In writing some of my books, doing research before (or even during) the writing process has led to a major (or minor) part of the story, sometimes actually changing the direction I was heading.
When I was writing Darcy’s Voyage (originally self-published as Pemberley’s Promise), I did a lot of research on websites about traveling by ship back in that era. I knew where I wanted to go with that book (and I don’t mean going to the New World), but was not sure how to get there.
One site I found was jeaniejohnson.net. The Jeanie Johnson was a ship that carried about a thousand Irish to Canada during the great famine in the 1840s. While this was later than Pride and Prejudice, it made me consider the type of ship Mr. Darcy would invest in and the kind of captain he would put in place.
The Jeanie Johnston had much more desirable conditions that most of the “coffin” ships that took people across the Atlantic. By the name of those other ships, death was very frequent, either through disease spreading throughout the passengers or being wrecked at sea. Unlike those ships, the Jeanie Johnston was “a well run and humanely operated ship which cared as best it could for the fleeing emigrants.”
Some of the things attributed to its not losing a single passenger on its many voyages was the humanitarian attitude of the ship’s master, Captain James Attridge. He had a genuine concern for the welfare of his passengers. The hatches were opened whenever possible, bedding was taken out and aired, the accommodations below deck were kept as clean as possible, and everyone was encouraged to take a walk on deck each day, unless the weather was too rough. Pemberley’s Promise, the ship in my book, is owned by Mr. Darcy, and I think he and Captain Wendell would have striven for the same excellence in keeping the ship clean and humane treatment of passengers.
Another interesting fact I stumbled upon was finding out that two children would often be considered as one adult in their bedding arrangements. This provided the inspiration in Darcy’s Voyage where Elizabeth willingly gives up her bed. She has become acquainted with a lady who is with child and who has two daughters sharing a bed, one of which is sick. When the mother gives up her own bed for the healthy daughter, Elizabeth will not allow this woman to sleep on the floor and gives up her bed to the mother.
These were major elements that steered me in the direction I wished to take the story.
In my book, Only Mr. Darcy Will Do (originally self-published as Something Like Regret), there was a minor element that came into play. And here I have to make a confession. I wanted Darcy and Elizabeth to play chess and have a conversation in which there is hidden meaning, unknown to those around them. In fact, it is so hidden that Elizabeth is not really certain Mr. Darcy means what she thinks he means! But I have to confess that I don’t play chess. At all! I know something about the game, but I had to look up the rules online. It was there that I found something that fit perfectly into my book and into their conversation. There is a play in the game where the pawn can actually become the queen. I was thrilled! It becomes a picture of someone low in society’s eyes becoming an esteemed person of the upper class. In Only Mr. Darcy Will Do, Elizabeth has become a governess, so she is in an even lower class than she had been when Mr. Darcy first proposed.
In my most recently released novel, Pirates and Prejudice, a chance discovery led to a major change of direction – literally!
The premise of the book is that Mr. Darcy is mistaken for a pirate. After Elizabeth refuses his offer of marriage, he falls into a disreputable state. He separates himself from his family and acquaintances, and hopes to disappear near the docks by the Thames River. Unfortunately, with straggly hair and beard, he is mistaken for an escaped pirate. And the adventure begins.
In doing research for this story, I needed a reason for Elizabeth and her father to board a ship. I had several ideas, and I began writing the story with the premise that Elizabeth and her father would sail up to Scotland to see his sister, who was moving with her family to the states. But I never seemed quite satisfied with it.
One day I happened to be looking at a map of England, looking at the different ports and seas around England, trying to determine if there was somewhere else they could sail to. I was surprised to discover some tiny islands southwest of England’s coast. I zoomed in and found out they are called the Isles of Scilly.
When I did my initial research on these islands, I could not believe what I was reading. Due to the many smaller uninhabited islands, caves, and rocky outcroppings, many pirates and smugglers came to these islands. And I just happened to be writing a book about pirates! I was delightfully diverted!
The Isles of Scilly are fortunate to have a warmer climate than the rest of England, and have been inhabited for hundreds of years. Five of the larger islands are inhabited, the largest being St. Mary’s, which is where I have Elizabeth and her father sail to. There have been shipwreck disasters because of the rocky outcroppings, storms that arise out of nowhere, and yet the island is beautiful, with sandy beaches and gentle hills of heather.
When I made this discovery (just like finding a treasure map and following it to a hidden treasure!), my story completely changed, and I think it is richer because of it. The Isles of Scilly is now on my bucket list as a place I would love to visit.
Readers ~ How much do you enjoy historical detail in novels? Is there ever too much or too little?
Writers ~ Have you ever encountered a piece of information that fit perfectly into what you were writing? Or perhaps even gave you the basis of a complete story?