Monday, October 15, 2007

I learned it all in a book...

by Tawny Weber

One of the things I love about reading is that I can go anywhere - or anytime. What a quick trip back in time, grab a book. Want to visit the romantic waterways of Venice? Grab a book. Other planets, the future, a wild nightclub? Yup -a book. I've 'visited' dozens of countries from the comfort of my reading chair and (I'm almost ashamed to admit this) learned more about history than I did in school, just by reading romances.

It all comes down to setting, doesn’t it? Setting is such a powerful part of the story, sometimes a major player, sometimes a soft, watercolor background that barely registers on the reader's awareness. Some are edgy - in Double Dare I opened with a nightclub, flashing lights, a meat-market setting and it set the tone for the rest of the story. Others are subtle - in Does She Dare? the story is set in a quaint, cobblestone paved small town, and again, it sets a tone. You'd think they'd be vastly different stories, yet both are hot, sexy and have very strong heroines... but both settings reflect the heroine's self-image.

For me, setting is always tied to and reflects my characters. Other authors use setting differently. They might use it to challenge the characters, or even let it be a character itself. In my case, a winter setting limits outdoor lovescenes, for some people winter presents a life or death scenario for the hero and heroine to fight to survive. Don’t’ you love how setting and time carry and frame our stories?

Even better, for me, is when I read a book and learn something new. Whether its societal customs of a Regency or police procedures in a romantic suspense, for me a great read is one that delicately weaves in the factual information, lets me learn without realizing I’m learning (this is probably why I learned so much more by reading romances than in school LOL – there is a lot to be said for the ancient bards and teaching by means of storytelling!!).

What are some of the most fascinating things YOU've learned in reading? What setting or time do you find yourself coming back to over and over again? Is there a reason that time/setting fascinates you?


Christine Wells said...

Hi Tawny, great post! Anyone else think of Manuel and the moose in Fawlty Towers when they saw that subject line, or is it just me?:)

Interesting that your 'Dare' books have the same vibe, yet your heroines are totally different, and that in turn is reflected in the different settings.

I don't consciously plan these things, but as it turned out, setting was very important in Scandal's Daughter. Both hero and heroine's homes were symbolic of their upbringings--one sunny and golden, one bleak and stormy.

Helen said...

I love historicals and yes I too have learned more about history through reading romance novels than I ever learn't at school. I love the way an author creates the backdrop of the book with the estates and feel of those estates whether they are dark castles or big open mansions set in wonderful colourful gardens. I agree as well that I have pretty much traveled to a lot of countries through my reading and this gives me the yearning to see these places in real life.
I have learn't a lot about the proper behaviour expected of young Ladies during the regency and Victorian era as well as the living standards of the rich and poor and I think I have learn't a lot about the Kings and Queens of England and also about the wars between England and France.Great post Tawny.
Have Fun

DownUnderGirl said...

Hi Tawny, good subject.

Setting is everything. I set most of my book in hospitals. And rightly or wrongly, hospitals stir emotions. But writing it from a doctor or a nurses persepctive gives the other side of the story that most people see. Life and death situations can bring out the best and worst in people, cuts to the very essence of life and that's when it gets truly fascinating.

Amy Andrews

DownUnderGirl said...

Sorry meant to say - "don't see".
I'm very bad at proof reading.

Naughty Amy.

Caren Crane said...

Tawny, I also learned far more about history in novels than in History classes. I think because a novel makes the historical bits so much more interesting. My husband is a real history buff, but there is one time period I know far more about than he does: Regency England. *g* And every bit of that is from romance novels!

Anna Sugden said...

Great post, Tawny. Even though I travel a lot, setting can inspire me. I visited Zabar's deli in NYC after reading Judith Arnold's Love in Bloom's. And all those cowboy books make me want to visit places like Wyoming and Montana.

Christine - you did an awesome job with setting in SD. Fab descriptions made me feel the differences.

I've learned so much from books, about all sorts of things. From mushing with huskies and the Iditarod to how they made the classic scene in Singing in the Rain to opal mining in Cooper Pedy.

Novels can be a great source of information because the authors have to know their stuff and as Caren said, because they make the information fun.

One of the fun bits about researching my hockey books (not just meeting the players *grin*) was experiencing the sights and sounds behind the scenes and on the ice. It's hugely different from what you see as a fan.

doglady said...

Its the odd little things I learn about the Regency period that make me keep coming back for more. Especially some of the more obscure medical treatments, the attitudes about mental illness. The details about furniture, what people ate, little inventions that made their lives easier. I also like when the homes reflect their owners. Oh and the gardens! The attention to detail and design in them.

Dianna said...

