07 October 2009

Research: Just Because I Know It...

By Delia DeLeest

The problem with writing a well-researched historical book is that our perspectives get a bit skewed. Because it's such common knowledge to us, we assume that others are familiar with it also.

This was brought home to me a couple weeks ago when I had mentioned to a writer friend that I had the desire to have one of my characters go to Rudolph Valentino's funeral. She asked me what Rudolph had done in the 1920s to make him famous. I'd just assumed that everyone knew of Rudolph Valentino, one of Hollywood's very first movie sex symbols. His death at the early age of 31 threw tens of thousands into mourning and caused at least one reported suicide. He was like Zac Efron or Brad Pitt, only more so. Valentino was HUGE.

Many people have heard of him, even now, but fewer know of his work--fewer still have even seen a Rudolph Valentino movie. (If you get the chance to, jump on it. The Sheik and Son of the Sheik are incredible). But because I have immersed myself into all things Twenties, I forget that most people have no recollection of pop culture beyond the Reagan years. (Reagan? Who's Reagan?)

What I discovered is that I have to give the reader a mini history lesson, hopefully without them realizing that they're learning something. Teachers throughout history have discovered that students learn when they're having fun, and I think of myself as a teacher whose responsibility is to help others discover the same fun and excitement of the 1920s that I have found.

In IT TAKES MOXIE, my 1920s romance from The Wild Rose Press, I had Moxie referring to Aimee Semple McPherson. If you're a regular reader at Unusual Historicals, you'll be familiar with the name because of what I've written about her in past posts. But I have to assume that most of my readers aren't UH readers and had to fill them in on information that anyone alive in 1927 would already know. This is how I did it:

"So you sell houses and don't have time to dance. Sounds like a pretty boring life to me. We’ll have to do something about that."

"I think you already have."

"No, I don't mean the gun stuff." She shook her head vigorously. "I mean I should teach you how to Charleston or something. Dancing is good for your body and good for your soul."

"Who are you now, Aimee Semple McPherson?"

"Hey, I'm not some loony missionary. The only thing Aimee and I have in common is that I kidnapped you and she kidnapped herself. Oh, and she got caught, I'm not planning on that happening to me."

"I'm pretty certain it wasn't in her plans either."

Moxie gave a dismissive wave of her hand and continued her lecture on the benefits of dance. "I'm serious, Ben. Dancing is a lot of fun and a great way to get rid of stress in your life."

"You are the stress in my life. If I could get rid of you, I'd be just fine."

"Bah. Don't be such a wet blanket. Now, the best way to learn how to dance is--" Moxie sniffed the air suspiciously. "Do you smell smoke?" She turned and looked in the back seat. "Ben, the car's on fire!"
What did we learn here? Besides the fact that Ben has some serious car troubles, we've learned that Aimee Semple McPherson was a missionary and that there was a mysterious kidnapping where she kidnapped herself. For the average reader, that's enough information to keep the story going.

The curious reader will have some questions. What kind of missionary was she? And how on earth can a person kidnap themselves? They'll pull up trusty Google and look Aimee up. They'll read her fascinating story on Wikipedia or some other online resource. Maybe they'll discover that Faye Dunaway played Sister Aimee in the 1976 movie The Disappearance of Aimee and decide they want to watch it. They get pulled into the whole crazy drama of the thing and the next thing you know, we've got another Roaring Twenties convert.

When that happens, I can go to sleep happy, knowing I've enlightened another person to the crazy fun that is the 1920s.