Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Too Good to be True

By Lisa Karon Richardson

I don’t know if you knew this or not, but historical novels require a ton of research. Sadly the majority of what is learned never winds up on the page. (Or at least it shouldn’t!) But some of it is so fascinating you really wish it could be used.

For example, did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, nearly died by falling from a station platform in front of a train? He was saved by a man named Edward Booth. Yeah, does that last name look familiar? Edward Booth was the brother of John Wilkes Booth. The guy who just a few months later assassinated President Lincoln. Any writer who came up with that coincidence would be pilloried.

I myself was accused of pushing the bounds of credulity when I had my hero and heroine searching for a treasure. The search has led them to the Seychelles islands and in particular the main island of Mahe. There they meet a young man, who claims to be the Dauphin of France. I.e. the son of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette who was spirited away from prison by English spies.

A highly respected editor told me to rip out that part. Which I did because it was distracting to the story I was trying to tell. Ironically, it was the ‘truest’ part of the story. There was a man who settled on Mahe and started a spice plantation who was rumored to be the dauphin and indeed, he confided to his children that he was the missing French prince. Jardin du Roi is a beautiful plantation that can still be viewed today and you can hear his legend there. His claims were probably false, but he was a real character.

Oh, well. Just one more place where fiction gets away with a lot less than real life!

Have you got any fascinating but rejected research to share? Any real-life stories that are way too good to be plausible in fiction?


  1. Lisa, this is so interesting...

    Well, I once slept walked into a strange man's room at a hotel in the middle of the night wearing only a slip...

    Yeah... who's going to believe THAT????

  2. Ha! Cheryl, that's hilarious!

    Talk about embarrassing. I know a missionary's wife, I mean she's like an elder stateswoman of missions. While they were traveling on deputation one night they were staying with a pastor and his wife and she got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. On the way back she got turned around and wound up in her hosts' bedroom. There she was in her nightgown first groping for the bed and finding two pair of feet in it instead of one and then stumbling and groping her way out of the room. All the while trying desperately to be quiet and not wake the pastor or his wife.

    I was comforted to know I am not alone in goofiness!

  3. It's hard to find that perfect balance of getting in cool historical facts without overdoing it. I think the best way is write them straight into the action and make sure they don't seem tacked on.

    In my medieval, I was able to weave in some very cool, truth is stranger than fiction, type stuff about the medieval church. 1) Parish priests often kept a housekeeper/mistress who functioned much as a pastor's wife and helped him with his ministry. 2) The Bishop of Winchester owned most of the brothels in Southwark "to keep men from greater perversities." 3) Medieval nuns were very involved in the arts. 4) Worship dance went through periods of popularity and being banned throughout the middle ages. It wasn't until after the Reformation that it died out completely until the 1900s.

  4. Facts don't seem to pull their weight when the reader 'thinks' they know better. Then comes the dreaded " it pulled me out of the story..."
    Readers will always come in many flavors of knowledge. I once had a contest judge (historical category) tell me not to use 'cravat' because she'd never heard of it.

    An expert, on the other hand might argue the use in that year, in that city, in that circumstance. oh well.

    Lisa, I love the idea of the dauphin. 'case in point'...

  5. Good point, Deb. This is a big problem with medieval fiction. Everyone seems to think they know about this time period, but their information is usually wrong. Add to that the historical writers focusing on the 1700 and 1800s think the language should be exact, which it can't be since Middle English is basically a different language... Ugh. Melanie Dickerson probably was smart to set hers in Germany.

  6. Yep, research is like pepper. Everyone tolerates a different amount in their stories. Love to get into the nitty gritty like you did, Dina. You can really challenge peoples' perceptions. But first they have to trust that what you're writing is true. Have to feel like they're in that world. Such a tough feat to pull off that it's amazing so many are successful!

  7. Deb, don't get me started! If people don't know or like historical fiction, why do they feel compelled to 'argue.' Drives me crazy!

  8. Oh, have you guys ever read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey? It's considered a classic mystery but it's really very different because the detective is laid up in hospital the entire time. He becomes interested in a round about way with Richard the Third and begins to question whether he really had his nephews, the young princes murdered. The whole mystery is played out through research. And though that may sound as fun as watching paint dry, it's really fascinating. Ms Tey builds a strong case that Richard was framed after his death. The theme of the story is that people assume what they heard first to be true, and do not want their assumptions challenged. I recommend it if you're interested in that sort of thing!

