Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives

Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

May 14th, 2015 by Evangeline Holland

On Using Public History to Restore Forgotten Voices in Historical Romance

T'Chin Quan Chan Family, ca. 1911

RS 27464, Chin Quan Chan; Seattle District, Chinese Exclusion Act Case Files, Applications to Reenter, c. 1892-1900]: Chin Quan Chan Family, Chinese Exclusion Act Case File, circa 1911

As some may know, I’ve recently returned to school for a double degree in Public History and American Studies. Where I once had a vague sense of history and historical fiction/romance existing on somewhat different planes, I now have a strong sense of this theoretical statement. And each day, each quarter, spent in various courses in both disciplines expands my vision of what history (and memory and place and literature and identity) actually is, and how it can be applied to writing historical fiction.

In a nutshell, Public History takes history out of the ivory tower of academia and is also an act of social justice. It is the process of engaging the public with history–museums, historical societies, cultural events, all the way down to a monument or plaque to a public hero/ine. If you take a look around your city, you will likely find evidence of public history at work.

Public History also works to address memory and the meaning of place, particularly with regards to those whose history has been destroyed or hidden or misinterpreted. American Studies seems pretty self-explanatory, but where it was once the creation of “myths” about American identity, it has transformed over the past few decades into an interrogation of these myths and the various facets of what it means to be “American” (United States).

Over the past few months I’ve worked on a project focused on a local Chinatown, whose site has been reclaimed after decades of legal wrangling. Over the past four months, I–and others–have been holed up in the nearest branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, combing through boxes and boxes of files dedicated to the Chinese Exclusion Act in search of the people who lived in this Chinatown and other Chinatowns in the region. Needless to say, this research has been illuminating.

Each file I’ve opened has sparked so many thoughts and ideas–academic and for fiction–and increased my awareness of the stories untold. It has increased my awareness of the people wedged in the crevices of what we think we know and what we produce from that “knowledge.” My research for this project has made it impossible to not see this story from the inside out, to hear the story of this period in US history through the voices of the local Chinese-American population of the early 20th century.

At the beginning of my involvement, the files meant little to me; the photographs of the Chinese immigrants placed on their certificates were just men from long ago, and their lives were filled in with my vague knowledge of Chinese-American culture based on trawling through San Francisco’s Chinatown. This four month project also yanked other stories into the picture: white Americans who were against the Exclusion Act, who vouched for immigrants; kinship; entrepreneurship; marriage and gender; education; religion; legal history.

There is public history theory, of course, but I spend most of my courses doing public history, whether it be speaking to the city government about historic preservation, or observing community activism, or attending historical events (and speaking there too–eek!). And when I forge connections with other public historians and integral voices in the community, I get chills over the history out there locked in someone’s attic or in their mind.

As I stated in my previous post, this is not easy history to find. You can’t walk into B&N and easily find a shelf groaning with books on Chinese American history the way you can about the Kennedys. You can’t type a few words into Google and come up with tons of websites and blogs about daily life for African Americans in Los Angeles the way you can for daily life in, say, Victorian London (and that is problematic in and of itself, since these sites usually erase Brits of color from the landscape). What you can do is look in the margins:

1) Oral history projects and transcripts.
2) Special collections at a local library.
3) Visit a branch of the National Archives to use their access to Ancestry.com and newspaper archives.
4) Historical societies and niche museums.
5) Veterans groups.
6) Check the schedule at the local university’s history department for talks by visiting historians–believe me, they welcome the public.
7) JSTOR if you have access–and some articles are free.
8) Conduct your own oral history projects with family and friends.
9) Research for whom buildings in your city are named and why.
10) Email historians in your topic of interest! They love discussing their work and field.

May 16th, 2013 by Evangeline Holland

On the Time-Consuming Quest of Research

The Lady is Tempted was intended to be more simpler, lighter, and less fraught with anachronistic mishaps than my WWI romances, yet I find myself dragged into the morass of research!

At the moment, I’m knee-deep in researching art and art criticism of the 1880s-1900s, and I am dizzy with all that I did not know! I’ve discovered a multitude of art journals, women art critics, art movements peculiar to England, and a host of competing galleries and cliques outside of the Royal Academy. Simmering on the backburner is research on girls’ schools (I am constructing my fictional school from a number of real life schools), the publishing industry (my hero, Hallam, owns a book publishing company), women chemists and English chemical societies, and the London theatre world. On top of this I have to keep track of the status of women’s suffrage in 1904 (WSPU was founded in Manchester in 1903, but did not make a name for themselves until 1905!), train travel, the London Zoo, girls and women’s fashions, sports in girls schools, how art was taught, and politics!

