Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Research is Fun! - Anne Gracie

People sometimes say to me, "Oh, you're a historical writer -- you must have to do so much research." Or they say, "I'd love to write historicals but I couldn't do all that boring research."


Research is the fun part. I love digging around in old books of letters, or the diaries of people traveling in obscure corners of the world, or writing about their everyday life. Because it might be research, but it's really about people. I enjoy the voice of the writer, as much as what they observe.

Here's a caustic young Irishman describing her first experience in Paris of the new French fashions of 1801.

"They were the first French ladies I had seen and such was the dress of the first of the three demoiselles that I thought some of the Statues out of the Louvre had suddenly caught animation. Nothing could look more like a little "Diana" than Victoire in light (almost transparent) drapery, no sleeves to her gown but gold chain twisted round the upper part of her Arm, into the form of a bracelet and her neck entirely seen. Madame, their mother, was too much en bon point to have such a sylphlike appearance as her daughters. But she did not add to her size by too much covering."


Attending her first French "Thé" (tea party) she says: "My first impression was amazement, at beholding the women from 15 to 70 almost in a state of nature. The Petticoat (or train of the gown, rather) covers however, half the length of the Room, which is a most benevolent disposition to display in a country where there are no many carpets."

I love this girl! She's funny, witty, ironic and quite devastating in her judgments. But she's no famous writer, just a young woman traveling with friends and writing letters back to her brother in Ireland.

Thank goodness he kept them, and years later someone found them, enjoyed them and had them published in a book. I found it in a rare book collection, and used some of her observations in a book called Tallie's Knight.

The other thing about research is you come across unexpected things you don't expect to find, things which, for a novelist, can be like a nugget of gold.

In my latest book (HIS CAPTIVE LADY, out now) my hero and heroine had occasion to visit the foundling hospital in London.

I had planned a quick scene, just a short visit to ask some questions and leave again. I did a little more research on the Foundling Hospital -- and discovered a wonderful, heartbreaking tale that fit perfectly with my story.

The Foundling Hospital accepted only new born babies from unwed mothers of "good character." The children received good care, but would never see their mother again. For 9 years of the hospital's operation, the mothers were encouraged to leave small tokens --really for administration purposes, so their child could be identified in case they changed their mind and wanted their baby back. Of course, these items did not remain merely administrative, but became tokens of love and remembrance for their babies.
Some of the tokens are on display at the Foundling Hospital Museum in London. They range from simple, everyday items -- a nut, a key, a penny with a hole drilled in it, a coin broken in half, a lock, a key -- and there are more personal items; charms, rings, a medal, a bent thimble, a tiny rag doll. There's a mother-of-pearl fish -- perhaps the father was a seaman. There are small embroidered items, things made of twisted wire, letters --some dictated by an illiterate mother, others penned in exquisite copperplate.

Each item, whether valuable or cheap, everyday or unique, told a story, and for me, the sight of these tiny objects, set out in a glass case years after both the mothers and children were dead, was immensely moving.

The tragedy was that the children never saw what their mothers left, never knew they'd left anything. Can you imagine what it would have meant to them, to have some token of love from their mother? But they never had them, never even knew they were there, that their mother had left them anything at all.

Perhaps the administrators of the orphanage were wise, perhaps not. But I ached for those children and their mothers.

And of course I wrote about the tokens in my book. How could I not?

Research -- a hardship? A bore? No way.

If you'd like to read some more about the tokens of the Foundling Museum, read this.


Anna Campbell said...

Oh, Anne, you're right - research is the FUN part of writing historicals. The problem is it can become a black hole that sucks you in and never lets you out. I've learnt to watch for the danger signs of that! The other thing I love about research is the way it can throw up that unexpected, unusual fact that can transform a scene, a book or even lead to a whole next story. LOVE research!

Helen said...

I am sure the reasearch is really fun I love learning about all the interesting things I actually have my grandfathers medical records from WW2 describing when he got shot and all of the things that happened to him including when he was gassed with mustard gas and they were really interesting to read.
I am sure this is one of the reasons why I love historical romance so much because of the things I learn along the way.

Have Fun

Anne Gracie said...

Anna, that's so right -- it can become a black hole. But it's like fossicking for gold because when you come across the one little item -- like the tokens of the foundling hospital, it can add real depth.

Anne Gracie said...

Helen, what a treasure from your grandfather. My grandfather got gassed as well, but all I have of him are the romantic inscriptions he left in books - mainly poetry -- to my grandmother. They're lovely.

You know I never enjoyed a lot of the history we did at school, mostly because it was about events, and not people. But I still knew a lot about history from all the historical novels I devoured when I was a kid.

Jena said...

I love research! even if it's all out of books, it's so interesting to see how everything has changed (or not changed as much as you'd think). I miss that about grad school--I learned so much from all the research I had to do, which I found far more edifying than literary analysis.

Tammy said...

I think the research would be one of the best parts of the job. I'm a history buff and love learning about all sorts of people from the past, it's really taken over my reading right now, I seem to be on some kind of a biography kick. I've just finished a biography of King George V -- it's amazing how much of a "real" person he was.

Maureen said...

Hi Anne,
How sad to see those tokens. I imagine there are a lot of stories in those tokens.