Monday, April 18, 2011

Research: blissful escapism!

When it comes to “do you do research for modern contemporary novels?” then the answer is a great fat NO. It’s always seemed as though characters have either lived in places I have or places I’ve visited and fell in love with: sometimes vice versa. Horses have often featured. Hardly surprising because equines are second nature to me, and they make for a great backdrop interspersed with action. Basically, I stick with what I’m familiar with.

However, a historical novel requires much research. Despite my prior knowledge of plots and period setting (1700s), there are facets of every day life I’m unfamiliar with even though I feel a great affinity with this particular period in time. Basic food, miraculously, proved little different than today with regards bread, bacon (ham) and meat, eggs, plain un-exotic vegetables and fruit, and preserving of such re salted beef, jams, preserves. But, when did cocoa (drinking chocolate) first hit these shores? When did China tea first hit these shores? When did coffee first hit these shores? When did each become commercial properties served in coffee houses? China tea became a commercial item long after having been consumed in private by wealthy elements in society. Another interesting fact: did you know people drank hawthorn flower/leaf tea beside herbal concoctions, ale, and wine?

 But, now here’s the thing, I quite got carried away with research on ladies and gentleman’s attire: not style because I’m up on all that. My interest lay in what kind of fabrics were available, where and how sourced? I adore velvet, satin, silk, and damask. With the Elizabethan era at end (see above) square necklines with their stiff upright lace collars, neck-ruffs, and below waist girdles with navel point soon fell out of favour. By 1644 and the Civil War raging in its second year, ladies necklines became softer. And, as can be seen from the images below, styles for wealthy ladies changed back and forth during the 1700s.

 Round necklines were in, so too soft voile modesty drapes for some while soft lace frills favoured by others. Sleeves became quite flamboyant with puffs, sometimes with velvet outer and slits to allow peep of contrast silk under. Skirts and bodice/girdles often stopped at the waist, and all made from a variety of luscious fabrics: velvets, satins, silks, damask and other. The Puritans on the other hand retained square necklines and adopted modesty drapes and or stiff up-to-the-neck collars. Their skirts and bodice mostly that of wool and girdles/bodice sometimes kidskin: suede as we know it today.

Why need for this much research, one might ask. But, if I’d remained ignorant of this knowledge how could I let a reader see and feel the fabric of the MC’s outfit and that of other characters? By the late 1700s/early 1800s, girdles/bodice with navel split-points were in favour. Sleeves were tailored narrow from shoulder to frill trim at or below elbow, and frills on skirts in abundance. See left hand image. 

 Ahem, history lesson over. School out!  ;)


  1. Good history lesson on food and fashion, Francine! Furnishings, I would suggest, are also important to get the historical setting authentic. Hee-hee, you could start Francine's 'F' guide to historical research for romance novels!

    But no research for contemporaries? A big fat NO to that from me, as you'll see on Wednesday here at HWH and on Thursday as my letter 'R' in the A-Z Challenge!

  2. I love this topic! Great post and your love and interest for the time periods and the customs clearly comes through here--I'm sure it adds depth to your stories as well.

  3. Fashion follows politics, I believe. I'm sure fascinating parallels could be drawn by an astute student of history. (Not me.)
    Francine, I'll look to you for equine accuracy checks. I know cows and chickens, and have only ridden a horse once or twice. Her name was Charmin, and once my daughter went off to college, she hung out with the cows until she passed at the age of 29.

  4. Very interesting! It's always the little, everyday things too that take the longest to research.

  5. Hi all,

    Paula: I could write a thesis on fashion within period 1700s, inclusive furnishings!

    Jennifer: If only a publisher might think the same re manuscript!

    Ana: I'm happy to gee-up any time re horses!

    Liz: funnily enough, jewellery proved quite hard to research for that period. Little references anywhere, and it became a case of studying portraits!


  6. See? It's all that history research that scares the beejeebies out of me and prevents me from tackling a historical.

    I do tend to write what I that puts me firmly in the contemporary genre!