HOW TO WRITE IT WHEN YOU CAN'T BE THERE
By Blythe Gifford
all heard the advice: You must
visit the places you write about. Theoretically,
I agree with that, but from a practical point of view, I’m not in the
position to fly abroad every time I start a book.
And since I write history, a trip to the place would still
not be a trip to the time. I
would still have to create a world I’ve never seen.
do you do that with an eye to authenticity?
I have a few tips.
choose your setting mindfully. A
familiar location will make it easier to gather information.
An obscure one may make it difficult to find enough detail to
bring it to life.
flip side of using a well known location is that it’s tough to fudge
facts. Any mistake will
surely be found by an expert reader.
aware of the connotation of the setting you select and decide
whether to play to it or against it.
Some locations, New Orleans, for example, are so strong that
using them is almost like adding a character to your story.
I say “setting,” I mean time as well as place.
For example, I have a manuscript set in Philadelphia. Originally, the date was 1872, but I changed it to 1876.
Why? Because the
Centennial Exposition was in Philadelphia in 1876.
Even though my book did not revolve around the exposition, it
meant I could find everything from train schedules to photographs to
first person accounts of the city in that year.
ground yourself and your characters.
Gather a detailed map, a calendar, and a guidebook or two. Even
if you create an imaginary town, know which direction the sun rises and
sets. Know the time and
date and day of each scene. This
will help keep you, and your characters, in a real world, one in which
Sunday comes every week, the seasons follow their course, and you can
trace how long it will take to walk from one end of town to the other.
as historical writers, this is harder than it sounds.
A current map has roads and buildings that did not exist when
your story is set. Even
rivers have changed course over time.
Search used book fairs for older guidebooks and travel books.
Often, they include maps, detailed descriptions, photos, and
first person narratives.
a picture is worth a thousand words.
Along with my calendar, guidebook, and map, I always buy a good
picture book or two. One
will be of the physical landscape.
That way, I am not dependent on another writer’s words.
I can look at the picture as my hero or heroine would and let
them describe the scene.
images, photographs, engravings, or paintings, will give you detail no
guidebook or official history will include.
In THE KNAVE AND THE MAIDEN, I had a scene set in the Cathedral
at Exeter. When the Cathedral’s official website gave me a virtual
tour, I discovered that the Cathedral was under construction at the time
of my story. With that
fact, I created a vivid, unique setting that supported the emotional
theme of the scene.
Internet is a gold mine for images.
With a search engine, you can find everything from professional
photography of historic buildings in all seasons to engravings of street
scenes. In addition, many
vacationers now post photos and travelogs.
Not only are those a source of pictures, they can provide first
person descriptions of how hot it can be on the Thames in August.
the devil is in the details. Instead of descriptions of panoramic views, select one small
sensory detail, preferably a sound or a scent.
(There’s nothing wrong with a visual detail, but using the
other senses brings it closer to the character.)
Then, make sure it has emotional resonance for your character. No matter how good your research, it exists only to make your
characters move easily in their world.
It should be inserted only when the character recognizes and
reacts to it for a reason directly related to the storyline.
these techniques, you can build a world that’s real to your characters
and to your readers, even without getting on an airplane---or in a time
Blythe Gifford’s debut novel, THE KNAVE AND THE MAIDEN, is a Harlequin Historicals January 2004 release. According to roundtablereviews.com, “she captures the history without bogging the reader down in trivial details.”
To learn more about Blythe and her upcoming releases, visit her web site at http://www.blythegifford.com
To buy Blythe's book from Amazon.com, click here!
For more sources on Romance Writing, see our Researching the Romance page.
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Copyright 2004, Blythe Gifford