Guest Blogger: Naomi Rawlings & Give Away!
Thanks, Angie, for inviting me back to the Writers Alley today, and thanks to you other Alley Cats for having me. My debut novel, Sanctuary for a Lady released on April 1, 2012, and is set during the French Revolution.
Most novelists and aspiring novelists know that unless you set a book in your hometown or state, you probably won’t be taking a trip to research your novel’s setting. That’s doubly true for me, the mother of two young boys and the wife of a pastor, who hasn’t the time nor the funds to take off to Europe on a research trip for a story that may or may not ever see publication. In the case of Sanctuary for a Lady, the novel did get published. But I had no idea that would be the result when I started writing the book in the summer of 2010.
So then the question arises, how can you accurately portray a country or time or place you’ve never visited?
Well, you’ve really only one option: Research.
I cringe as I type the word “research,” because research is and probably always will be my least favorite part of writing. But here’s a few pointers, per Angie’s request.
1. Study the mindset of the time and place you’re writing about.
With all the information so readily available on the internet and through inter-library loan books, one can easily loose himself or herself in studies on vegetation, climate and the like. Would you believe I spent very little time studying the climate and vegetation of Abbeville, France? At most I put two hours into it, and no one who’s read Sanctuary for a Lady has come back and said, “But you didn’t describe the trees very well. I really needed to know whether those thick trees your heroine hid behind were maple or oak.”
Studying mindset, on the other hand, allows you to know how your characters think, which in turn leads to deeper and more realistic characters. If you can make your characters think like a Kansas farmer from the 1880s or a Wisconsin logger from the 1890s or a ship captain from the 1810s, your characters will come alive. They will have their own opinions and views of things relevant to their lives. You will be able to naturally incorporate details and events from the time period without digressing into long paragraphs of explanation and boring your readers.
There are two ways to study mindset. One is to dive into original sources, which is the most accurate and best way to get a feel for a time period. Journals, diaries, classics written during the time period in which your novel’s set, can all help. Google Books is a great source for this. You can used the “advanced search” feature to find books published between certain years, limiting your search to things published around the time your novel is set.
The second way to study mindset is by using a broad overview approach. Find current research and sources that give you an overview of the era your studying. For example, I might have two or three books on the French Revolution. Even though I only needed to know about early 1794 for Sanctuary for a Lady, understanding the events that led up to 1794 France was crucial. Then maybe I would have a book on peasant clothing during that period. And a book about French Revolutionary soldiers, and a book about local governments of the French Revolution, and maybe even a book about the Reign of Terror. As I glance through this stack of books, I’ll look for individual examples and scenarios that will help explain how the people living in that time period would have thought, and provide glimpses into everyday life.
This is the method I tend to favor, and it’s actually the weaker of the two. But given my hatred for research, I count myself lucky to endure even this much studying. I actually think writers’ research methods go back to the type of learners they are. I’m a global learner. I need to have a broad picture and be able to see the end of the road before I start my journey. So I find current research books, even research books with just a chapter or two overview on my time period very helpful. Then I’ll dive into a few original sources simply to ease my conscience.
2. Have your setting affect your characters.
For Sanctuary for a Lady, instead of going into long, boring details about how the revolution was affecting France, I created characters that represented different factions of the revolution. My heroine, Isabelle de La Rouchecauld, is a royalist. My hero, Michel Belanger, is a federalist (the side I would have chosen, had I lived through the French Revolution). And my villain is a radical.
By using characters with opposing mindsets, these personalities clashed naturally as the book unfolded (which also provided an extra source of tension). Plus I was able to give readers a good flavor of the French Revolution. So my setting and the mindsets from that era actively affected both who the characters were and their interactions with each other.
For further study, Donald Maass has a really great section on this in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. He uses an example of an author doing this with the Civil War and creating a cast of characters on both sides of that conflict.
3. Focus on the aspects of setting that affect conflict and your story line.
Doing this not only keeps both tension and setting at the forefront of your novel, but it also allows you to decide what historical details are worth keeping and which are worth skipping over. If you find yourself writing a story about a dressmaker in New York City or Boston, then fashion will be an integral part of your story. For someone writing a story about peasants in northern France during a war, fashion was the last thing on my mind. (And it’s a good thing, too, as it’s rather difficult to find information on what peasants wore in the middle of a war. Information abounds on what the upper class wore, but I’ve found virtually nothing about peasants.)
One way I did this in Sanctuary for a Lady, was with wood. You’ll find specific woods mentioned. Not the kind that describe the forest, but specific woods used for FURNITURE MAKING. You see, my hero wants to be a furniture maker and is always working on one project or another. This furniture making is a source of conflict, because at the beginning of the French Revolution, local and national governments used guilds to regulate how many people could work a particular trade. So my hero, though he’s an excellent furniture maker, isn’t allowed to actually sell anything he makes. And tada! There you have the setting affecting the conflict in an active, non-boring way. Furthermore, when my hero and heroine fight and get mad at each other, guess where my hero goes to work off his steam? That’s right, his workshop. So now I’ve got the romantic thread in my story also affecting the setting and vice versa.
If you have any further questions, I’d love for you to ask them. I should be around for most of the day, and I’ll try to answer you as best as I can.
Would you like a free copy of Sanctuary for a Lady? Let us know in the comments section and we'll enter you in the drawing!