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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Guest Susanna Fraser: The History I Left Out

Linda Banche here. Today I welcome fellow Regency author Susanna Fraser and her debut novel, The Sergeant's Lady. For all you Regency fans who like to overdose on history, read about the fascinating subjects Susanna had to leave out.

Susanna is giving away a $10 gift certificate to one lucky commenter. See below for details, and check back here for the winner. The winner is Beth Trissel. Beth, please email Susanna at susannamfraser AT gmail DOT com and let her know whether you'd prefer Amazon, B&N, or Books on Board for your gift.

Welcome, Susanna!

It’s a truism among historical authors that you only show about ten percent of your research. The other 90% is useful to the writer, since it gives you a fuller understanding of your characters and their world. But if it doesn’t directly impact the story, it doesn’t belong on the page. You’d just be showing off--”Look at ME! I did LOTS of research!”--and boring even the history geeks among your readers, because they’ve picked up your novel for a story, not a lesson.

So today instead of talking about fun facts that made it into The Sergeant’s Lady, I’m going to tell you about two big events I left out and why.

In early 1812, the British army’s key objective was to seize and hold the fortress cities of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, enabling them to secure their communication and supply lines and push further into Spain. Ciudad Rodrigo fell in January, completely offscreen from my story’s perspective. The army then marched on Badajoz and spent most of March laying siege to and bombarding the city in preparation for their attack.

The storming of the city on the night of April 6 did make it into The Sergeant’s Lady. As a sergeant in the Light Division, my hero would’ve been in the midst of the worst of the battle, so I put him there and had him wounded--both a likely outcome, as the division lost some 40% of its fighting strength, and one necessary for the resolution of my overall plot.

What I had to leave out was the aftermath of the battle. Once the British finally made it into the city, the soldiers went on a 72-hour rampage of rape and pillage, an atrocity made even worse because the Spanish civilians who were their victims were ostensibly allies. While it wasn’t the first or the last time an army went wild after a siege, it was an unusually bad case and is a serious black mark on the British army’s otherwise solid record during the Napoleonic Wars.

And I had no reason to put it in my story. My character was too severely wounded to be there heroically trying to stop it, or even to know about it till well after the fact. Mind you, I wanted to put it there. It felt like sugar-coating the British record to leave it out. Also, I wouldn’t want any fellow history geeks reading my novel to think I didn’t know what happened! But neither of those reasons was enough. It had nothing to do with my character’s arc, so it didn’t belong in my story.

Spencer Perceval’s Assassination
Only once has a British prime minister being assassinated. Spencer Perceval was shot and killed on May 11, 1812 by a lone and probably mentally unstable assassin with a personal grievance against the government. This event had no impact on my story whatsoever. However tragic it was for the Perceval family and whatever upheaval it created for the British government, I didn’t want to write about it.

Unfortunately, I needed to have some characters in England discussing current events--such as Badajoz, which, given the pace at which information traveled at the time, would’ve been news in England in May. I wanted to date the scene around May 15 or 20, when I felt like letters from the characters’ connections with the army in Spain would’ve had plenty of time to arrive. However, when I looked up what was happening around then and was reminded of Perceval’s death, I knew I couldn’t use those dates. My characters are politically involved enough that a prime minister’s assassination would’ve trumped everything else...for them, but not for me as an author with a different story to tell.

So I moved my scene to May 10 and neatly avoided the issue. I felt like I was stretching credibility a little to have my characters get letters from Spain so quickly--but not so much as I would’ve if I’d had the wife of politically active peer not even MENTION the prime minister’s death when a character recovering from a dangerous illness asks her if anything important happened while she was almost dying.

What history do you most want to see left out or included in your romance? One randomly chosen commenter wins a $10 gift certificate to your choice of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Books on Board.

The Sergeant’s Lady Blurb:
Highborn Anna Arrington has been "following the drum," obeying the wishes of her cold, controlling cavalry officer husband. When he dies, all she wants is to leave life with Wellington's army in Spain behind her and go home to her family's castle in Scotland.

Sergeant Will Atkins ran away from home to join the army in a fit of boyish enthusiasm. He is a natural born soldier, popular with officers and men alike, uncommonly brave and chivalrous, and educated and well-read despite his common birth.

As Anna journeys home with a convoy of wounded soldiers, she forms an unlikely friendship with Will. When the convoy is ambushed and their fellow soldiers captured, they become fugitives—together. The attraction between them is strong—but even if they can escape the threat of death at the hands of the French, is love strong enough to bridge the gap between a viscount's daughter and an innkeeper's son?

Excerpt here.

Susanna Fraser bio:
Susanna Fraser wrote her first novel in fourth grade. It starred a family of talking horses who ruled a magical land. In high school she started, but never finished, a succession of tales of girls who were just like her, only with long, naturally curly and often unusually colored hair, who, perhaps because of the hair, had much greater success with boys than she ever did.

Along the way she read her hometown library’s entire collection of Regency romance, fell in love with the works of Jane Austen, and discovered in Patrick O’Brian’s and Bernard Cornwell’s novels another side of the opening decades of the 19th century. When she started to write again as an adult, she knew exactly where she wanted to set her books. Her writing has come a long way from her youthful efforts, but she still gives her heroines great hair.

Susanna grew up in rural Alabama. After high school she left home for the University of Pennsylvania and has been a city girl ever since. She worked in England for a year after college, using her days off to explore history from ancient stone circles to Jane Austen’s Bath.

Susanna lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and daughter. When not writing or reading, she goes to baseball games, sings alto in a local choir and watches cooking competition shows. Please stop by and visit her at, get to know her on Facebook at and follow her on Twitter at @susannafraser.