Lest you feel overwhelmed reading all of this, I must admit that I wing it most of the time: I’ll bookmark some pertinent information and then read it when time comes for it to be used in a scene. Also, since The Lady is Tempted is part of a series, all of this research is pertinent for the other books. Phew!

Nevertheless, this reminds me of why historical romance tends to be “lighter” on the history than historical fiction. Most novelists in the latter genre are expected to write meaty tomes full of historical detail that may take a year or more to write, whereas in the former, the production schedule is usually a book due every six to nine months (and heaven forbid they schedule back-to-back releases!). Research for most is usually like an iceberg–the portion readers see is usually 1/10th of what we authors have conducted!–but it’s still time consuming to acquire, and I assume many writers still find new facts after they’ve completed their manuscript.

I personally don’t feel satisfied unless I’ve searched through every nook and cranny of my favorite research hubs (Google Books mostly, New York Times archives, academic texts, old magazines and newspapers, etc) for nuggets that will enhance the characterization and the plot, because I love the process of building a world around the romance. Perhaps my method might not work well with publishing schedules, but who knows. All I can say is that this works for me and is part of my evil genius plans to increase awareness of the hybrid genre between historical romance and historical fiction!

April 13th, 2012 by Evangeline Holland

Four Things Repeated in Historical Romance, But Rarely Explained

After reading a review for a recently released historical romance, I decided to find an excerpt on Google Books, and was immediately distracted by the first paragraph. It wasn’t that the prose was tepid, or because it was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies, but the description of the carpet drove me to do some research. I will fully admit that I am not exempt from thoughtless repeating of things I’ve read in historical romances in my own writing, but after coming to terms with my own writing voice I don’t want to parrot other books. So without further ado, here is a list of things repeated in historical romances that are rarely explained (a caveat, my information naturally comes from books printed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; however, since Georgette Heyer mixed her Regency research with her Edwardian background, I’m sure there are only a few tweaks to be made for those writing Regencies and Victorian romances).

1) Aubusson carpets

When describing a room, many historical romances never fail to mention the “Aubusson carpet”, no doubt thinking it short-hand for old luxury. Aubusson is a commune or village in northern France, which has been famous for its tapestries and carpets since the 14th century. However, there are other carpets just as luxurious and renowned as those made in Aubusson.

According to a 1915 U.S. Treasury report:

Aubusson carpet.—A carpet made at Aubusson, France. It is made in one piece, in the hand or needlework style of the Indian carpets, etc.

Axminster carpet.—A variety of Turkish carpet, * * *. So named from the town of Axminster, in Devonshire, England.

Persian carpet.—A carpet made in one piece, instead of in breadths or strips to be joined.

Turkish carpet.—A carpet similar to the Persian.

According to Our Homes, and How to Beautify Them:

There are the various English makes, Brussels, Wilton, Axminster, and Kidderminster. Most of these are for hard wear, but there are different grades of quality, and in buying a carpet it is well to remember that the best is always the cheapest in the end. Nothing but the best Brussels should, if durability be any consideration, ever be put down. The same may be said of Wiltons, which are the same as Brussels but with a cut pile. The Axminster carpet (so called from a Somersetshire village where the loom was first established), has a special interest considered from the decorative point of view, because any number of colours are available in its manufacture. It has therefore been used with the greatest success in the reproduction of Oriental designs. In the better qualities it has also been used to copy Aubusson carpets, and the employment of fine wool and fast dyes has resulted in a very fair imitation of the originals.

Appropriate Carpets for Appropriate Rooms:

All kinds of carpet, of course, naturally suggest themselves for particular rooms. As already pointed out, the Turkey suits the dining room, and the Aubusson the French salon or boudoir. Persian rugs and carpets are suitable for almost any place or condition. Wilton piles are appropriate either in a drawing room or in a dining room. There is no hard and fast line when you get into the domain of the English makers, because the manufacturer designs his carpets to suit all requirements, and you can get an Axminster or a Brussels to fit in with the style or purpose of any room. If the two cardinal principles are well kept to the front, it is scarcely possible to go very far wrong.

2) Sideboard

Our characters are frequently served food or drinks from the sideboard, or help themselves from food placed on the sideboard. But what is it exactly?

According to Wikipedia:

A sideboard is an item of furniture traditionally used in the dining room for serving food, for displaying serving dishes such as silver, and for storage. It usually consists of a set of cabinets, or cupboards, and one or more drawers, all topped by a flat display surface for conveniently holding food, serving dishes, and even lighting devices. The overall height of the tops of most sideboards is approximately waist level.

