In celebration of her newly released book,
Shirley Raye Redmond is my guest today with an interesting post about the use of historical research in works of fiction.
THE THRILL OF THE CHASE
By Shirley Raye Redmond
I love the thrill of the chase! Because I write primarily nonfiction and historical fiction, I rely heavily on research to enhance my plotting and character development. But when I get my teeth into a juicy historical tidbit, I can’t let go. Generally, I have far more notes and resources going into a new project than I ever use in the final product—whether it’s an historical novel like PRUDENCE PURSUED (Astraea Press, July 2014) or a nonfiction book for teens like CITIES OF GOLD (Cengage Gale).
When it comes to keeping track of my discoveries, I’ve learned the hard way over the years to “spare no ink” and that includes printer ink and the copy machine too. I always photocopy the page with ISBN, copyright date, and publisher’s info. I copy any page I glean information from and make sure the page number is indicated. I use only credible Internet sources (most editors have told me not to use Wikipedia as a quotable source) and I cut and paste the website address on to a resource sheet for my files along with the date I did so. You should also record the date you cut and paste the page in case the site is down by the time an editor wants to verify your facts.
But if I am writing fiction, is all that necessary, you ask? Yes! You’d be surprised how often an editor has wanted me to verify facts mentioned in a novel. One editor made me change the last names of a couple of characters because she didn’t think they were credible (if only I had copied the phone book page where I’d gleaned those names!) and another editor made me change the style and shape of a bookcase in my suspense novel STONE OF THE SUN. So, yes, research matters even in fiction. But of course, I don’t want to do a big information dump in the middle of tale.
Author Jack Bickham once wrote this about descriptive details: “Description must be worked in carefully in bits and pieces to keep your reader hearing and seeing and feeling in your story world. But please note the language here: it must be worked in a bit at a time, not shoveled in by the page.” I believe the same is true about factual information. Sprinkle it around, don’t shovel it.
My latest novel, PRUDENCE PURSUED, was in fact inspired by the research I did on a middle grade biography about Edward Jenner, the British physician responsible for the first smallpox vaccine and the father of immunology. I was a bit surprised to learn he lived and worked before and during the time frame generally known as the Regency period. For a man who launched a highly controversial and yet successful medical treatment, he gets little mention in novels set in that time period. Although the publisher eventually killed the series my Jenner biography was intended to be a part of, I was left with reams of notes and decided to include much of what I’d learned in a Regency romance.
As the horrors of smallpox plays a major role in my story plot, I decided to set tone right away on the first page. Here is the opening scene:
“You should not wear that to the pox party,” Prudence Pentyre said, indicating her younger cousin’s dress of light green Italian silk. “I recommend something with short sleeves which allows you to expose your forearm to the lancet.”
Margaret shuddered. Her plain face, pale and lightly freckled, appeared downcast. “Oh, Pru, I wish I didn’t have to go.” She stood, slender shoulders drooping, in front of her open wardrobe.
“Truly, Meg, there’s nothing to worry about,” Prudence assured her, slipping a comforting arm around her cousin’s slim waist. “Papa had all of us vaccinated with the cow pox when we were still in the school room—and the servants too. I’m quite surprised my Uncle Giles didn’t do the same,” Prudence replied.
A glint of disapproval flashed in her soft brown eyes. Silently, she fumed. Uncle Giles had held too many old-fashioned notions. Such an old stick! He was dead now, having suffered an apoplexy two years ago. Her mother, if she knew of Prudence’s unspoken condemnation, would have reminded her not to speak ill of the dead. This dictate had never made sense to Prudence. Why were some of life’s most unsavory characters deemed to be saints after their deaths? Not that Uncle Giles was unsavory, but he had been shamefully old-fashioned.
“Look, Meg, there’s not even a scar.” Prudence held out a white arm for her cousin’s perusal. “Mr. Jenner’s procedure is almost painless and quite safe, much safer than buying the smallpox and enduring the dreaded disease.”
But as serious as the disease was—killing 1 out of every 4 people that contracted it—I still wanted to get in a little “Jane Austenish” wit in the story too:
Prudence considered her eyes her best physical feature. They were large and expressive. When she had been much younger, an infatuated suitor had once written a poem for her, referring to the subject of his adoration as the, “lovely, ox-eyed Prudent Athena.” Smiling, she recalled this bit of poetic nonsense, but decided not to mention the particular compliment to Margaret. At least not until after the girl had been vaccinated with cowpox and quite recovered from her current state of anxious misery.
Here are a few amazing facts that will help readers of Regency romance appreciate Edward Jenner’s contributions to the era so popular with fiction readers:
(1) In its day, smallpox was referred to as “the speckled monster.
2) It killed hundreds of millions of people—more than the Black Death and the wars of the 20th century put together!
(3) President Thomas Jefferson, who used the Jennerian method to vaccinate his own family, friends, and slaves, once wrote to Jenner: “Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived.”
(4) A woman who was considered a “great beauty” during this time period was usually one who had not been seriously disfigured by smallpox. It was understood by portrait artists of the day that they were not to paint in the disfigurements and pockmarks of their subjects.
(5) Jane Austen’s dearest friend Martha Lloyd was scarred by smallpox for the remainder of her life. Several members of the Lloyd household died from the disease.
A character in Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey is disfigured and crippled by the dreaded disease.
And what do pretty milkmaids have to do with Jenner’s discovery of the possible prevention of smallpox? Read PRUDENCE PURSUED and find out! And enjoy a lively love story along the way.
Shirley Raye Redmond PRUDENCE PURSUED Astraea Press, July 2014 Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords $4.99
Despite Prudence Pentyre’s best efforts, her cousin Margaret proves reluctant to accept Sir James Brownell’s marriage proposal, and fears being “bovinised” if she undergoes the controversial cowpox vaccination he recommends. And the dashing baronet seems more concerned about the spiritual plight of headhunters in Borneo than Margaret’s refusal. Then Prudence suddenly finds herself smitten with the man.
What to do? What to do?