  9. Lisa, this is a fantastic post, and I am SOOOO glad you posted it today! : ) Historical facts like these are such a creativity starter.
    Bless you, m'dear!

  10. My pleasure, Niki. Do you write historicals? Any little tidbit that has sent you off down the rabbit trail to a fun story?

  11. Lisa, I love little tidbits of history in books. In fact, I'm the type who will believe what's written in a fiction novel (besides sci-fi, fantasy, or unrealistic paranormal stuff) is true and accurate.


    This post made me realize I'm pretty gullible. LOL

    Okay, maybe I *used* to believe everything I read. Once I started researching history for my manuscripts, I started noticing historical implausibilities.

    Since Dina mentioned language...

    On my desk is a Rita-winning novel. One of the characters says "oh, for pete's sake." I just so happened to google the word date first usage of "for pete's sake," and realized, really, the odds are it wasn't said in Regency England.

    Save it for 1920s and beyond.


    Now did learning this diminish my view of the author? Nawh. It's not that big of a deal.

    But it does make me as an author want to be more careful about my historical-ness.

    Great post, Lisa! Your reasearch skills have always impressed me.

  12. Great post, Lisa! You are a wonderful researcher and I'm always amazed by your skills and how you weave cool facts into your stories.

    This post resonated with me. My research turned up something that I wove into the first chapters of one of my stories. My story finalled in a contest and a multi-published, wonderful author judged the final round, but was emphatic that my fanciful idea was just ludicrous. Except, eep, it was true...I didn't quite know how to handle that one!

  13. I didn't know that about your MS. Fascinating! I wish I could've read that story before you yanked it. Sounds amazing.

    I've had the same trouble. I think some of our critters are a little surprised that Ambrose married Cora so quickly. What would you say if I told you my great-great grandfather married his sister-in-law just 20 days after his wife died? He married five times and claimed to have loved "all his wimmerns."

    Life is stranger than fiction.

  14. Great story Britt and glad to see you again. (I lost your blog for awhile and found it again, with relief)

  15. Gina, an error or two won't make me put down a book. (I'm sure I've made plenty!) But much more than that and I get so focused on looking for mistakes that I stop enjoying the story.

    To me it's more important to get the mind set and atmosphere right. I want to feel immersed in the world and the time. Anachronisms in speech and dialogue do bug me though. It's easy to make mistakes though.

  16. Oh, Susie. I'm sure you handled it graciously. You handle most things that way. Sometimes like in my situation, being right about history doesn't mean it's the best thing for the story. And in those cases it's easy to cut it.

  17. Yep, Britt. If I do say so it was lovely and poignant. I had it that Charles was about 9 or ten and was in exile on this island, knowing both his royal parents had been killed. And there in the midst of desolation the lost prince finds a jeweled throne hidden away in a cave. He made it is his secret and had numerous imaginary battles with the rebels.

    Just too bad I had to yank it. The editor did say that he deserved a story of his own.

    And it's true that we have to sometimes have to write not was plausible at the time, but what is plausible in the mind of the modern reader.

    Your Great-great grand sounds like a trip. I love how connected you are to your heritage!

  18. I was thinking along similar lines yesterday in church when Pastor Lorne was talking about Mary and Joseph. He said scholars think Mary's age was somewhere between 12 and 16. Other places say she was 14. Now if I'd written a story with my heroine that age...well, let's just say I wouldn't get away with it even if I tried.

    Cheryl reminded me of an incident I'd like to put in a novel but it wouldn't be a CBA one...I was getting ready for my shift at the air base in Northern Alberta. I had my under garments and short-sleeved shirt on and was putting on my neck tab when I heard Nelson talking in the kitchen. The hall door was closed, but we closed it sometimes to keep the toddler in/out.
    So I threw it open the door and said, "What?"
    Whoops! A crewmate of Nelson was sitting at the table. Eeep!

    Great post, Lisa.

  19. Oh, yeah, Anita. A pregnant 14 year old wouldn't likely fly in CBA.

    Glad you can laugh about that incident now! I bet it was mortifying at the time!

    We had a 19 year-old kid spending the night with my brother, who slept walk into mine and my husband's room in the middle of the night. A little creepy! But he couldn't even remember!

  20. Great post, Lisa. And so many great comments. I'm with Niki, it sure gets the creativity flowing.

  21. Glad to hear it, Suzie Jo! I find research does make my imagination take flight.


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