The Healer and the Pirate

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bringing History to Life - Julia London and Karen Hawkins

Back to the Tucson Festival of Books! Again, I went to these panels because they sounded interesting, not because I'm familiar with the authors' works. (But these authors were fun!)

First off, the most interesting note I heard here--so interesting I'll put it at the top--was that Karen Hawkins noted that people weren't THAT much smaller back in the old days. The reason most existant pieces of historical clothing are so small is because smaller pieces are the ones that were left over, because they weren't handed down often--there was no one to fit them. So while people WERE smaller back then, they weren't as tiny as the remaining pieces would lead us to believe.

I was on the fence as to going to this panel and Googled the authors' names to see just what kind of people they were. (The last romance panel I went to was mostly populated by people who wrote stories...ah...not like the kind I would like to read.) I chose this panel because of Karen Hawkins' hilarious entry on fan mail from jailbirds.

Despite the fact that I haven't written any historical fiction yet, I might like to someday. Between that and just how interesting the panel was, I took by far the most notes on this panel versus any other.

The panel was mostly for writing historical ROMANCE, not historical fiction. The difference, according to Julia London, is that historical fiction fictionalizes a historical event, while historical romance uses history as a backdrop.

Karen Hawkins added that in historical fiction, history is the meal, while in historical romance, the history is the dessert--it's a little more escapist, and for a reader, a little more relaxing.

Julia said that you want the backdrop to be right, the houses to have the right details (and in a romance, those houses are going to be castles and Georgian homes, not London hovels).

Karen added, "Almost every person you see in a romance lives in a castle...There's a lot of dukes and a lot of earls out there looking for the right woman." In fiction, it's amazing how many!

Another appealing part of writing historical fiction that Julia noted was playing dress-up in your head.

And Karen said that if you tell people you're researching, they think you're working when really you're looking at fashion plates and thinking, "I'd look good in that!" She went to the Smithsonian (I think it was) and told them she was an author, and got behind-the-scenes.

Both authors write in romantic time periods. ((As an aside, I'd argue that most time periods have been romanticized. I don't find the Civil War period very romantic--at least, I don't see much appeal in the Southern side--but there sure are stories about it!))

Karen says editors want you to write in a time period that's selling. "Write what you love, and love the market."

To find her setting, Karen actually looks at a map until a name catches her attention, then researches the place. She wants complete ownership, so she creates characters completely--she makes up the first name but uses the family name and place, and looks at political aspects.

Julia notes you need to know the geopolitical facts of the period--she even has a reference library on her particular time period (the Regency). She found costuming books in rare bookstores--some circa 1900 had fashions from the 1800s. For her sources, she visits houses and castles in person and picks up and buys booklets and the like.

Karen checks eBay, even books sold by the page. She notes, "I have a whole room--it's supposed to be an office but it's really a library--you could lean against the wall..."

Julia minored in history. She also read a lot of literature from the time period. She likes to get authentic names (though some you think are new are actually old). Her name sources are graveyards and

Karen admits she uses Wikipedia as a jumping-off point. She noted that Wikipedia says she has a Ph.D. in political science--"That's not true but I'm not gonna change it." She also reads books from the time period before starting writing, to get into the voice/tone. (She's read so many historical newspaper reports, she said she's become disgusted with the French!) But she makes changes, such as using more contractions than they did, and changing marriage laws and history when it suits the story. She'll listen to Scottish accent tapes before starting, to get the accent--but too much accent will pull the reader out of the story.

Julia suggests using a couple words a character says to bring out the accent without being cumbersome.

Karen also suggests looking up letters written in the time period (like letters from Byron, though a lot of the letters are really boring). She says to make friends with your local librarian, especially the University librarian.

If writing further back, like Elizabethan, Karen suggests researching important people and reading the biographies. The back of biographies often list other books that are better resources. She also suggested local academic resources, like Ph.D. works. Noting that you'll learn 800 facts and only use one, she added, "You have to sacrifice the history to the story. If it slows your pacing down or disrupts the story flow," you have to leave the facts out. She said to avoid author intrusions and info dumps. Info dumps can work but the story is what makes it sell.

Julia noted that pacing has to be faster now because attention spans are shorter.

Karen said, "Today's readers don't have time." You can use a detail to remind the reader where they are, and lace it throughout the whole book. "Add a horse," she said.

"Or a reticule," Julia added.

Karen said mistakes will always be there. Sometimes you think you know something. If traditionally published, an editor goes through the book, and then it goes to a copy editor, who is supposed to check every fact. All copy editors will find SOME things, but not all will go through the book as thoroughly.

As far as history, an audience member noted that historical fiction readers often read the afterword before they start reading the book.

Julia and Karen agreed that the appeal of the Regency period is that Jane Austen is so accessible. Julia said men were strong but chivalrous, and women were strong but nice--it was a gentler time. Karen cited that people have an image in their mind what Regency is; I believe one of them mentioned that there's kind of a framework built already, so you don't have to go into as much historical detail, since readers are familiar with it.

For her process, Karen says she writes a 12-15 page treatment, then an outline, and researches during the outline. "If I did not have an outline," she said, "I would still be on my first book" and I think she said it would be 900,000,000 words long. She doesn't stick to the outline, but it gets her going.

Both authors read what they wrote the day before, edit it, and then get going. ((I often do that too!))

For relationships, Karen watches the dynamics of real couples, reads self-help books for ideas (anxiety attacks, PTSD, and co-dependency all existed before they had a name for it). Julia remembers that men had all the power, and women did not--that's different from today.

She also notes that in publishing, the cover is supposed to sell and appeal to as broad an audience as possible. You tell them what you want, they say "Thank you for the suggestion," and then you get what you get.

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