2018 releases

Hell's Bell
Scent of the Jaguar
His Outback Nanny
The Queen's Game
366 Days of Flash Fiction
On the Horizon: Simple worlds of speculative adventure
Lusting the Enemy

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Magic Thursday: Astrid Cooper on Research

By Astrid Cooper  

Of bondage, beads and bindings… stripping to the bare essentials in the name of research. 

Characters wear costumes. Whether they’re realistic historical garb, or fantasy adaptions—clothes do maketh the man or gal.

Have you ever had a secret yearning to re-live an historical setting, or become a fantasy character? Perhaps you would like to become Arwen, or Galadriel for a day? Or maybe Xena is more to your taste. (muscles and leather looks chic, doesn’t it?) Or, maybe out of this world is your direction? Consider those characters from the sf series, Farscape? – the women had toned bodies and knew how to wear those fabulous outfits. (John Crichton wasn’t half bad, either!)

I was a member of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) for many years and attendance at every event is mandated by the rule that ‘mundanity’ be left behind. No mod-cons in sight and all people must be in period costume and act their persona. We are ‘lords’ and ‘ladies’ for the duration of every event. Even weekend long camps required one to become ‘in period’. Living like that for two days really awakened me to the ‘issues’ and I’ve used some of my experiences in a current fantasy romance wip. 

In the 21st century most Western women take for granted the ease of clothing and relative safety of environment—as it relates to what we wear. All this is lost the moment one dons period garb. Dressed in my 15th century gown, I scorched my bell-shaped velvet sleeve simply by leaning across the table to reach the wine jug (I could argue though, that it was my fault. A ‘lady’ doesn’t lean across the table—she summons a servant or the nearest lord to fetch for her). The candle flame burnt my sleeve, but I was lucky. At another event a lady had her sleeve catch fire (again reaching across the table) and by the time the lords extinguished the flames, she was burned and required hospital treatment. 

Similarly, head-dresses are another hazard. Modern doorways aren’t high enough to walk through without scraping (or losing) your magnificent butterfly hennin. Elizabethan farthingales or Victorian crinolines swirl around your body supporting layers of silk and velvet, but when wearing one, you have to turn sideways to navigate a doorway. Even the bustle poses challenges. And as for sitting down…

Going to the bathroom is a challenge…

Those voluminous skirts are cumbersome when answering the call of nature. In some costumes you have to learn to balance above the bowl with the skirts bunched around your anatomy and your aim has to be accurate. I think you can imagine the picture. (It’s not a ‘romantic’ sight). And at those weekend camps, you can experience the reality of life when using drop pits or digging holes for calls of nature. Living in the 21st century, we are generally insulated from the smells of historical times, but if your hero or heroine finds themselves on a backwater planet, or transported to a medieval; setting, you can enrich your narrative, but a simple commentary on the ‘stink’… using one of the five senses to bring the scene alive for the reader. Why nose-gays and pomanders were carried by ladies to put against the nose to disguise the stench of the streets—an essential part of every lady’s wardrobe. The ones I’ve made and beaded and embroidered were filled with cloves.. 

Elizabethan garb is one of the cruellest – the wooden stomacher laced over your front to ensure flat profile… just simply crushes. If one is a buxom wench, this costume causes extreme discomfort. The Elizabethan corsets and lacing leave bruises on the flesh long after the garb is removed. Even my slender friends who have an Elizabethan persona tell me about the bruises and the difficulty of breathing, especially at times of exertion such as dancing. No wonder the court dances of this period were (for the main), slow and sedate.

It is historical fact that women removed ribs to ensure a smaller waistline, though the resultant surgery caused severe health problems. Without the protection of ribs, internal organs are vulnerable and a corset compresses them to the point that many women often fainted—the ‘fit of the vapours’—we have read about. Cutting off toes to minimise foot size wasn’t just done by Cinderella’s stepsisters.

