All In The Name of Research… by Alyssa Alexander

One of the first questions people ask when they discover I write Regency-era romance is, “Did you have to do a lot of research?” As you might imagine, the answer is “Yes!”Fashion_Plate_(Full_Dress)_LACMA_M.86.266.140

Some of the research is for a basic flavor of the time period. Fashions, mores, politics, laws, etc. These can drive plot (or cause a plot hole!), and also plops the reader right down in the middle of the time period. There are a lot great primers out there on the Regency, and I think for most readers of Regency romance or for those into history—like I was—getting the overall feel for the time period is fairly easy.

But the devil is in the details, my friends! The devil is in the details…There are some strange things I have researched, and stranger things I have done in the name of research. I swear, though, these details are what make the books come alive. Here are a few examples:

  • Regency era food and recipes, even going so far as to write out 4 course menu. It was eventually cut from the manuscript (does anyone really need that kind of information?), but I did use a small portion of it in The Smuggler Wore Silk.
  • Herbal remedies for croup, the symptoms of croup, and natural cough suppressants. I don’t recommend using the mixture I put together in SWS! I pieced it together from the various texts I read.
  • What needles were made out of in 1813, and what type of thread was used for stitching people up. I read the most fascinating medical text for this one.
  • Known poisons in the 19th century. I found a handbook of sorts on this topic, prefaced with a disclaimer similar to our “don’t try this at home.” The author was listing poisons and how to apply them, in order to instruct the reader how to counteract a particular poison, Folding_Fan_YORCM_TFN264-1whether intentionally or accidentally administered.
  • The type of wood used to make the ribs of women’s fans in 1817. Never did figure that one out. But I did discover a lot about fans, the language of fans, and what might be painted on a fan. Lilias carries a fan in quite a few scenes in In Bed With A Spy.
  • An opera house in existence in Vienna at a time when Wellington’s army was around, and operas that might be playing at that time. That was surprisingly difficult, but I’m fairly confident the opera I chose would at least have been possible. I couldn’t find an actual schedule, alas.
  • How short opera dancers’ skirts were, and when they were raised from ankle to calf.
  • The full moon cycle in latter half of 1813. Seriously. I made a calendar of when the moon was full, waning, waxing etc., and tried to make sure that for each scene that occurred at night, the moon was in its appropriate phase. (Just call me OCD!)
  • What the buttons on a man’s coat would be made out of in 1817, and gloves as well.Dry Stone Fence
  • How dry stone fences were made in different counties in England. These are the fences that separate fields into the patchwork pattern we all associate with the English countryside (at least, I do). I spent probably 3 hours researching this, for a 2 page scene—however, this was about 6 years ago, possibly a little longer, and the internet was not as it was now, which is why it took so long.
  • Spy networks in France (fun stuff!). I particularly enjoyed a bit about a double agent, and used that in SWS.

But the fun research is the ‘real life’ kind, which for me once involved going outside into my yard at night. I wanted to know how well a person could really see under a full moon (see my calendar above). Turns out, you can see quite a lot of detail when the moon is full and the sky is clear. Color is not particularly discernible, as the world is silvered slightly so it becomes light and shadow. It’s actually quite peaceful, by the way, standing in your yard alone under a bright and beautiful full moon!

Other ‘real life’ research experiences on my bucket list are: wear a Regency gown complete with stays and petticoat, fencing lessons, and a trip to England. Someday!

Alyssa AlexanderDespite being a native Michigander, Alyssa Alexander is pretty certain she belongs somewhere sunny. And tropical. Where drinks are served with little paper umbrellas. But until she moves to those white sandy beaches, she survives the cold Michigan winters by penning romance novels that always include a bit of adventure. She lives with her own set of heroes, aka an ever-patient husband who doesn’t mind using a laundry basket for a closet, and a small boy who wears a knight in a shining armor costume for such tasks as scrubbing potatoes.

