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Susanna Ives | Getting It Wrong

May 14, 2014

Susanna IvesWICKED LITTLE SECRETSI live in fear of making a major historical boo-boo in one of my books.  The tiny slipups don’t bother me so much. Perhaps I referred to a color that wasn’t in existence in 1839 (apple-green chartreuse) or mentioned a breed of animal that had yet to have been bred in 1800 (Persian cats). My fragile world will not shatter. But I bolt up in bed at night, my body drenched in a cold sweat, my heart racing, terrified that I’ve unwittingly committed some grand-scale faux pas along the lines of getting Queen Victoria’s birth or death wrong or tangling up my hero’s title and address (Those blasted titles get me every time) or centering a plot around the incorrect date of an important election (Okay, I admit that I actually did that one.) and I’ll be banished from all good historical fiction society.

At some point in the development process, I will have dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant with my good friend and historian extraordinaire, Nancy Mayer. She is so kind and patient, she lets me gab on and on and on about my book-in-progress. It is so much more fun to talk about my book than to actually write it. Then she takes one itsy-bitsy plot thread, examines it, tugs on it, breaks it, and suddenly my entire scene/chapter/book unravels.

Below are some examples of my interaction with Nancy. I’ve changed the plots and scenarios to protect the innocence of my works-in-progress.

What happened when I explained the black night of my hero’s soul. How he lost his seat in Parliament, thus ending his glorious political dreams.

Nancy: “Why doesn’t your hero just stand for Parliament in another borough?”

Me: “They could do that?!”

What happened when a married female character wanted to make a crucial loan to her friend.

Nancy:  “A husband owned all of a wife’s money and property unless it had been set aside for her sole use in a will, trust, gift, or settlement.”

Me: expletives

This is what became of a lovely ball scene.

Nancy: “She wouldn’t hold that extremely important, plot-turning ball on Sunday, especially if Methodists were to be present, some of whom wouldn’t dance no matter what day of the week she held her ball.

Me: Several expletives.

And don’t even get me started with the intricacies of marriage licenses and changes in the marriage laws, because I can’t make heads or tails of it. But Nancy can. She knows everything historical. Many a chapter in my books has been rewritten because I didn’t have history or Nancy on my side.

Yet, here is the interesting point to ponder: for every wrong turn I’ve made, the plot improves when I correct it. Sometimes it feels like my mind is playing an elaborate game of Twister as I try to wiggle, bend, or contort my way out of a terrible historical error. Correcting the mistake pushes me into unexplored creative territory, taking me further away from the derivative or expected. Funny how you can get it so right, by getting it so wrong.

Now it’s your turn. Please share an interesting historical tidbit that you learned in an historical romance! I’ll give away a print copy of my Victorian comedy Wicked Little Secrets to one lucky commenter in the US or Canada. Please read Fresh Fiction’s review of Wicked Little Secrets to see if the book is for you.

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