11 February 2007

Does history fuel your imagination?

Last week, I heard my husband emit an unearthly scream from the living room.

"BONNIE!!!"

It meant one of two things: A) He saw something fascinating on television and wanted me to see it. B) The new dog had an accident on the rug again and he was screaming as if I had total and complete control over the dog's output.

Fortunately, it was the former. DH was watching a show about the mystery surrounding King Tutankhamun's death. Ever since we visited the King Tut exhibit in Fort Lauderdale, DH has been hooked. I sat down to watch with him, engrossed more in the fact that DH had been tutified than the program itself. With each fact revealed, he turned to me in amazed excitement. "Egyptians used honey to stop infection?" he asked.

"Yes, dear." (I used that fact in The Tiger & the Tomb when Katherine heals Ramses' shoulder wound.)

"And they used moldy bread on wounds as well!"

"Yes dear," I replied. "Did you also know that in ancient Egypt, women would stick crocodile excrement in their um-hum as birth control?"

At that little revelation, DH turned green as the moldy bread.

Does history fuel the fire of your imagination? Do you ever wonder, "How did they live?" "What if this really happened?" "How could I use this in a book?"

I grew up reading historical romances. Those romances taught me more about history than I ever learned in the classroom. Now I write books woven with Egyptian history. Part of the fun is exploring possibilities. When I wrote The Panther & the Pyramid, I researched Khufu's pyramid and ancient Egyptian myths. I used author license to speculate that the pharaoh, after hearing the tale of a powerful magician, could have buried a golden crocodile treasure deep in Egypt's Western desert. Myth? Of course. But the cave Graham and Jillian discover is no myth. I used an actual cave off an old camel path as the setting for my buried treasure. The Djara Cave, discovered by German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs in 1873, still exists today.

History also gives me ideas to bring a time period to life. In my March Leisure release, The Sword & the Sheath, Tarik fights to have Fatima removed as his bodyguard. He'd rather have her in his bed. The book is set 1919, a period of drastic change for Egypt when the populace fought to overthrow British rule. Just as everyday Egyptians rebelled against the British, Fatima rebels against Tarik's arrogant attitude that women cannot be warriors. I used the actual women's march against the British occupation as a backdrop in the book. Organized by Hoda Sha'rawi, the historic march of upper class Egyptian women set the stage for Sha'rawi to pioneer the Egyptian feminist movement. Just as Sha'rawi courageously challenges British authority, Fatima does the same within her own tribe.

Who else likes history woven into their stories? Would you rather read a book with real historical figures in it or one that reflects the time period?

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm a history nut, and prefer books that incorporate historical figures, settings, and events into the body of the book. The time period matters little. I like them all--from ancient history to recent history.

Anonymous said...

I heard that about the crocodile dung and contraception. I love historicals with an unusual setting and/or plot. People don't want to read about Regency England *all* the time.

Alice

Pamela Clare said...

Personally, I want lots of history in my historicals. I don't want it all to be fiction. I want to know that the places and incidents that make up the backdrop of the story are true and have been well researched. That's one reason Regencies interest me less. The manners, habits and society of the ton might be well researched, but that's not enough for me. I've never cared much about society, so reading about it doesn't interest me much.

But then I'm terribly biased -- archaeology degree, history nut, romance writer.

Cool idea for a blog. I had been thinking of starting some kind of website/blog just to promote historicals as a subgenre, so this is a fantastic idea.

And LOL about the DH shouting from the living room, Bonnie. :-)

Anna said...

Pamela! Squee! Great to see you here, and I totally agree on wanting lots of history in my historicals. Isn't that the point of a historical, that it's, well, historical?

When I read or write a historical romance, I expect both. Not only can there be no hero for this heroine but this hero, and vice versa, but their story couldn't happen at any other time than this time, whatever it is.

Bookwormom said...