Linda Banche said...

Hey, May 10, nice day. That's my birthday. *g* Seriously, though, that 90% of the research you left out provides the context of the story. I like some accounting of current events, and the story has to fit the time. Otherwise we're talking costume drama, and I don't like that type of historical

Lindsay Townsend said...

That's really interesting, Susanna, and I respect your reasons for both including and laving out what you put in and left out of your novel.

Debra Glass said...

First of all, your cover is gorgeous! And I love the premise. I think when the history can be included to advance the story and the plot, put it in there! But readers want a feel for the time and the clothes. They want to feel as if they are on the journey with the hero and heroine. Using the history to bring out the emotions of the characters is what makes a historical breathtakingly wonderful. Great post, Susanna and congrats on your book!

Valerie L. said...

Knowing how well you respect the history and how you plan on using it and not using it makes me want to read your book. Of course, the story is what counts first, but I don't believe a good story can be written without the author being aware of the history and the tenor of the times to make it real. Thank you, and I will be looking for your book on the shelves.

Susanna Fraser said...

Thanks for having me here today!

Character comes first for me, as a writer and a reader--but IMHO a good character in historical fiction needs to be grounded in his/her place in time, and that includes thinking about the events, big and small, that shaped their world.

Debra, I'm extremely pleased with my cover, and Carina is doing a great job with cover art in general.

Valerie, at least for now my book is only available on virtual shelves, but you don't have to have a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle or Nook to read it. Amazon and Barnes & Noble both have free apps you can download for a computer or smartphone, so you can find out if e-books are for you for no more than the cost of a book. :-)

Elizabeth Morgan said...

I think that the books sounds awesome. I think the things that you left out are the things that people would avoid. Sounds awesome!

catslady said...

It sounds like you are balancing it just right. I love to hear the history but only if it applies. I'd much rather something not be included if the dates and timing would be off.

Beth Trissel said...

Fabulous subject and one all of us historical romance authors struggle with. I loved all the history you shared that wasn't in your novel, and I like the sound of that too, BTW! Thanks so much.
I learned after many smack downs over the years that I will use only a smattering of my copious research. I could happily undertake more from historical authors but then I'm all over documentaries. :)

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Linda and Susanna,

I enjoyed your post and am glad to see you move the story date rather than play with facts. The speed of letter travel is minor. The assassination is major, as you said, and I don't like historical fiction to change history. My daughter and I were actually talking about this yesterday. If it's historical, make it follow actual events and move your story around it. She disagrees that it matters, but I'm more a history freak. ;-)

I'm more concerned about keeping it "right" than about what's in or out.

Susanna Fraser said...

Thanks, Elizabeth!

catslady, I'm finding that it's a balancing act that changes from story to story. This one turned on actual events more than any other I've written so far, but I always try to find a way to make it clear that we're in, say, 1809 rather than 1819, and CERTAINLY rather than 1889.

Beth, I've had CPs chide me both for showing too much of my research and for not explaining *enough* about why a character was acting differently than a 21st century man or woman would. E.g. one CP looked at my Sergeant's Lady heroine's unhappy first marriage and say, "Why doesn't she just divorce him?" So I had to try to find a way to explain how early 19th century divorce law worked from within the character's POV without having them think too much about something they would've taken for granted. Which is probably a blog post in itself...

DeanY said...

I will be looking for the book to buy. I love history and add romance and what a combination.
Thank you,

Susanna Fraser said...

LK, I've been known to change history...but in those manuscripts I change BIG things, make it obvious, and label it alternative history or historical fantasy. And hopefully someday I'll sell those, too.

It's something of a pet peeve of mine when characters ignore HUGE things--e.g. I've seen books and manuscripts set in the spring of 1815 that don't say a THING about Napoleon escaping from exile and the Hundred Days and Waterloo and so on. And my response is, "Move it back a few years when it's the same old war that's been going on forever and you can get by with someone without military connections not thinking about it, or move it forward a few years and England is at peace, but May-June of 1815?! You've GOT to mention it."

Susanna Fraser said...

Thanks, Dean! I hope you enjoy the book.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Susanna,
That was a very interest blog. Leaving out 90% of your research is heartbreaking, at least I find it so, but you have to consider your readers who just want to read an historical romance not receive a history lesson.



Laurie Wood said...

What a great topic for a blog post! It's fascinating to know what an author "left out" and why. I love historicals and sat in on a live chat with Phillipa Gregory today. She basically echos your sentiments (although she didn't reveal what she left out in the Red Queen, lol), and she's a class act to follow. Moving a few dates around is a smart move, imo, especially when you're caught up between your story and "real events" which could compromise the story you're telling. You're on my ereader - I just have to get to you! I went on a shopping binge with Carina (I can't say enough good things about the quality of their books or covers), so I'm trying to read them in the order I bought them. :)

Susanna Fraser said...

Margaret, I think there will be always be fascinating things I wish I could include but have to leave out, but the value I see in knowing way more than I'll ever use is that I don't feel tentative about my characters and setting. If I know a dozen good slice-of-life details about soldiers with Wellington's army and only have room for one in my book, somehow I can use the one in a casual, off-the-cuff way that feels more natural than if that single detail is all I know. Something about the sense that there's always more where that came from.

Thanks, Laurie! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it, and I wish I had the discipline to read books in the order I buy them.

Susanna Fraser said...

And Beth Trissel wins the gift certificate! Beth, please email me at susannamfraser AT gmail DOT com and let me know whether you'd prefer Amazon, B&N, or Books on Board for your gift certificate.

Beth Trissel said...

Jumping up and down!!!! Thanks!