Ruminations on world-building, after an orgy of reading

As I may have mentioned, I’ve been a bit slowed recently by a shoulder injury and a repeating winter cold. The shoulder is finally responding to treatment, but being limited in the number of hours I can type has been a real nuisance. The demands of the day job have to take priority so the bills get paid, with the novellas for anthologies coming next. So I’m way behind on The Realm of Silence, and will need to really buckle down if release is not to be postponed until next year.

I’ve been reading instead of writing

On the other hand, being laid up has allowed me to voraciously reread entire series of novels by the authors who sucked me into the historical romance genre. Georgette Heyer, of course. Elizabeth Hoyt. Eloisa James. Grace Burrowes. Mary Jo Putney. Carla Kelly. Stephanie Laurens. Mary Balogh. Anne Gracie. Anna Campbell. (Others, too. That’s just off the top of my head.)

I’ve been rereading an entire series at a gulp, then another by quite a different author, just as I did five years ago when my eldest daughter loaned me the book Simply Perfect and I fell in love with the genre. (Though some of the series I’ve read in the past three months weren’t written at that time.)

This time, though, was different. This time, I was reading from the perspective of my own years of world and character building in historical romance writing.

And I know what I love!

All the authors I love provide the same things, to a greater or lesser extent. Engaging plots where I care about what happens. Well-rounded characters who seem like real people for the times, and who have something about them that makes me wish them success. Realistic and detailed background features that are true (as far as I can tell) to the history of the time and place.

Reading them the way I have, a whole series in sequence, is leading me to reexamine my own writing to see how well I’m performing in those areas.

I like my plots to surprise me

Plots? I can get a bit carried away, I think. I love a detailed and complex plot with lots of Byzantine twists and turns, with copious clues that are easy to miss and only obvious as the story draws to a close and all the bits are tied together with a bow. Expect me to keep doing this. Even in my short stories, where plots are simple, I try not to do the obvious.

I reckon good people come in lots of flavours

Characters? What I try to do is make each hero and each heroine into different people. It works the other way. Stephanie Laurens writes a brilliant Norman aristocrat: tall, stern, protective, outwardly impervious but inwardly vulnerable to the one woman on whom he sets his autocratic heart. We meet him in story after story, and have all the fun of watching her bold, unconventional, challenging heroine bring him to his knees.

Mary Jo Putney, on the other hand, peoples her books with individuals of many different stamps. Decent men and women, but formed by different influences (both nature and nurture). In the Fallen Angel series, she has one of these heroes describe himself and his friends.

“What are your friends like?” He smiled a little. “Imagine a great long wall blocking the path as far as one can see in both directions. If Nicholas came to it, he would shrug and decide he didn’t really need to go that way. Rafe would locate whoever was in charge of the wall and talk his way past it, and Lucien would find some stealthy way to go under or around without being seen.” “What about you?” His smile turned rueful. “Like a mad spring ram, I would bash my head into the wall until it fell down.”

Exactly. Four very different men, and she gave each of them a heroine alike in loyalty and love, and unlike in everything else.

So for me, that means more of the same. Each hero, each heroine, each villain, as unique as I can make them. I also want to watch that my secondary characters don’t fall into the Dickens mould. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘enter, one cheerful landlady’ or ‘manservant for comic relief’, but I’ve got into the habit of knowing a little bit about everyone who crowds into my books, and even if surface characteristics are all I have time for on the page, something of their personality and history needs to sit beneath it.

And I need to like them in order to fully enjoy the book

And even if my readers don’t always like them and their behaviour, I need to. Many people find Aldridge unsympathetic, particularly in A Baron for Becky. And so they should. He behaved badly there and again, mostly, in Revealed in Mist (though not nearly as badly as Richport will in coming novels). Still, I know what motivates them and I hope you will forgive them by the time they reach their happily ever after.

I also have a couple of thoroughly unlikeable females to redeem. So watch this space.

Research is my catnip

Then there’s background: that weird amalgam of language usage and facts judiciously chosen to create a realistic environment for a story that could have happened only there, only then. I have read and enjoyed stories set against cardboard cutouts of historical backgrounds, when I’ve been in the mood. But they don’t sustain me. I’ve read stories with modern-thinking people in historical novels, and they irritate me exceedingly, unless they are time travel books and the people really are modern, or unless the writer gives a reason why this character is so out of step with their entire cultural milieu.

So research continues to be essential, and I agonise over detail. That doesn’t mean it is always correct—I make mistakes, usually something that seems so obviously true that I don’t check it. I’m always grateful for corrections. Indeed, reading to know what not to write is almost more important than reading for details that appear in the story. Not all research appears in the book, which is why I’ve got into the habit of posting research posts, so I can fool myself I did all that extraneous reading for a purpose.

Now your turn

So that’s what I’m trying to do. How well I emulate the writers I admire, and how much my own unique voice provides you with a different product, is for you to decide.