I just returned from eight days in Bath and London doing research for my Regency WIP. I’ve read a lot of Regencies; I think I have a pretty good handle on a lot of the social conventions, dress, forms of address, etc. of the time, but there’s nothing like walking in the shoes of your literary forebears (á la Jane Austen) to get a feel for what life looked like to people who lived 200 years ago.
I didn’t take it to extremes. I stayed in a modern hotel, used the tube to get around, and ate normal meals. I didn’t do an “Austenland.” But I did walk around Mayfair, the fashionable neighborhood of the haute ton, I took in Hyde Park and Rotten Row, where the gentlemen (and sometimes ladies) raced their horses in the early morning hours, and I visited museums, houses, and palaces to get a flavor for the art, decor, and accoutrements that prevailed at that time. I also visited areas of Bath where the fashionable went to see and be seen, including the Roman Baths and the Pump Room.
My purpose for this trip was twofold…one, I love history, old stuff, and all things English, so seeing the green fields filled with fat sheep, the stone fences, and Georgian town homes built 200 years ago is just eye candy for me. Not to mention the tea, scones, and clotted cream with jam…the trip was a sensory delight for the mouth, too!
But the second reason for me to take this trip is to improve the way I write my scenes…well, in truth, my scenery. I read a great book awhile back by Mary Buckham called “Writing Active Setting” and she talks about ways to make your story richer and more complex by adding effective characterization and sensory detail. But I think it’s easier to write sensory detail after you’ve walked down a narrow road with three and four-story Georgian homes rising up on either side of you; or you’ve stood across from the famous bow window at White’s and imagined Beau Brummel seated there studying you with his quizzing glass; or experienced the size and scale of the Serpentine or Rotten Row (just FYI, both were WAAAY larger than I expected).
I’m not saying you can’t do it, because I’m sure there are many writers out there who’ve written Regency books with glorious detail and haven’t set foot in England. More power to them, and I nod respectfully at your accomplishments. As much as I want to engage readers in my story by having great characters, conflict, and plot, I also want to immerse them into an authentic Regency world. Being a history buff, I want to make my world as real as possible, and not by guessing, but by seeing. I’ve always been a very visual person, so for me, seeing things and experiencing them are how I am able to best recreate them.
I took many pictures to remind me of what I saw and learned and I plan to do a “Regency Collage” to help me get my head into the right time when I write. I bought several books and maps that describe life back then and show the extent to which London existed at the time. I heard lectures from Regency-era experts about social and dining customs…all of this to help create a very complex, brilliant, and authentic world for my characters.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m very fortunate to have taken this trip. My friend Jilly Wood (who lives in England and writes here on Eight Ladies Writing) was an excellent tour guide and a great person to share “a cuppa” with. She also knows Mayfair like the back of her hand! I only hope the end result of my research lives up to all the wonderful things I saw and experienced while there.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done to research a particular event, setting, occupation, etc. for your novels?