Spare a thought for the knights of the period, and for those men (and women) who adopt a knight persona in the 21st century. Chain mail, armour and helmets weighed in total approx. 32 kilograms (circa 15th century). Try moving about with this restriction. As a consequence, battles lasted a short time because heat exhaustion was a very real occupational hazard. Blisters, chafing, bruising were experienced by knights then and now, simply due to their costume.

In a current work in progress, my heroine is required to don a mail shirt. I wondered what it would be like for someone unaccustomed to wearing this. I did my research—just for a one line reaction that the heroine has in the scene—but for it to be real, for me, as author to convince the reader of the heroine’s reaction, I had to do this. I put on a mail hauberk. Phew! I gained an insight and renewed respect for the lord and ladies who fight in this costume. In another of my books, the hero vampire drives a Ferrari. The heroine is taken out on a dinner date by the hero. She’s never sat in a Ferrari, so how, can I—as author-creator—convince my reader of my heroine’s reaction to the car? I hightailed it to the nearest luxury car sales yard, told the manager what I wanted and why and I sat in the car and had a drive (nope I wasn’t game enough to drive it, even if it was offered –it wasn’t!) The heroine’s reaction to the car is real, and I created a reaction so that the reader (who may never sit in a Ferrari) could experience it. .

Those of us who write historical or fantasy romance will sooner or later face the scenario where your characters are going to undress (whether a love scene, or a bathing scene). For a knight there’s no such thing as a ‘quickie’, though you may recall that scene in Excalibur where Uther Pendragon, in full armour, ravishes Ygraine. Close encounters? I don’t think so! A hero wouldn’t do this to his lady. A villain might try… but in armour it’d be very difficult—the codpiece of later historical epochs can be removed, but all that armour in the way—the villain would have to be of considerable proportion to ‘dock’ (or, so my knight friends tell me).
Stripping to the skin in period garb takes much longer than we are accustomed to. The undressing provides a feast of sensuality/eroticism for authors wishing to explore it in their books. The removal of layers of clothing, of untying laces and ‘points’—the anticipation (sexual tension) of what lies beneath, can be extended for as long as you wish. 

deviantart.com - Angirias
In historical settings, the glimpse of an ankle, or wrist, or the nape of his lady’s neck may leave the hero weak at the knees. The heroine’s back-laced gown provides some difficult moments if the hero is unaccustomed to it. It is almost impossible for a woman to unlace her own back-laced gown. I’ve tried. Thank heavens for long-suffering husbands and handmaidens to provide the hands to unlace. Writing a scene where the heroine unlaces her own back-fastened gown may need to be modified. Get yourself laced into a gown and see how ‘easy’ it is to get out of it. Again, research is the key to authenticity.

Leather breeches do look good, but not that comfortable. They’re hot and sweaty and sooner or later the leather sags around the derriere. Naturally, though, our heroes (and vamp-fighting heroines) do not have this problem: their leather breeches remain taut and sexy. The leather-clad spacefarers in Farscape never had saggy rears. 

One of the most evocative, sexually-charged scenes in any movie I’ve seen occurred in The Last Samurai. The character of Nathan Algren dresses for the coming battle, assisted by the Japanese lady-samurai, Taka. Algren wears the full armour of Taka’s late samurai husband, whom Algren has killed in a fight months before. The scene is riveting (I think) because Algren starts bare and is dressed in layers upon layers of ritual samurai clothing, finally ending in the red armour and helmet. The scene is done in relative silence, with only the swish of fabric against skin. There’s fleeting caresses of Taka’s fingers over Algren’s skin as she folds the first kimono shift over him, the smoothing down of more layers of garments, a cautious hand touch… The emotion conveyed in this scene is, in the main, conveyed by the clothes—the dressing and what that clothing represents (both its cultural importance and the fact that Algren is probably going to his death that morning). The dressing says farewell without the need for words.