I too enjoy history & historical fiction and historical romance. However- it's important to me that the author balances the historical content and the romantic storyline if the title is to be marketed as a romance. More than wallpaper & less than 'straight lit' or history. It's a delicate balancing act I realize.

That being said, I enjoy reading about the fictionalization of actual characters. What if scenarios fuel my imagination. Thankfully, I'm not a reader who has trouble suspending reality (moist of the time) when reading.

~Amanda

Mimi Riser said...

Oooo, yes, I love it when actual people, places, and events, etc. are incorporated into the story (as an author, I've been guilty of that myself, in fact ;-) ... By the way, in holistic medicine, honey is still a recommended treatment for wounds even today (not too sure about the crocodile dung, tho)...

Mimi :-)

carrie_lofty said...

One of the most exciting things I find when I write is drawing plot inspiration from research -- and using my fiction as an excuse to learn new things. For my current WIP, I have been studying medieval chemistry and the ballads of Robin Hood. For Serenade, I learned SO MUCH about music and the history of Salzburg. I also incorporated a number of historic figures: Kapellmeister Michael Haydn (Joseph's younger brother), Grand Duke Ferdinand III, Ludwig van Beethoven, and a most AWESOME never-heard-of her violin virtuoso named Regina Strinasacchi. She was so obscure that I went out of my way to do a Wikipedia entry for her from my research.

I don't forsee that many historic figures in future novels -- just turned out that way with this one.

Vicki Gaia said...

I love to add interesting events to my historicals. For Eliza's Hope, I purposedly chose 1913 to include the shocking and controversy Amory Show in NYC. It was a major art exhibit featuring for the first time together, the French modern artists of the times. Many critics were horrified by what they viewed. They called the artists "insane" and "neurotic psychopathic freaks", wanting "cheap notoriety". How times have change! One of the paintings by Redon is featured in my story.

Alice Duncan said...

I absolutely love historical facts in books. Guess that's why I write historicals, huh? in actual fact, I try to stay as far away from reality as possible, and history does it for me every time!

Zoe Archer said...

If I didn't love history, I wouldn't write historicals. But, as I've said again and again, I love to do research, and find ways to incorporate what I've learned in a way that isn't pedantic or halts the natural progression of the characters and story. Sadly, I haven't been able to retain the facts about how people brewed beer in the 19th century, or the principles of 18th century botany, but as long as I sound convincing on the page, I'm happy.

I avoid putting real historical figures in my books--too much pressure. I may reference them, but they won't make "special guest appearances" in my work.

Michelle Styles said...

I love and adore history. And I love adding little facts to my work.
I suspect I like the lesser known parts about history -- how did ordinary people live, how did they cope with life, etc etc rather than political history on a grand scale.
I have always felt that hisotrical romance is a good way for people to learn about hisotry and realise that it does not have to be dull, that people did have emotions and complicated lives. That they didn't stand around pontificating on street corners.

The bottom line is that history is fascinating.

And as a beekeeper, yes I knew about the uses of honey in medicine. Non heat treated honey contains any number of anti bacterial properties and is great for allergies...It also tastes a thousand times better than the heat treated mixture you can purchase on most supermarket shelves.

Eliza said...

I love to learn from fiction. The lie that tells the truth and all, I suppose. I'm reading the first of Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series right now (I've read three others, but I got the first few for Christmas -- I adore my MIL!), and she's got tons of facts interspersed with the fiction. I love it!

When I'm reading about New York or the old American southeast, I like to see geographical references, too -- since I know the places it makes things more real for me.

I'm with Michelle in that I like to see the everyday stuff, like how to use all the turn-of-the century household contraptions my grandfather's given us. Even though we don't use our bacon press for anything more than a sort of bookend for our hot chocolate packets, we have one!

Atrocity Gods has some real people in it like Ignazio Saietta (Lupo the Wolf) and Joe Petrosino, a real newspaper article about a central murder in the book and a scene about the real arraignment of those suspected in the murder.

