Author Susanna Kearsley has continually impressed readers with her amazing stories that contain passion, mystery and a touch of the paranormal. This month's release, The Rose Garden, which earned a Top Pick! review, is no exception. Want to know how Kearsley was able to add incredible realism to her time travel tale? Check out the following guest blog and make sure to enter to win copies of the author's last two releases by leaving a comment below.
Every story happens somewhere. As a writer it’s important that I “see” the setting of a book and know the way it feels, so I can make a world that feels real to the reader. This can sometimes be a challenge when the setting is historical.
The Rose Garden, for instance, is set partly in the early 18th century, in Cornwall, England. Cornwall is a place I know—I’ve been to both the rugged north and gentler south, but finding how it might have looked to Eva, traveling back in time, took research.
I confess I love the research part of writing. I can blame it on my parents, who were dragging us on family history research trips when I was barely old enough dress myself. I spent many, many happy hours helping my father wrestle down the giant dusty registers of Marriages and Births and search the spidery handwritten lines for mention of my ancestors. I get that same thrill now whenever I find some small hard-to-come-by detail buried deep within a journal or a letter in a library.
But research is a rabbit hole—it’s easy to fall in and just get lost there, and I need to tell a story.
If I’m going to make the past seem real, I need to find the basics: How did people sound when they were speaking to each other? How did they spend their days? What did they wear?
Recreating the past is like piecing a puzzle together. The trick is to track down original sources whenever I can, and not simply rely on what others have written, because some mistakes can get passed down from one history book to another until they take on the appearance of truth, and if I pass them on in my turn I’m as guilty and careless as all those mistaken historians.
Luckily, when it comes to the early years of the 18th century there are plenty of sources that I can make use of, both written and physical.
Diaries, letters, and even the novels of writers of that time (like Daniel Defoe) can provide me with some of the structure of dialogue, showing me how people actually spoke. Often in memoirs and diaries people quote what others said to them, so I find little gems like: “I did not think, said he to me, that such advances had been made to you as I have just now been informed of.” Not that my own characters can ever speak exactly as they would have done in real life—I have to try to balance accuracy with readability—but it’s good to get the rhythm of the local way of speaking.
As for how they lived, in Cornwall you can still find many houses that were standing in the early 18th century, and walk around inside them, noting details like the door locks and the way the stairs were made. Even though they’ve been adapted and added onto through the centuries, you can still see the bones of the original houses, and fill in the blank spots with research.
Here, again, I turn to their own letters and the things they’ve left behind. My previous work in museums has taught me the way to spot what people actually used every day, as opposed to the things that they simply collected for show. It’s a distinction that you have to make with clothes, as well—people were usually painted wearing their Sunday best, and what survives in museums is generally the most beautiful clothing, not the most often worn. Nobody donates great-great-great Grandma’s patched petticoats, only her barely-worn wedding gown.
Still, if you’re patient, the details are there to be found. Cookery books tell you not only what people ate, but also how long it would take to prepare it. (In 1715, you couldn’t decide what you wanted for dinner ten minutes beforehand and just pop it in the microwave, you might be starting to cook shortly after you woke up, and this would affect your whole day). Travelers’ journals tell you what the countryside looked like, what trees were the tallest, what crops you would find in the fields, and how long it might take you to travel the roads. Household inventories (often included with wills) tell you how people furnished their rooms.
Little details like these can help bring the historical background alive for the reader…as long as you don’t try to put it all in! I know more than I need to know about how people washed linens in 1715, but having a whole scene where Eva washed clothes for no reason seemed silly. Use too many facts, and the reader can’t focus. I find it’s the little things, scattered around, that can make a whole picture.
The rest I just keep to myself.
- Susanna Kearsley
GIVEAWAY ALERT: Three lucky readers will each win Susanna Kearsley's recent release The Rose Garden as well as her December 2010 Seal of Excellence winning novel The Winter Sea. To enter, tell us where you would like to go on a research trip of your own. Leave your comments below or email us here with the subject "Susanna Kearsley Giveaway." The winners will be announced Wednesday, October 19th.