Many years ago, when being an author was a dream I never thought would come true, I was learning the first steps into this profession. I was reading books at a voracious rate. At first, those books were the few teen stories available—The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mysteries, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse—but as I quickly outgrew those and entered the world or romance books, I lapped them up as if they were ambrosia.
One book in particular, or rather the opening chapters, stays with me to this day when I plot my own stories. Not as a way to write a book but what to avoid.
This particular Victorian romance began with the daughter of an nineteenth century American robber baron being married off to a penniless English Duke, in order to save his family’s estate, a common theme in those days of the early seventies. This young woman had been raised in a household that consumed rich, heavy meals three times a day, with a lot of snacking in between. None of them were what anyone would call healthy or slender. On the day of her wedding, following the ceremony in the receiving line, the young woman who had been cattily referred to as looking more like an overblown wedding cake than a bride, collapsed and fell into unconsciousness. The book then jumped ahead eighteen months. Said young woman awakes from a long coma and makes a few discoveries.
First, her husband, who had made no bones about how much he loathed her at the ceremony, where they had met only hours before their marriage, had returned to England to attend to his family’s estate. He no longer had any money worries and more than likely thought he’d never have to care about the wife thrust upon him. Second, during this time, while she was unconsciousness from a brain seizure, the young woman, all of nineteen, had lost a great deal of weight. She went from hefty-chunky to svelte and gorgeous.
The story progressed in the usual manner. She travels to England, under the guise of someone else, to see if he truly loves her or if she should (gasp, gasp) petition to divorce him. He falls in love with this gorgeous creature and after the usual you tricked me moment, decides he really wants to spend the rest of his life with a woman who is kind and caring, despite having judged her based on her weight and the money she brought to his estate.
A typical Victorian style romance, one guaranteed to be lapped up by women everywhere who dreamed of meeting their duke and living happily ever after.
Fast forward to when I became a published author, when I saw most of my books ranked as Amazon International Best Sellers. My thoughts on that book now are that it was so unbelievable. A young woman in the nineteenth century has a brain seizure and lies comatose for eighteen months. Once she awakens, the only difference in her is that she’s lost the mountain of weight that most probably caused this alleged brain seizure.
This is where knowing history works for the author. During the nineteenth century, bloodletting, applying leeches to an individual to suck out the poisons in their blood, was the standard treatment for such an incident. That nearly everyone who suffered a brain seizure died, usually in under six months was ignored. Doctors mumbled that someday they might be better able to treat brain seizures.
In reality, most people who suffered brain seizures in the nineteenth century and lay comatose for an extended period of time probably died of starvation. That’s not to mention the other issues one suffers when they’re confined to a bed for a months or years. Yet, this young woman awoke able to remember her name, what had happened to her, her life, pretty much everything she experienced before her illness and had just lost a lot of weight in the meantime—eighteen months after she had her brain seizure.
In the seventies, when romances hit the market’s shelves and were gone just as fast, when dreaming the big dream was what every girl did, this was true romance at its finest. In the twenty-first century, this book would never find a publisher. The author might self-publish it but the reviews would be attacks on his or her credibility.
This is why it’s so important to make your fiction story believable. If the reader knows what you’re showing them is impossible, you will forever lose a fan.