But if history isn’t your forte, then let’s go boldy out there thattaway to the stars…

In my futuristic romance novel, Crystal Dreams my heroine (Liandra) comes from an advanced space-faring culture and she wears body-hugging synthetic suits that allow her freedom of movement and her enviro-belt ensures that she is protected from heat or cold, so she is always comfortable in her flimsy attire. A minor conflict between Liandra and the hero (Connal), is that he insists she wear—for ‘modesty’s sake—‘suitable women’s clothing’. (His insistence has nothing to do with the fact that he sees how some of his men watch Liandra and he doesn’t want to ‘share’ her in anyway with anyone; no, he’s just concerned for her welfare. ( Yeah right!) This clothing issue gives the reader an insight into the developing relationship between hero and heroine—a relationship which both Liandra and Connal deny. Liandra loses her enviro-belt in a botched escape attempt, so she has to wear cumbersome robes and layers of clothing to combat the cold. She soon discovers how complicated life is when wearing these clothes. Conversely, she finds Connal’s hip-hugging kilt more erotic than anything she has experienced in all the League Worlds—and the men there also wear those clingy jumpsuits which Connal knows ‘hide nothing’. A simple thing such as clothes can progress a plot and characterisation and provide humour. But to be authentic, to give a realistic response, an author has to walk a mile in the heroine’s shoes to realise her predicament.

If you ever have the chance to dress up in ‘proper’ historical garb, do so—’proper’ , here, means lacing, corsets, hoops, crinolines, or mail… not costumes that are superficial adaptations, such as you’d buy from a costume hire shop. The ‘true’ experience will give you a greater appreciation of the freedom of movement we all take for granted and it may give you more identification for your characters—whether you are a reader, or a writer.
Barbarella space suit

This is also true of romances in space. Do you recall the opening scene of Barbarella? Barb slowly strips off her spacesuit. How long does it last? What is the audience reaction? In your book, if your heroine (or hero) strips off his suit, imagine the layers and the difficulty. Or, how about helmets? What tension does this create? Helmet to helmet ‘kisses’? Hero and heroine meet for the first time? What is in that suit? This vizor may be blacked out. The voice may be distorted… is that the person’s real voice, or computer-generated? Does the helmet hide an angel or a monster? Literally, there is a wealth of experience, plot and characterisation in just this piece of clothing. This was explored in Tanith Lee’s novella, Beauty (a re-telling of ‘Beauty and the Beast’) and to my mind one of the most evocative sf romances I have ever read.
A space suit as WE know it

In my most recent works—the paranormal sexy series Monsters inK, the cat shifters (in particular) are disdainful of trousers/pants, much preferring to wear kaftans, silk robes and similar. They are sensual creatures, so the feel of silk and satin or velvet is part of their culture. Though, when they see their human men garbed in jeans and torso-hugging t-shirts, they go weak at the paws. I also use this trouser disdain as a vehicle for humour, innuendo and double entendre. (By way of explanation, the human-vampire hero, Jai, is stage manager for the cabaret at Monsters inK, so he has access to costumes…)

Jai said, ‘You need clothes. We’re about the same size. Jeans and t-shirt okay?’

‘I never wear pants.’

‘That’s what I’ve heard about cats, always ready for action.’ Their gazes locked. ‘So what do you wear? A dress? Not on this world, at least in public.’

‘I’d prefer a kilt, or a sarong, or a silk robe.’

‘I’ll see what I can find.’

Jai returned a few minutes later, and held out a lime green tutu.

Leydan growled. ‘I am a man, not some escoru.’

‘What’s an escoru?’

‘Someone who would wear that abomination. Get it out of my sight.’

Score one to me, Jaidyn thought. He’d truly teased the cat’s whiskers. He flung the tutu on the sofa and held out his own much loved, tattered and many times patched green cotton dressing gown.

‘That?’ Leydan asked, his eyes narrowed. ‘Is this the best you can do?’

‘It’s my favourite.’

‘Then I pity you if your circumstances are so reduced that this… thing is your favourite. What sort of heathen place am I in?’

