Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bringing Historical Fiction to Life ... by Sheri Cobb South

“Oh, I could never write a historical novel—all that research!”

I sometimes get that response from people after they ask what I write. And it’s true that sometimes I end up spending a long time chasing down historical ephemera. But any novel requires research, regardless of the time period in which it’s set. Come with me, and I’ll walk you through some of the research I did for Family Plot, the third of the John Pickett mysteries set in Regency England, in order to bring this story to life.

I’ve read and written in the Regency period so long that I know a lot of it already. Clothing, title usage, etc.—these things I don’t have to look up, except in unusual cases. The setting for this book, however, did require a little research. Because of a twist I had planned for the ending, I needed a place with particular marriage laws. Scotland was the best known, but I’d learned while researching a long-ago (unpublished) novel that the island of Jersey had similar laws regarding marriage. So I decided the book would be set in one of those two places. I know there are readers who are obsessed with all things Scottish; they would be sure to spot any errors. Jersey had the appeal of being less well-known, so maybe—

Oops. Jersey is only twelve miles off the coast of France, and since Napoleon Bonaparte was running amok there at the time (something else I knew from my long acquaintance with the period), no one in their right mind would go there for a holiday in 1808. Scotland it would have to be. And then there was John Pickett’s boss, the real-life magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, who was Scottish. Maybe I could tie him into the story in a bigger role, especially since reader feedback indicated that readers enjoyed the father-son relationship between Mr. Colquhoun and the young Pickett.

Okay, now that the location was settled, it was on to the baby name books and internet sites of common Scottish names, both Christian and surnames. With the characters roughed out, it was time to start thinking about this murder. I’d already decided it would be a case of poisoning, so I turned to my attention to my research books and the internet to find a poison that would have been available to my characters. I discovered that the heart medicine digitalis had been in use since the mid-1700s; digitalis was (and still is) derived from the foxglove plant, which was known to be poisonous in sufficient quantities. Furthermore, it was indigenous to Scotland, where it was known as “dead man’s bells.” Yes! (I confess to one embarrassing moment where foxglove is concerned: while shopping for flowers at Lowe’s I came across a table of flowering purple foxgloves. Without even thinking about it, I exclaimed to my husband, “Look, Mike! Foxglove! I killed somebody with that!” They have my picture hanging in Lowe’s now.)

Since I planned to have a body wash up on the beach, I had to do some geographic research, as well. Was the southwestern coast of Scotland sandy? Rocky? I had to know, so I could set my stage accordingly. What about the tides? Growing up vacationing along the Alabama Gulf Coast, I’d thought a single high and low tide each day, spaced roughly twelve hours apart, was the norm everywhere. I was surprised to learn this is actually the exception to the rule, as most places (including the coast of Scotland) have two high and two low tides per day. I let an old fisherman explain the tides to Pickett, having him note that “it’s different in some parts of the world” lest other Gulf Coast dwellers think I’d gotten it wrong!

The book’s climax sent me back to botanical research. If I threw my heroine off a cliff, would there be a plant she could hang onto? I seemed to remember mentions of gorse, so that was a good starting place. Sure enough, gorse might be found growing there, but it has prickles. I could use it, but I would have to be sure to make some mention of scratches on her arms for it to be at all realistic.

Granted, it’s easy to obsess about research. I know Regency authors who feel they have to know what the weather was like on a certain date, what phase the moon was in, etc. before they can write. I think that sort of attention to detail can be crippling; let’s face it, most readers won’t know, or care, if it rained on October 19, 1808. If I can lace my story with enough facts to convince my readers that it “might” have happened this way, that’s good enough for me.


Thanks for being my guest today, Sheri. It's always a pleasure to host another Five Star/Cengage author...and it's a special bonus to discover we're neighbors.

At the age of sixteen, Sheri Cobb South discovered Georgette Heyer, and came to the startling realization that she had been born into the wrong century. Although she doubtless would have been a chambermaid had she actually lived in Regency England, that didn’t stop her from fantasizing about waltzing the night away in the arms of a handsome, wealthy, and titled gentleman.

Since Georgette Heyer was dead and could not write any more Regencies, Ms. South came to the conclusion she would simply have to do it herself. In addition to her popular series of Regency mysteries featuring idealistic young Bow Street Runner John Pickett (described by All About Romance as “a little young, but wholly delectable”), she is the award-winning author of several Regency romances, including the critically acclaimed The Weaver Takes a Wife.

A native and long-time resident of Alabama, Ms. South recently moved to Loveland, Colorado, where she has a stunning view of Long’s Peak from her office window.

Learn more about Sheri and her books at her website. She can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's quite the thread you follow for your storyline.
Funny story about Lowe's!

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting SHeri.

Sheri - Thanks for sharing how your novel came together. I have a lot of respect for authors such as yourself who write historical fiction. It really does require a lot of good research.

Dean K Miller said...

I think I'd get lost in the research and then the travel to make sure my research was correct! Congrats on your continued success and thanks again Pat for another great guest.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I'm impressed with how much you know about your period but also with the flexibility you have in some of your choices. I enjoyed the description of how your story and the details developed.