So yes, if you want to give me as much fact as fiction, I'm not gonna complain.

Tess said...

I LOVE tons of history in anything I read. As for real people, it all depends on the story.

History fuels my imagination big time - part of the problem with watching history documentaries is I get yet more story ideas.

Marjorie Jones said...

I tend to have a mixture of actual history and impressionist history in my books. Impressionist history being that way 'we' see the past vs. how it actually was. A very popular historical author once told me, "If I wrote an historically accurate novel, nobody would believe me."

I may have mentioned it before, that someone told me I couldn't have an Inn where I put one in My Lady's Will. (The heroine runs away from the hero and ends up there on her way to find someone to escort her back to London). Anyway, my response was "Prove it. Go dig up the entire English/Scottish border and get back to me."

I've read sooo many historicals and took every word as gospel truth. The writers had to have researched the things they were putting in their books right? Imagine my surprise when I learned that alot of what we read in those bodice-rippers of the eighties and early nineties wasn't fact at all. The writers 'invented' a good portion of it. What? Writers using their imagination? The nerve!

Now, some have said they are angry when this happens, that the book is a wall-banger and they'll never trust the writer again. Trust? These writers aren't balancing my checkbook. It's a novel. It's meant to entertain and if the writer's imagination says that an English lord is going to marry the younger daughter of an opium-addicted Scottish laird in an attempt to find out who murdered his brother, and that the bedding ceremony of said marriage includes the young woman being stripped down to her tah-tahs in front of fifty people to give the newly-wed-groom the option of repudiating her based on her appearance (a scene I've read but can find NO historical reference for) so be it. I thought it was something that really happened on a regular basis and I found it fascinating. Since then, I haven't found any reference to it. (I wanted to use it in a book and needed to make sure it was real and therefore I wouldn't be plagerizing). Can't find anything about it, and I don't feel cheated and I don't feel lied to.

I think to myself... that little bugger... she had me good and fooled, didn't she? And then I read the book again.(Lion's Heart by the late Suzanne Barclay, the first book in the Lion's series and one of my ALL TIME FAVORITES!!!)

Bonnie Vanak said...

Anonymous, I like ancient history as well and recent history. I wish there were more WWII romances out there.

Alice, glad to hear you like different types of historicals as well. I enjoy reading different settings.

Pamela! Your books rock, and make Colonial America come alive for me.

Anna, you write in a very different time period - New York State, 1720. Fascinating!

Amanda, I also enjoy the fictionalization of actual characters, though sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. I once read that Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie measured the interior of the Great Pyramid in the nude. He did it because it was hot inside and he left his pink underdrawers outside to scare off the tourists. Of course these days, if he tried that, someone would steal them and sell them on E-bay. ;-)

Mimi, I didn't realize holistic medicine still used honey. I also kinda doubt the croc dung being used, lol.

Carrie, interesting research you’re doing. Medieval chemistry AND the history of Salzburg? Cool on the wiki entry!

Vicki, I bet those French modernists raised more than a few eyebrows.

Alice, I hear you on escaping reality through history. I wish I had a time machine so I could return to certain time periods. Then again they didn’t have flushable toilets and running water. Guess I’ll stick to escaping through books. ;-)

Zoe, 18th century botany and 19th century beer brewing? Interesting combination!

Michelle, how cool that you’re a beekeeper! I hope the recent illnesses striking down honeybees hasn’t affected you yet. In Florida, they make a delicious orange blossom honey. Mmm.

Eliza, I’m impressed that you have a bacon press. I enjoy reading about the old American southeast as well as southwest. I once critiqued a story based in old Florida and I really hoped it would get published. The writer did her research and made that period come to life.

Tess, sounds like you’ll be churning out story ideas for a while!

Marjorie, you wrote, “A very popular historical author once told me, ‘If I wrote an historically accurate novel, nobody would believe me.’" Great quote and very true, lol.