Love the post Tawny and so very true. It is amazing what bits of information I have picked up over the years of reading. Did you know that Ocean Sunfish are microscopic when hatched but grow to the weight of 2,200 pounds? Where did I learn this? I haven't a clue but the information has been floating in my brain for years now. LOL
I am constantly drawn back to the Regency era, I am not sure why that particular era but that is where I find myself quite often. I love reading and finding out the little details of life in that time period. Medieval times seem to pull at me as well.

Kirsten said...

Tawny, I can't wait to read Does She Dare. When's the release date again? :-)

I became obsessed with the Ottoman Empire after reading all of Bertrice Small's naughty Skye O'Malley books and Love Wild and Fair (were they connected? I can't remember anymore). I went on to study that region and time period in college (majored in history), and even ended up taking a number of classes in Arab Women's Literature. All because of Bertrice! :-)

The great thing about learning history through a romance is that you learn more than the politics/history of war they usually teach in school. You read social history and the history of people. Much more interesting, if you ask me, and no less important, despite the weight it is given in school.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Tawny, great subject! I originally was drawn to the Victorian time period by the gorgeous clothes. Which is interesting as my heroines spend more time out of their clothes than in them *g*. Of course, corsets are amazing. They shape every woman into more of an hourglass shape (of course with figures like mine we're talking major straining on the laces) and look so sexy, they are still in fashion - in limited venues.

I like the idea that cellphones, regular phones, cars, boom boxes, computers didn't exist in the Victorian times. As an author, I can work in a bit more suspense when the heroine can't reach into her recticule for a cellphone. Heaven help me, but I love the idea of having servants to do the cooking and cleaning as well. In some ways, the modern woman comes with disadvantages.

Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

I think if done right, a setting can actually become almost a character in its own right. I love stories where you feel like the story almost couldn't take place anywhere else because it's so perfect for the characters and the plot.

I think we pick up bits of knowledge from fiction reading because it doesn't feel like learning if we're having a good time. I still remember learning a bit about Pancho Villa by reading a historical romance years ago.

Cassondra said...

Great points Tawny.

The very mention of Venice has me asking all kinds of questions, like "how do they keep the water out of their houses...there must be an entire industry of canal wall inspectors or some such--you know, how you have to have your vehicle tested for emissions issues in some states? In Venice, do they have to have their house walls tested for leaks?

I've learned so much more about history from novels than I ever did in school (high school anyway--college was a bit better, though not much). I think it's because in the novel, it becomes important because our characters are important, and this stuff is affecting our character. The setting is a part of who the character is.

In school it was just rote memorization with no connection. That's the awesome power of the novel--of story actually--as a teaching tool. In a textbook there's nothing to relate that stuff to.

And I can't wait for "Does She Dare." LOVED Double Dare. It'll be so cool to see the strong heroines you write in a small town setting!


Tawny said...

Christine, I love that the setting in Scandal's Daughter reflects the h/H upbringing as well. Like you, I didn't consciously plan it - to be honest, it was only in thinking about this blog that I realized how the setting had played into my books LOL.

Helen, I love setting too - like you, those bigger than life gorgeous settings in historical really do lend themselves to the lush feel of the stories.

Tawny said...

Amy - your setting really does drive your stories, doesn't it?! and like you say, it gives the readers an intimate, inside look at something that for many is just a little scary *g*.

Caren - LOL that your Regency knowledge outdoes your hubbies *g* I love how romances make us so smart. Altho my father really wants to know where I learned "all that stuff" I put in my books. Um, I blamed hubby.

Tawny said...

Ooooh the gardens! Doglady (love it!) I'm a garden freak, so reading about them really inspires me too. And like you say, all those little details that bring us into the story are almost like time travel.

Anna, methinks you like your research a GREAT deal! I love that you've gone to visit place you read.

Tawny said...

Dianna LOLOL on the sunfish! that is so fun to know. I enjoy the medeivals too, and am thrilled to hear they are making a "comeback".

Kirsten, you and Cassandra are so sweet *g*. DOES SHE DARE? is a January release. I loved writing this story, especially since the heroine has quite a few of my own goal-setting obsessive issues *g*. The setting was such a flip from DOUBLE DARE, so it was interesting. My third book, RISQUE BUSINESS is set in academia - which was REALLY different for me LOL.

Tawny said...

Donna - I love love love the clothes (and houses) of the Victorian era! It was so fun at my chapter meeting the other day, we were talking about reading the older books of our fave authors and the discussion wasn't so much about how the writing has evolved, but how our society has evolved. Trying to find a phone booth, for instance *g*. In a day of cell phones thats like total history!

