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Rainy-day medicine and fun research
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It's been sheeting down rain here, with chilly temperatures and gray skies, and in combination with my 3rd-trimester exhaustion, I've been seriously in need of a pick-me-up. So I am SO glad to have discovered Sarah Rees Brennan's hilarious "fairy tale" romance (with strong sarcastic finger quotes) An Old-Fashioned Unicorn's Guide to Courtship, which has just been published online in Coyote Wild's YA fantasy issue. When I first started reading it, I was feeling really tired and down, but by the end of the first scene I was laughing out loud. It really was the perfect medicine for a gray, rainy day - so, please read it! You'll be glad you did. :)

And I've been having a fun research day. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about writing historical fiction came from Connie Willis, whose many historical novels I really admire. (To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of my favorite novels ever.) She was one of my teachers at Clarion West, and when I asked her for advice on writing historicals, she said, "Write the rough draft FIRST. Then do the research! It's only after you finish the first draft that you know what you'll need to know." And she was so right. Before I took her advice, I used to spend forever and ever reading up on a period before I ever let myself start writing a story set there...and of course, you'll NEVER know "enough" about a period to declare yourself done (at least not if you're a perfectionist like me), which means that that's just asking to enter a never-ending cycle of all research and no more writing ever...and, inevitably, I would end up bursting with historical details that would never, ever make it into the novel, no matter how hard I tried to cram them in...but still lacking all of the details that actually turned out to be relevant and important once the story actually began.

Ever since absorbing Connie's good advice, my process has been to start out with at least a good sense of the period (which is made easier by the fact that I lazily only write about historical periods I'm pretty familiar with already), but then to go ahead, write a full first draft, and just stick brackets around all the details that pop up during that draft. (For instance, "he scooped up his [type of hat] hat from the table..." or "the street was lit only by [?????? what????? eep!!!! FIND OUT!!!!]...") It leads to a pretty scary-looking first draft (one of the reasons I don't show anybody except Patrick my very first drafts!), but it is a super-efficient system. This way, at the end of the draft, I have a targeted list already laid out of exactly the historical details I need to look up.

Sometimes the post-draft research leads to big changes - for instance, the layout of the thermal baths in Bath in 1803 turn out to be very different from how I'd imagined them, so I've been working hard to rewrite the descriptions and choreography of my scenes in the baths. Most of the time, though, it's just a matter of filling in all the little brackets, one by one. Today, my mission was to find out whether there were streetlamps in 1803 Bath...and not only did I find some great contemporary descriptions of those streetlamps (I love you, Googlebooks!), including sarcastic commentary by early 19th-century residents (the streetlamps were apparently NOT effective, to say the least), but it also led to me finding a wonderful new-to-me 19th-century nonfiction book, Domestic Life in England, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, published in 1835 by the "Editor of The Family Manual and Servant's Guide". Since it's waaaay out of copyright, I was even able to download it as a PDF to keep and savor at my leisure...and ohhh, even the Table of Contents is fun for a history geek. (My favorite section title, in the chapter on 14th-century dress, is: "Extravagant Coxcombry"! Who could resist?)

This book is a perfect example of why it's safer for me to do the research after the first draft. It would be sooooo easy just to sink into it and giggle for hours over cool weird bits and odd, unrelated historical trivia, then go hunting for other books along the same lines to follow random, interesting historical byways...and, of course, that would be so much easier than actually writing/revising KbS! But I am being strong. I have closed down the PDF and I am not allowed to read any more until I have at least, for heaven's sake, filled in the brackets in the night-time street scene to include some streetlamps, because that was the whole point of the research. Wasn't it? Hmmm...

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