Research Can Add Rich Detail: The British Museum

Left to Right: Montagu House, Townley Gallery and Sir Robert Smirke‘s west wing under construction (July 1828)

My main character works at the British Museum in present day, but finds herself in 1834 London. I thought it would be fun for her to visit the museum while she’s in 1834 to see her reaction.

When I wrote my first draft, I knew I needed to do research on the museum, but waited until I was polishing my third draft. I wondered if the current building was even around in 1834, and sure enough, it wasn’t. But, it was right during the time it was being built. It took some digging to find out which wing was built when, and which was yet open for the public, but I discovered that in 1834, she would be visiting the previous museum’s lodgings, Montagu House. The British Museum’s website has some very helpful history posted. This initial led me to many more on their history, with photos and drawings, and even a history of each wing.

However, I wanted to find what artifacts she’d be seeing. I thought I’d need to write the British Museum and see if they’d be so helpful as to do something like this for a newbie writer. Thankfully, on the off-chance that Google would pull through, I searched online. Would you believe that the British Museum published guides to their artifacts room by room at various times in the 1800s? And they’re posted online? Talk about a writer’s wet dream! They’re available on Google Books. Here’s the one from 1814 and the one from 1838. Using these and other online sources, I was able to form a picture of what she might have seen. I had to draw a map on paper, to figure out some of this, as the photos got confusing.
Anyway, here’s a before and after of the hero and heroine approaching the museum. Notice the lack of detail in the first version. I had no idea what she was “seeing.” (There’s other things lacking, too!). The hero doesn’t know she’s from the future.

Be Humble: Fact Check, Or Why I Thought I Knew This Fact About Jane Austen

When I originally conceived this blog post, it was to use Jane Austen’s anonymity as an example of fact-checking. It still is, but with a little twist. The point turned back on me waving its index finger.

When reading historical romances, I get frustrated by anachronistic words or events. Or just completely not understanding a word’s usage in context to the time (thinking a conservatory in a house was a place where they listened to music, not where they kept their plants). I won’t name any names because that would be mean, but also because I know I’m not immune to this. Thank God my critique partners have caught the ones they have and I shudder to think how many others linger unnoticed in my manuscript. Everyone has their own little pockets of expertise and there’s no way a writer can know all. So double-check your assumptions and have others knowledgeable in your subject read it.

My Jane Austen beef in romance novels has always been when the Regency heroine in some country village or manor house mentions they are reading one of Miss Austen’s works. That, I have no problem with, in fact I love it because I’d go all fan girl on her if I was able to meet her. Anyway, my problem is when they actually name her as the author. While she lived, her published works were all published anonymously. Only her intimate friends, family, publisher and the Prince Regent (and presumably his inner circle) knew she was the author. So if your heroine is a country miss in Kent, she would not know Jane Austen was the author.

If I am wrong on this assumption, please, please, please tell me so that I can stop having this as my pet peeve!

Now to the twist back at me. For some reason I had it in my head that it was the 1833 edition published by Bentley that first had her name listed as the author and so I was going to caution folks to not have your heroine name Miss Austen prior to 1833. However, in preparation for this post, I thought I should double-check that assumption and found out that her brother listed his sister as the author when he printed Persuasion and Northanger Abbey in December 1817, five months after she died. Oops! *Scurrying back to my manuscript to change that little fact about my heroine when she’s drooling over the 1833 edition*

So, if your heroine is having small talk in the parlor before 1817, you shouldn’t have her name Miss Austen’s name.

I think the lesson for me is that it’s even more dangerous to make assumptions when you’re writing about something you think you know pretty well. Double check anyway. I’m also prepared for this to be unintentional irony, pointing out that I didn’t fact check enough and got something wrong. Please let me know. I think that’s the point of this post. I wanted to write a post about fact-checking but am running late for work, so posting… and in my haste probably committed some errors or misstatement of fact.