Thursday, June 4, 2009

How do I write the background - for a country I've never visited, for a time over three hundred years before I was born? This book was set in the eastern United States in colonial times, 1704-5, and I'm an Australian. I also have far too much respect for historical and geographical accuracy to write a story without researching it properly. My own country has suffered in fiction novels which weren't correctly researched, and I didn't want to do the same thing to anyone else. The story is all important. Yet as a reader I've left more than one book unfinished because of glaring errors. For instance, the British writer who wrote about Australia's convict days, and it was a good book, without having ever heard of eucalyptus (gum) trees! And another mentioned "snow-melt" in the rivers, which since we have no high mountains, only occurs in the Snowy Mountain region.

I realise most mistakes are honest and (whisper) I made one or two of my own, but by and large I believe I managed to convey the setting correctly. The book is set in colonial Carolina, New England and Virginia. One reviewer told me "you made this native New Englander feel right at home". Thank goodness! South Carolina has a similar climate to my home state of Queensland, but Virginia and New England are quite different. They receive snow and storms in winter, for one thing. Here our storms blow up in summer and I've only seen snow once in my entire life. Also the rivers behave differently, the landscape and trees are quite different, even the soil.

So I consulted a lot of encyclopaedias, spent a lot of time in local libraries - this was in the days before I had a computer or access to the Internet - and made a LOT of notes. I also wrote to South Carolina and a dear man in the State Archives Dept. in Columbia sent me reams of photocopied information. I also read all the fiction I could find set in American colonial times. At least I started off with a basic knowledge - I have a retentive memory and have been reading all my life - and now found the particular details I needed to give the background validity. There's more than just the setting to consider, of course. A friend of mine here said, "the buildings, the food, the clothing - it must have taken you forever to research all of it!"

I believe the greatest compliment I have received is that people have told me they loved the STORY, and have barely noticed the background, though they find it interesting. Hooray, I did it (almost) right.

Ahem, now for the thing I did wrong. I'm SO tempted not to mention it, because the only person who's noticed is an English-born colleague in our local Writers Group. I mentioned lemons, twice, in a 350 page book. And of course in those days, lemons were practically unprocurable. Limes from the West Indies, possibly, but not lemons. I live in a warmish climate and they're a commonplace feature of life. Whereas my fellow writers group member told me they had to be imported to Great Britain from Spain right up until the 1950s. So, folks, it's practically impossible to get every research detail correct, and I understand those other authors who, like me, quite innocently make glaring mistakes.

Ah, yes, the story's the thing!

The Pirate And The Puritan, by the way, is available in e-book form at the publisher's site:
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Monya Mary


MarthaE said...

Wow Monya - I would never have known that about lemons! But it sounds like you really did your homework for the background! And if the goal is to blend in the background without disruption, it sounds like you succeeded! An interesting time to write about. mesreads[at]gmail[dot]com

Monya Clayton said...

Martha E - yes, the lemon bit was one of the many small facts about past times that show us how different the world once was. I expect if anyone ever did really travel in time it would be the little things that would shock us!

Thanks for the nice words.

Babyblue22 said...

Hey Monya,
I think it's great that you work so hard to make your settings realistic to the time/place in which your story revolves.
I know as a reader I appriciate it.
And wow Lemons? LOL
I think whoever noticed it has definitely done there homework to be able to spot such a thing.
And if anyone truely gets bothered then tell them there that Their A Sour Lemon!!LOL

Anonymous said...


Wow you have really researched things. Fascinating stuff about lemons!

I think it is awesome the amount of homework you do so that your stories reflect the time periods appropriately.

Pam S

Monya Clayton said...

Thanks pams and Babyblue - I think I'd better find something other to comment on than lemons! It was all very interesting, truly. Imagine, Charles Town (Charleston) in 1704 was the only walled city in the Americas. It all fascinates me.

E.A. West said...

I can't imagine the mountains of research you gained! And I never would have known about the lemons. All I can say is that if your readers love the story and find it realistic, you've done your job as an author. Congratulations!