 

*Photos from Wikimedia Commons
Dry Stone Wall: By Nick Stenning from UK (To the sea) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Fan: Photographed by: York Museums Trust Staff [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Dress: By Rudolph Ackermann (England, London, 1764-1834) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Despite being a native Michigander, Alyssa Alexander is pretty certain she belongs somewhere sunny. And tropical. Where drinks are served with little paper umbrellas. But until she moves to those white sandy beaches, she survives the cold Michigan winters by penning romance novels that always include a bit of adventure. She lives with her own set of heroes, aka an ever-patient husband who doesn’t mind using a laundry basket for a closet, and a small boy who wears a knight in a shining armor costume for such tasks as scrubbing potatoes. Alyssa’s debut release, THE SMUGGLER WORE SILK, was awarded 4.5 Stars and Top Pick, nominated for 2014 Best First Historical by the Romantic Times and Best First Book in the Romance Writers of America RITA contest. Her second book, IN BED WITH A SPY, released in December 2014 from Berkley, and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly and 4.5 Stars and Top Pick from Romantic times. She has been called a “talented newcomer” and “a rising star you won’t want to miss.” You can find Alyssa at all the usual places! Please stop by and say hello! And you can always reach her by email at alyssa@alyssa-alexander.com.

16 Responses

  1. Barbara Monajem

    I completely relate, Alyssa — I’ve gone outdoors in moonlight for research purposes, and I once got hold of a weather diary from Guildford, Surrey in 1793. It was the closest I could get to learning about the weather for a particular month in Sussex that year. (This was before the Internet made research a lot easier.) That story–it’s about smugglers–has never been published (it’s still awaiting revisions, many years later), but it was my first foray into research and was a lot of fun.

    • I’ve checked on weather too! The climate of England seems like it should be more or less the same, but I realized I didn’t know for sure. Looking at the historical record gave me a better idea of whether August would be truly hot (as in the 90 degrees I get here in Michigan) or if would be cooler. No need to have my heroine sweating in her pretty gown if she doesn’t need to!

  2. Ahhh The hardships of research and its glory when achieved. I can say I definitely had my own problems with research when I too looked up operas playing at the time. None of them were known to me.

    But as for moonlighting, it is definitely different and peaceful. I remember writing a story as a primary school kid where my heroine was running in the jungle in the dead of night trying to get away from enemy fire. My teacher didn’t understand how one could see at night, let alone in the jungle. It was tough but I did get a good grade for my short story.

    • I had to chuckle about this! I wrote a scene where my heroine noticed the color of my hero’s eyes…in the dark. Thank goodness my critique partner caught that one!

  3. Ally Broadfield

    Thank you for confirming that I am not the only who spends hours confirming small details that no one else would ever notice! In the manuscript I just turned in, my heroine is addicted to fairy tales, and it took a lot of time to figure out which version of Cinderella (as one example) was the more romantic one (Charles Perrault), versus the first Grimm Brothers version that had the step sisters chopping off toes and heels to fit their feet in the glass slipper.

    • LOL! You are not alone…Sometimes, I think I could just leave out this detail and it would be easier! Still, it’s those details that make the difference!

  4. I research up the wazoo too, Alyssa! Just yesterday I was looking up animal respiration rates, the weather in London in October 1818, when Parliament was in session during that same year, and various wildlife and birds native to Scotland.

    • Oh, yes. Birds and plants, for me. I research birds and plants–particularly plants–entirely too often. But there are so many that are not indigenous! And what we have here is not native over there. And there’s that pesky weather again. I see a theme!

  5. I loved the research when I wrote my Regencies, but found that one fascinating fact led to another and then another. Stuff I really didn’t need for my story but fun to learn. Now you have me wondering how short opera dancers’ skirts were. 😀

    • Don’t quote me (my notes aren’t in front of me) but I found a print of an opera dancer around the turn of the century with a dress at mid-calf or higher, and I found prints/paintings of dancers prior to that with longer skirts. So I don’t know the time exactly, but I knew by 1820ish, the time I was looking at, I was good with a higher skirt. Sometimes extrapolation works!

  6. I love the research part except sometimes I get lost in an internet article or at the library or reading a book I bought for research. All of a sudden it’s 3 hours later and I haven’t written anything but I know ALL kinds of things about fabrics used, woven, and imported to England in the 1800’s. And then I use one of that research in the book! HA!

    • Yep. You just tumbled down the black hole of Google-Fu. Or the black hole of the library. Both can suck you in… 🙂

  7. I love that authors go to the effort to research–I appreciate it!

    Denise

    • For me, I love the research! So much that it sucks me in, from time to time…But I think it makes the books better and more fun!

  8. ginaconkle2013

    Hi Alyssa, I’m chiming in late…burning the midnight oil. I have some books: Georgian & Regency Houses Explained, The Truth About Cottages (and all the building materials in England’s regions plus LOL!! fences!!). I could go on but your insights made me smile. I even researched various chemicals for The Lady Meets Her Match (and will show up in a related novella — can’t let that research go to waste!!). Can you tell you struck a chord?? Great post. 🙂
    Thanks,
    Gina