The earliest versions of the sideboard familiar today made their appearance in the 18th century, but they gained most of their popularity during the 19th century as households became prosperous enough to dedicate a room solely to dining.

According to volume 2 of The Book of Decorative Furniture:

The sideboard did not assume its present forms and functions until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Indeed, until table service was made more complex by the constant multiplication of courses, and the changing of knives, forks, and spoons with each course, there was little use for an enclosed piece with so much table and cupboard accommodation, and side-tables amply sufficed.

The typical Adam “sideboard” consisted of a side-table, with knifecases and brass gallery at back, a wine cooler (frequently of sarcophagus design) underneath, and flanked on each side by pedestal cupboards surmounted by urns. The Brothers Adam designed almost exclusively for spacious rooms and wealthy clients, whose houses at that period were well provided with cupboards. There was little need, therefore, for combined compact and enclosed sideboards; whilst the pedestals and the sideboard-table furnished the apartment with greater dignity and elaboration.

Sideboards were also made by Heppelwhite, Chippendale, and Sheraton. In America, the built-in sideboard grew in popularity during the early 1900s, and when I think back on my house hunting last year, a good handful of the homes I toured had built-in sideboard–and I thought nothing of it!

3) Drawing Rooms and Sitting Rooms

This is where our ladies take their tea, receive their callers, seduce the hero, etc etc. They are frequently used interchangeably, but in truth, they are two very different rooms with very different uses.

Wikipedia offers the first crack:  A drawing room is a room in a house where visitors may be entertained. The name is derived from the sixteenth-century terms “withdrawing room” and “withdrawing chamber,” which remained in use through the seventeenth century, and made its first written appearance in 1642 (OED). In a large sixteenth- to early eighteenth-century English house, a withdrawing room was a room to which the owner of the house, his wife, or a distinguished guest who was occupying one of the main apartments in the house could “withdraw” for more privacy. It was often off the great chamber (or the great chamber’s descendant, the state room or salon) and usually led to a formal, or “state” bedroom. The American equivalent was the parlor, or as many would later call it, living room. In French usage the room and the social gathering it contained are equally the salon.

The morning room, a nineteenth-century designation for a sitting-room, often with east-facing exposure, suited for daytime calls, or the middle-class lounge, a late nineteenth-century designation for a room in which to relax; hence the drawing room is the smartest room in the house, usually used by the adults of the family when entertaining. A living room, also known as sitting room, lounge room or lounge (in the United Kingdom and Australia), is a room for entertaining adult guests, reading, or other activities. The term front room can also be used to describe a living room, because in many homes the living room is at the very front.n the 19th century, the front parlour was the room in the house used for formal social events, including where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral.

House Furnishing and Decorating states:

If one were asked for definitions of ” drawing room,” ” parlor ” and ” living-room,” the answer would depend wholly on the individual point of view of the person questioned. The name “drawing-room” seems to suggest two conceptions, one the formal apartment, formally and punctiliously treated, an indispensible feature of the very large house, the other a distinctly less formal room, furnished and intended for constant intimate use after the fashion of small English houses and, in general character, approximating what we have come to designate as a living-room.

Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman discuss the distinctions in The Decoration of Houses:

Sometimes, as in England, the drawing-room is treated as a family apartment, and provided with books, lamps, easy-chairs and writing-tables. In other houses it is still considered sacred to gilding and discomfort, the best room in the house, and the convenience of all its inmates, being sacrificed to a vague feeling that no drawing-room is worthy of the name unless it is uninhabitable. This is an instance of the salon de compagnie having usurped the rightful place of the salon de famille; or rather, if the bourgeois descent of the American house be considered, it may be more truly defined as a remnant of the “best parlor” superstition.

And The Chautauquan considers the drawing room “a room appropriated for the reception of guests ‘to which a company withdraws from the dining room.'”

So there you have it (I think): drawing room is for formal entertaining and the sitting room is where you can relax.

Maya Rodale’s post on White’s reminded me of another thing seen in historical romance, but rarely explained:

4) The Gentlemen’s Club

White’s (f. 1693): Social

Brook’s (f. 1784): Whig (or, Liberal Party in Victorian & Edwardian eras)

Boodle’s (f. 1762): Tory (or, Conservative Party )

Once you leave the Regency period, a wide variety of clubs are available for authors to choose from–including ladies’ clubs after the 1880s!

That’s all I can think of for now, but can anyone else think of things they’ve seen in historical romances that, when they thought about it, are used much too often without any real explanation?