—can lead someone doing historical research to discover a whole new set of facts. It’s a mistake to think that history is old and dry and written in stone. It’s actually not a dusty old tome that needs to have the dust blown off of it to get to dull facts we already know. The key to finding those delicious surprises while doing historical research is to keep an open mind and to accept going in that you don’t know everything.
Another fascinating surprise I’ve had happened fairly recently, while I was researching cases of arsenic poisoning in the 19th century for my latest novella, Seeks For Her. I was fairly certain someone at some point would have recorded a case where a mass-produced product was accidentally poisoned, leading a number of people to get sick. What I found was a case from England in 1858 that changed all sorts of things about what I thought I knew about the British legal system.
I’ve read my Dickens. I know how draconian the courts were in the mid-Victorian era. I know how badly the lower classes were treated too and how quick the court was to convict them and ship them off to Australia or hang them outright. Curiously enough, in the case of the Bradford Sweets Poisoning of 1858, none of those things happened. In a nutshell, a mistake was made and arsenic was added to a batch of peppermints instead of the usual ingredients. Over 200 people were sickened and 20 died before people figured out what had happened. Several people were brought to trial. And you know what? None of them were convicted. Those big, bad, Dickensian courts that I’d always imagined heard the evidence and came to the conclusion that it was really just an accident. More than that, they worked to pass new laws regulating the manufacture of sweets, which was a huge advance in social justice for the lower classes.
Now, you may think that’s just a small, insignificant story, but for me it opened an entire can of worms. Too often in writing historical romance, we fall into the rut of depicting people and events the way others have before us and the way that public opinion thinks they should be depicted. The truth, however, is that there are a thousand different angles by which to view the past. As a writer, you can choose to follow the “facts” as tradition presents them, or you can do a little research, find out what was really going on, and let history do your storytelling for you. The only thing you need is an inquisitive, open mind.
History is such a rich soup from which to pull stories. There are so many stories in it, just waiting to be dipped into. Never rest! Always be on the lookout for the new angle and the surprise. Because in the end, who doesn’t want to be surprised?
a Rafflecopter giveaway