Trish, I agree - setting can be a character. Its definitely that important.

Cassandra, YES- rote learning drives me batty. I can memorize with the best of them, but then I instantly hit the mental delete button LOL>

Anna Campbell said...

Tawny, love your post. How interesting about the variation in the settings for your two books.

As any regular visitor to the Banditas knows, I'm a bit of a setting junkie. The setting is one of the very first things that comes to me in a book. If I know where the action is taking place, I can make the action take place if that makes sense.

With Claiming the Courtesan, I wanted to make the Scottish setting an integral part of the story. It's still one of my favorite compliments when someone says that I captured the Highlands for them (mind you, Pam, getting listed in someone's favorite books is up there too!). I love the way in something like the Brontes, the landscape reflects the emotional journey of the characters.

With Untouched, I wanted the lush, gentle landscape of Somerset to be an ironic commentary on my hero's bleak reality - he's been locked away for life as a madman. I also wanted that spring growth to offer him a subconscious promise that he'd been through winter and new hope was just around the corner in the unlikely person of my heroine Grace.

Tempt the Devil, the book I'm just putting the finishing touches to, is mainly set in London. I wanted the desperate journey my characters make to a real emotional life to be set against a largely artificial world full of glitter and decadence.

The next one is going to be Cornwall. Lots of stormy seas and cliffs and and blasting winds and bleak moorland. Yes, it's another melodrama!

Love being able to explore all these different settings and play with how they have an impact on my characters.

Jill James said...

Tawny, I love learning from reading well-written romances. Again and again I return to Elizabethan times set stories. It was such an exciting time in the world. Elizabeth was the true underdog, never expected to ascent to the throne and she ruled it!!!!

Susan Seyfarth said...

Hi, Tawny. Great subject, & once again, I'm probably going to be the lone voice on the other side of the issue. I always lean more toward those "water colors" settings you talked about -- dreamy, blurry, not quite there.

As a reader, I'm impatient & tend to skim over anything that doesn't immediately advance the story, which includes a lot of detail on landscapes, decorations, clothing, etc. Which is probably why I find myself backing up all the time, re-reading the paragraphs of description I just skimmed & thinking, "Wait, what?" :-)

But I'm always amazed & awed by writers with the mastery to make setting into a deeply realized character. I'm thinking particularly of the Narnia Chronicles, which had me thumping around in the back of closets looking for portals into magical worlds until I was WAY older than I'd like to admit. :-)


Tawny said...

Anna - you are a master with setting. I'm awed at the detailing and depth you give in your books. How intriguing that setting comes to you first.

Jill - Isn't itersting the time periods we are drawn to? I wonder if reincarnation plays in LOL.

Susan I'm laughing so hard at the image of you knocking around the back of a closet :-) But thats exactly it- a setting that makes you go hmmm is one that is really well written.

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, thanks, Tawny. That was lovely. When I say setting comes to me first, it's people in their setting, if you know what I mean. I don't set out to write a 'Scottish' book (hmm, is that like the Scottish play?). But I tend to think people ARE part of their setting. I don't think any of us operate in a vacuum. Mind you, if you saw my house today, you'd wish I occasionally operated WITH a vacuum. This deadline means housework has gone west!

Beth said...

Great post, Tawny! I don't usually think about setting although I do prefer the dynamics of small towns. Probably because that's what I know *g*

doglady said...

Tawny, I know what you mean about gardens. English gardens, especially. Formal or informal, wild by design or designed to be wild. I love a beautiful garden. I think it started when I lived in England. Two elderly sisters had the house next to us and their back garden was huge and GORGEOUS in full bloom. Anna is a master at creating a painting of the setting and then drawing the characters out of that painting. It just blows me away. I love the little details in good romance novels. The kinds of things that are put in there very like the things you would pass in walking down a hallway for the first time. They just catch your eye enough for you to remember them.

Anna Campbell said...

Pam, what a lovely description of the things that you love in setting in a romance novel. Walking down a hallway is just how I feel. I don't like feeling I've had an encyclopedia dumped on my head (ouch!) but I love to pick up those stray bits of information that just make the whole experience rich and colorful for me.

Tawny said...

Oooh, I do love gardens. My yard is very "cottage" - alot of roses, vines, colors and overgrown flowering bushes. I keep telling my husband I don't want to cut it back because it'd ruin that enchanted feel LOL. A few years back we saw the Butchart Gardens in Victoria BC - they were stunning! Definitely a romance setting. And great definition of Anna's writing *g* I totally agree.

Anna, you rock :-D I get what you mean about the setting for the characters, its the perfect backdrop to enhance their struggles.

Beth - you rock the small towns, girl!!!