In my first Mary Bennet novel, I had a ready-created world, kindly provided for me by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. I had no desire or need to stray from that – the point of the novel was to take an aspect of that world and run with it, to imagine what happened after P&P ended – for all the characters, but particularly for Mary – and to stay true to the universe of the original novel with some broadening out of landscape and particularly of Mary’s inner world.
In the novel I’m working on now, the sequel to the sequel, Mary is no longer in Jane Austen’s world, and although I am hanging on to some of the characters (because I love them too much to let them go), I’m having to imagine my own Regency world.
Of course, there’s Georgette Heyer to steal from, but I have tried very hard to excise all Heyerisms from my writing – which isn’t easy, given the number of times I’ve reread her books. I recently picked up a Regency period historical – ever hopeful to find the equivalent of an unread Heyer – and was horrified at how many direct steals there were in the dialogue in the first chapter (the author kind of gave up after that and went all MA-in-Creative-Writing on my ass but that’s another story). [Ouch. I can’t believe I’ve got ass and Georgette Heyer in the same sentence].
Thing is, Heyer invented her own Regency world, with its own highly researched but also highly stylised language, and its own social parameters, and I don’t think other writers can use her research and keep authentic. Also it’s just so glaringly obvious to any Heyer aficianado that they’ve simply stolen her research and her style.
(Will I ever get to the point???)
The pleasures of research, the pleasures of research. It’s not so much getting accuracy of facts: facts are great – which kind of carriage, what you call that bit of a frock etc – but far more interesting to me is what would have felt like to live in that world. The noise, the smell, the utilities, how you pay a bill, what’s it like if you’re neither an aristocrat or a pauper, but earning a living somewhere in the middle, what are the pavements made of, who cleans the street, how was that banquet for 1200 people at the Lord Mayor’s organised, who did the catering, how did they get the courses ready on time, what was it like to be on stage having sung a big duet and have the pit and the boxes roaring at each other over whether you were going to do an encore or not?
There is a lot of music, both professional and amateur in my current project, so I’m reading a lovely book about Haydn’s trip to London at the end of the 18th century, to try and get a feel for what it was like to live and work as a musician at the time. Haydn speaks to my heart, not just in his music, but in his curiosity about this country he’s arrived in. He likes figures, he’s interested in how much things cost, he’s interested in the domestic and thinks it worth commenting about.
Here are some bits that I particularly like, and which open up a sense of everyday life at the time and also give a sense of the continuity of ordinary urban experience that it’s still possible to identify with:
“I have nice and comfortable, but expensive, lodgings. My landlord is Italian, and also a cook, and serves me 4 very respectable meals including wine and beer.”
“The noise that the common people make as they sell their wares in the street is intolerable.”
“The City of London keeps 4,000 carts for cleaning the streets, and 2,000 of these work every day.” (Helps you imagine what the streets must have been like)
“Oranges from Portugal arrive in the middle of November, but they are quite pale and not so good as they are later.”
“Lord Barrymore gave a ball that cost 5,000 guineas. He paid 1,000 guineas for 1,000 peaches. 2000 baskets of gusberes [gooseberries], 5 shillings a basket.” (That was in May: how do you get peaches and gooseberries in May in England?)
This is from a flyer for a concert:
“Tickets transferable, as usual, Ladies to Ladies and Gentlemen to Gentlemen only.” (What? Why have gender-based tickets? What was that about?)
“The subscribers are intreated (sic) to give particular orders to their Coachmen to set and take up at the Side Door in the Street, with the Horses’ Heads towards the Square.” (Of course you’d have to have all the carriages facing the same way – these things had to be thought of.) “The Door in the Square is for Chairs only.” (Yes, don’t forget that lots of people would arrive by chair. It was 1791)
But a final caveat. This is what Bernard Cornwell says about research, and he’s generally worth listening to, whether you like his books or not:
Research, how much is needed? The answer is annoyingly contradictory – both more than you can ever do and only as much as is needed. By that I mean that you can never know enough about your chosen period, and so your whole life becomes a research project into the 16th or 18th or whatever century it is you are writing about, but when it comes to a specific book there really can be too much research. Why explore eighteenth century furniture making if the book doesn’t feature furniture? Do as much research as you feel comfortable doing, write the book and see where the gaps are, then go and research the gaps. But don’t get hung up on research – some folk do nothing but research and never get round to writing the book.