Saturday, February 22, 2003

Doing Research for Historical Fiction

By Rita Gerlach

Doing research for the historical novel can either be one of the most tedious jobs for a writer or one of the most enjoyable, besides writing the novel itself. We hear the phrase, "write what you know." Research helps you do just that.

The writer should look at the task of researching as an adventure, an unveiling of facts that perhaps have long been forgotten. Research will help you capture the setting of your novel. It will enable and equip you to make your novel flow and come alive. It will enhance your narrative. It will allow you to help the reader hear, taste, touch, smell, and see the setting as well as your characters.

There are steps you can take to effectively research your novel.

1. The Local Library: Research does not have to be mind-boggling. The first step is researching the location of your novel. Think of who, what, when, where, and why. Your local library is an excellent place to begin.

For example your novel takes place during the War of 1812. The first place I would start for simple and basic historical facts in the juvenile section. There you should find a book outlining the events of the war. Search for the style of dress, modes of transportation, what people ate, music, medicine, etc. Check encyclopedias and reference books.

By now you have gathered some basic information. But how do you find those hidden facts? Where are those untold stories? Reference books and biographies can provide a lot of information. But your best source is your librarian. Ask for help, and tell the librarian you are writing a novel and need additional information the encyclopedias and reference books cannot provide. Your librarian should be able to direct you to the best information available.

When I was writing a novel about 18th century Maryland, I visited "The Maryland Room" at my local library. It is open at certain times of the week and is attended by a librarian. The books for the most part are old, and therefore a treasure-trove of history. It is my belief the older the resource, the more accurate the information.

2. Local Historical Societies: Local historians usually run their historical society. Go in and ask questions. Ask to see any documents that might enhance your vision. Not only do historical societies have original documents and pictures, they might also have works of art and photographs.

3. Historical Sites: If possible, visit the historical sites in your subject area. Attend reenactments. Take a historical tour. Visit sites through the eyes of your characters.

4. New and Used Bookstores: Many out-of-print history books may be found at your used bookstore, and local bookstores may have an excellent history section.

5. The Internet is a wellspring of information. In writing the historical novel, you can find sites on everything from period clothing to detailed historical events. One thing that has helped me in writing my novels is to visit sites with period paintings. Often enough I find portraits of both famous and not so famous historical figures. Interestingly, I find that the book covers of historical novels, especially in the romance genre, do not reflect the way people looked in ages past.

Here are two excellent links for historical content.

PBS's American Experience:

The History Net:

Lastly, remember that by gathering significant information you add zest to your story in order to engage readers. However, be alert to the danger of adding too much information. Don't spend so much time on research that you never start writing, that the inspiration begins to fade. Gather just enough material to validate your story historically and hold the reader's interest. Remember you are writing a novel, not a thesis on the history of Whatever Town.

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Catherine's Heart: A Victorian Romance

Lawana Blackwell continues her historical fiction "Tales of London" series with Catherine's Heart, the follow-up to the tender and sweet Maiden of Mayfair story. It is now 1880, and Sarah and William, and Naomi and Daniel (Sarah's father), live quite comfortably, even enjoying the very newest technology of the day -- telephones.

The story now focuses on Sarah's cousin, Catherine -- only briefly mentioned in the previous book -- and her years at a women's college. In contrast to Sarah, Catherine has lived a life of ease, sheltered by good parents, education and travels abroad to India. Like Sarah, Catherine sometimes lacks good judgment, especially as regards the intentions of would-be suitors -- a quality developed more intensely than in Sarah's case, which was a rather small plot development in The Maiden of Mayfair. Catherine's girlfriends at school add to a story of the idyllic 1880s college life -- yet a realistic world with its own jealousies and conflicts between close friends.

Back from the first book, and more fully developed, is William's nemesis, Sidney. Rounding out the cast is a rather unpleasant family with over-indulged children, for a full look at a less-than-perfect Victorian world. As with the first book, some notable characters are lacking in good morals and virtue.

The historical context involves the early days of Girton College, an actual women's college opened in 1873 in Cambridge. (The school is still in operation, though as a co-ed school since the late 1970s.) Neighboring Newnham was another women's college in the area, as mentioned in the story. The characters in Catherine's Heart convey, too, the spirit of the school at this time -- its emphasis on a classical education, with additional offerings in science fields, and chaperoned visits to Cambridge a few miles away -- where the women would likely encounter the male college students.

The plot in Catherine's Heart lacks the moving, emotionally-stirring story of an orphan restored to higher English society. Still, the story serves a nice addition to a series about life in Victorian times, with the strength of characters we have come to love from the first book.

Saturday, February 1, 2003

Review of "The Rebel's Pledge": A peak at 17th Century England and America's Maryland

Reviewed by Bonnie Toews

Rita Gerlach has remarkable talent as a writer. She captures the past and makes it live for today's readers. At the same time, she remains true to life in 17th Century Maryland and England during the English rebellion--in dialogue, social mores and historical fact. Rita's characters become like family--you don't want to leave them at the end of her novel--so if she continues to use them in future stories, readers will welcome them back into their literary lives.

"The Rebel’s Pledge"
begins in 1686, just as the English Rebellion against King James is at its height. Mathew Hale is one of the rebels who is caught and faces execution. By Royal Decree, however, he escapes the hangman’s noose to be sentenced to live out his remaining life as a slave in the colonies. On a Maryland plantation, Hale’s new owner Edmund Carey learns his slave is the son of a man who saved his life during the English Civil War. When Indians attack Carey’s home and ravage his land, Hale saves his owner’s life. Carey is so grateful that he frees Hale from slavery. With a chance to go anywhere he pleases, Hale elects to stay with Carey as his foreman. When Carey becomes very ill, he beseeches Hale to go to England to fetch his estranged daughter so she can see him and the plantation that she will inherit before he dies. At Green Glade Manor in England, Laura has lived under her rich uncle’s guardianship. This brother of her mother is an ambitious man, and betroths her to an aristocrat, a man whose fortune he hopes will benefit both of them. Unfortunately, Laura’s fiancĂ© is a man with his own hidden agenda, and when Hale arrives, she escapes with him to America and to her father. In love, she and Hale marry, but soon afterward, Laura’s spurned aristocrat lover accuses Hale of murder and kidnaps Laura from her plantation home. Now Hale must make his way back to England to clear his name, find his wife, discover the real murderer and confront the man who wants to destroy his and Laura’s life together. Can he forgive the man who brought so much pain to his family? Or will he become the thing he despises?

Thus, the true drama begins, pitting Laura and Mathew Hale in a duel of conflicting class distinctions and treachery that stretches across two continents. From the opening page to the last word, this poignant love story is set in the midst of swashbuckling suspense. What a way to learn about American history! Through the heart of fiction. I predict, in time, Rita Gerlach will become an adored household name to readers and fans of historical fiction.

Reviewer's bio: Bonnie Toews is a national award-winning business journalist whose articles and editorials have appeared in Canadian magazines and newspapers. Through a career that has ranged from teacher to editorial director of a major publishing company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, she now freelances and writes fiction novels as a hobby.

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