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Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Sense of Time and Place - The Importance of Research, by Lisbeth Eng

Seduced By History Welcomes Guess Blogger, Lisbeth Eng, author of In The Arms of the Enemy.

Nothing can jolt a reader out of the “zone” of your novel faster than an egregious error in the text. Such blunders by an author are more likely to be found in historical fiction, where accuracy in both era and locale is crucial.

I was on an airplane about a year ago, reading a World War II novel, when I suddenly uttered, “He’s not dead!” (Fortunately, the stranger sitting next to me slept through my outcry.) A character in this book had stated that Mussolini was dead. The book takes place in 1943 and I knew that Il Duce did not meet his demise until 1945. Perhaps the character intentionally misspoke, in an effort to deceive, or the author wished to demonstrate his (the character’s) ignorance. I continued reading the otherwise well-written novel, awaiting an explanation. It never came. Even more infuriating was my realization by the end that Mussolini’s presence, whether alive or dead, had no impact on the plot, so the erroneous reference was completely unnecessary. I did enjoy the novel overall, but have never forgotten that incident and it would make me just a little less likely to read another by that author.

The research for my Italian-set World War II romance novel In the Arms of the Enemy came from various sources. I had visited Italy over twenty years prior to starting my first draft, and had the good fortune to visit that country again while in the midst of an early revision. My journey in 2002 contributed the following details, which I would not otherwise have thought to include:

Shivering, she hastened toward the piazza, passing rows of houses painted in muted shades of saffron, wheat and terracotta. Some were adorned with the remnants of faded frescos; others revealed exposed brick beneath crumbling plaster façades. When she reached the deserted marketplace, her only companions were pigeons, huddled in niches where stones had fallen away from ancient walls. Their soft cooing, like lovers’ whispers, penetrated the early morning silence.

Had I not visited Verona, the setting of my novel, and had the opportunity to hear the cooing doves and see the faded frescos, that description would not likely be included in my book. Of course, not every writer has the opportunity to visit a foreign locale and we certainly can’t travel back in time to experience the actual historical setting. But one can read non-fiction, as well as fiction books on the subject and surf the Internet for ideas (but beware the source – there is a lot of false information out there in cyberspace).

If I hadn’t been able to travel to Italy, a visit to the European paintings section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art could have been a great source of inspiration for my setting. I possess an entire library of books about World War II, as well as Italian and German dictionaries and grammar books to double-check the foreign words and phrases I have sprinkled throughout In the Arms of the Enemy. But a word of caution there, too – don’t count on your cousin who studied a foreign language in college or the Google translation tool. If you’re going to use foreign words or phrases try to find a native speaker to make certain you are using them correctly. I’ve found cringe-worthy foreign language errors even in novels published by traditional houses.

On the other hand, careful research can enhance the enjoyment of the reader. I recently read Hope Tarr’s wonderful My Lord Jack, which takes place in 18th century Scotland. Not only are Hope’s characters enchanting and her storyline intriguing, her meticulous research is clearly evident. She captures the time and place and even more interestingly, the intricacies of her hero’s rather unusual (for a romance novel) occupation. Jack is a hangman, and Hope has evidently done quite a bit of research on that particular trade. (I know this because Hope wrote an entire blog post on Word Wenches about it.)

It may seem unlikely that your reader will notice a small mistake in historical fact or in a foreign phrase but many readers are knowledgeable, and chances are your historical romance reader knows her period – be it Regency, Medieval or World War II. And she may have studied a foreign language or two. So, as they say in German, “Achtung!”

BIO: An English major in college, Lisbeth Eng has also studied Italian, German and French. Lisbeth is a native New Yorker and has worked as a registered representative in the finance industry for the past 25 years. Her first novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, is available in e-book and paperback at The Wild Rose Press. Lisbeth invites you to visit her at www.lisbetheng.com.


Audra said...

Great post -- author Lauren Willig blogged about changing a line in her first novel because of the response from readers about what she perceived as a single throwaway line. It's tiny, but those things stick out and can be very irritating to a discerning reader.

Barb H said...


Good post. And you know, I worry about doing just what you mentioned--getting a point wrong. Even a small one can blare like a horn when it hits print.

I write medievals and knowing where to find likely sources, and which ones to rely upon for accuracy, can be tricky.


JStewart said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Every reader even those that are not history majors can recognize a blip. Do the research or keep it simple so as not to change history.

Lisbeth Eng said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. (Audra, I checked out Lauren Willig's post, which you reference, and left a comment there.) I hope I haven't made any egregious errors in IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY but if you find one, please tell me gently!
Thanks also to "Seduced by History" for allowing me to guest blog. It's been fun!


Unknown said...

A good reminder about the importance of research.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great post Lisbeth, and you are so right, an historical error can ruin a readers enjoyment.A famous proliferative novelist, won't say who, but my sister had read practically every one of her books, made a shocking blunder in one book. Someone in this story was found guilty of a crime and sentenced to be transported to the penal colony of Australia, only problem being, this story was set about a hundred years befor Australia was even discovered.
Needless to say my sister never read another one of her books.



Lisbeth Eng said...

Margaret, I can certainly understand why that "not-so-small" detail would appall a reader who is familiar with the history of Australia! There really is no excuse for such a gross error in historical fiction.

Thanks again, everyone, for stopping by!


Caroline Clemmons said...

I agree totally that accuracy is important. In reading a very well known historical author, I tossed the book after the third anachronism in as many chapters. Good writing is not enough for authors--we have to do our research, too.

Theresa Bruno said...

Thank you! You need to educate as many novelists as possible, because I find errors all the time. It shows when an author hasn't researched or been to the places s/he is writing about. If you would like me to review one of your books on my history website http://historywasneverlikethat.blogspot.com/, just drop by.

Hope Tarr said...

Thanks for the kind words on MY LORD JACK. Looking forward to having you read from IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY at Lady Jane's Salon.

Jana Richards said...

Lisbeth, you're so right about the importance of research. I've been enjoying your posts at the different blogs you've been guest blogging at. Thanks for sending me the links.