Justine: How Far Will I Go For My Book? About 5,200 Miles.

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?

6 thoughts on “Justine: How Far Will I Go For My Book? About 5,200 Miles.

  1. What a great trip! Glad you had a good time.

    Most of my research is on the internet. Hours and hours on the internet, researching the limestone caves around Kansas City (where The Djini and Ms. Jones is set). Also, YouTube. I would love to take a trip to Missouri and see the cave complexes in person (with side trips into Mark Twain’s world for a future novel, or just to satisfy my own curiosity).

    Since I write urban fantasy, it’s really important to make the real stuff really real, so the fantasized things ride along on the suspension bridge of disbelief and don’t fall off. I’ve been to caves, so I think there are enough common features that I can pull off the cave bit. But it would be better to go in person.

    (-: In the meantime, I’ll hope no one in Kansas City reads my book!

    • Michaeline, to make the Kansas City part of your book authentic, you can scour maps of the area for key landmarks…streets, parks, public monuments, etc. that let folks know you know your area. Also, as one of your main characters is very wealthy/prominent, go on Realtor.com and search for the most expensive homes in KC to figure out the zip code where they’re located (often it’s a suburb, too), then pick a street (but a false house number, if you get that specific). Google Maps also lets you do the street view (as if you’re on the street driving), so there are lots of good ways now to “see” a place without actually going there.

      • I circumvented the problems by making it a small fictional town 30 minutes outside of Kansas City — I know small town life, but have only lived in a city for two or three years of my entire life. So, it’s not really “urban” fantasy, but “smalltown” fantasy. (Hooray for Charlaine Harris breaking some ground in that area.)

        But the tools you mention would work even with a very small town — I will give the street view a try with my “placeholder” town. I didn’t think of that!

  2. I set my stories in my neck of the woods, so to speak. They take place in Baltimore and a small, fictitious farming town in horse country outside the city called Bachman’s Run. I don’t have to go too far for my research for setting. Like Michaeline, the rest of my research is on the web. One of the reasons I chose contemporary is that writing fiction is hard enough, I didn’t want to add the element of realistic setting and other details from another time.

  3. I can see something different in the way you described England in this blog post, Justine. For my part I finally see that I’m leaning too heavily on a trip I made to Arizona when I was 16 and because of you (thank you!) I realize that’s just not going to get it done. Just yesterday, I allowed my characters to sit and talk in a parked car on a June afternoon in Arizona. Yes I’m fixing that, but I’ve beginning to realize that boots on the ground is the best research we can undertake.

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