Monday, May 20, 2013

A SENSE OF TIME & PLACE – The Importance of Research

by Lisbeth Eng

Nothing can jolt a reader out of the “zone” of your novel faster than an egregious error in the text. Such blunders by an author are more likely to be found in historical fiction, where accuracy in both era and locale is crucial.

I was on an airplane a few years ago, reading a World War II novel, when I suddenly uttered, “He’s not dead!” (Fortunately, the stranger sitting next to me slept through my outcry.) A character in this book had stated that Mussolini was dead.

The book takes place in 1943 and I knew that Il Duce did not meet his demise until 1945. Perhaps the character intentionally misspoke, in an effort to deceive, or the author wished to demonstrate his (the character’s) ignorance. I continued reading the otherwise well-written novel, awaiting an explanation. It never came. Even more infuriating was my realization by the end that Mussolini’s presence, whether alive or dead, had no impact on the plot, so the erroneous reference was completely unnecessary.

I did enjoy the novel overall, but have never forgotten that incident and it would make me just a little less likely to read another by that author. The research for my Italian-set World War II romance novel IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY came from various sources.

I had visited Italy over twenty years prior to starting my first draft, and had the good fortune to visit that country again while in the midst of an early revision. My more recent journey contributed the following details, which I would not otherwise have thought to include:

Shivering, she hastened toward the piazza, passing rows of houses painted in muted shades of saffron, wheat and terracotta. Some were adorned with the remnants of faded frescos; others revealed exposed brick beneath crumbling plaster façades. When she reached the deserted marketplace, her only companions were pigeons, huddled in niches where stones had fallen away from ancient walls. Their soft cooing, like lovers’ whispers, penetrated the early morning silence.

Had I not visited Verona, the setting of my novel, and had the opportunity to hear the cooing doves and see the faded frescos, that description would not likely be included in my book.

Of course, not every writer has the opportunity to visit a foreign locale and we certainly can’t travel back in time to experience the actual historical setting. But one can read non-fiction, as well as fiction books on the subject and surf the Internet for ideas (but beware the source – there is a lot of false information out there in cyberspace). If I hadn’t been able to travel to Italy, a visit to the European paintings section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art could have been a great source of inspiration for my setting.

I possess an entire library of books about World War II, as well as Italian and German dictionaries and grammar books to double-check the foreign words and phrases I have sprinkled throughout IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY.

But a word of caution there, too – don’t count on your cousin who studied a foreign language in college or the Google translation tool. If you’re going to use foreign words or phrases try to find a native speaker to make certain you are using them correctly. I’ve found cringe-worthy foreign language errors even in novels published by traditional houses. It may seem unlikely that your reader will notice a small mistake in historical fact or in a foreign phrase but many readers are knowledgeable, and chances are your historical romance reader knows her period – be it Regency, Medieval or World War II. And she may have studied a foreign language or two. So, as they say in German, “Achtung!” ♥

An English major in college, Lisbeth Eng has also studied Italian, German and French. Lisbeth is a native New Yorker and works as a compliance officer in the finance industry. Her first novel, IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY, is available in e-book and paperback at The Wild Rose Press, as well as Amazon and B&N. Visit her at


  1. So true about being in the zone and then dragged out with inappropriate dialogue or setting. Nice post!

  2. So much to consider when using research about anything in a novel, be it history, or regarding a place, locale, language or profession. And unfortunately, there will always be a reader who THINKS they know something, and that you are wrong, when in point of fact, they are the one in error. And then there's the issue of info dump. Or overusing jargon (I recently read a contest entry written by a lawyer and had to warn that there was heavy legal jargon included that might puzzle someone not familiar with legalese). Sometimes you can't win for losing, but doing as you advise - being aware, cautious, and double-checking everything will give a writer the best possibility of avoiding errors that will yank a reader out of a story.

  3. Research is important. Thanks for the reminder.