‘Suit yourself,’ Jai said. ‘Walk around naked, as if I care. But the cleaning ladies might enjoy the sight and want to buff your butt with their dusters.’

Extract from The Cat the Vampire Dragged In
Astrid with some of her research projects

Clothes can provide a myriad of possibilities for your plot and characters. If you are so inclined, you can even make your own costumes to match your creation. This is often done by those who write steampunk. But I don’t think a heroine can adequately slay the bad guys wearing eight inch stiletto heels. I tried a pair on in a shop (research—again) and couldn’t balance.

Have fun ‘researching’ clothes for your characters. You never know where it will lead.

If you need some costume research, I can try and assist, but contacting your local SCA or sf group will be even better. Have fun. Live the dream…

Crystal Dreams published by Devine Destinies www.devinedestinies.com

Monsters inK series published by extasy books www.extasy books.com

Christmas Creek Decadence, Vampire for Hire, The Cat the Vampire Dragged in 

Join Astrid on FaceBook (link to it via www.astridcooper.com) and twitter

Astrid has kindly donated a giveaway. One lucky commenter will have a choice of one of the  Monsters inK books (m/m romance) OR a copy of Crystal Dreams. 

Most images are sourced from Wikipedia


  1. Big Thank-you Astrid for your entertaining and informative Post.
    Because of my love of anything from 1900 to way back, I went to a Medieval Fair in QLD a few years ago. I was simply blown a way with the authenticity of the participants. Yes I tried on a chain-mail (top only) How on earth did they manage. You have brought up so many thought provoking issues about dress sense and fashion for a writer.

    1. Hi Maryde
      Thanks for the comment. I am thrilled to read that you found it entertaining and informative. When I was writing it, I kept telling myself "no one is going to be interested..." I was a member of SCA for many years, so every event I was in costume and "living the dream". That's where I learned to costume, bead and cook medieval food, etc. The food is fabulous, too (not yukky as one imagines --- at least for the "upper crust").
      Best wishes,

  2. Great post, Astrid! The detail of clothing is well worth thinking about, and as you say, can be woven into the sensual details of the stories. Love your cats! (But then I love felines anyway. heh)

    1. Hi Denise
      Thanks for the comment. So glad you found it interesting. It's just one more thing to use for "sensory" depth for the story/characters.
      Best wishes

  3. I do a bit of writing myself and I also seem to have some problems thinking of what clothing would be appropriate for the character. I've never thought of actually going out and trying on clothes to determine functionality. I think I'll have a lot of fun going out and finding some fun places to try on clothes for some ideas!

    1. Hi Serix
      Yes, clothing does maketh the man or woman and for me, is so important, but then I am a clothing/colour/texture person. Research is fun. My next piece will be going to the men's store and researching "Armani" suits. I had a very interesting time testing men's cologne.
      Best wishes

  4. Hey Astrid, wonderful post -- very interesting and made me consider clothing as I never had before. Usually I just view clothes as an obstacle between my characters being dressed and naked when writing a sex scene "*sigh* how am I going to get them naked THIS time??" Next book, I'm going to look at my character's clothes very differently.

    1. Hi Jess

      Thanks for the comment. I'm pleased that it sparked some thought on what your next book/characters will wear. When I was writing this article I kept telling myself "no one is going to be interested..."
      Best wishes

  5. Hi Astrid
    Loved your post and how much you put into your research. Personally I'd be terrified if I turned into one of my characters. My family members would disown me.

  6. Great post, Astrid. I'm fascinated by the description of the clothes, especially the Elizabethan which sounded so uncomfortable.
    It's so much easier getting characters out of modern clothes than historical ones.

    1. Hi Cathleen,
      Thanks for the comment. Elizabethan is a spectacular era to costume, but not easy to wear. I opted for 15th century, which has its own issues, but at least I could breathe in it! Yeah, getting out of modern clothes is 'easy", but is it as much fun as points and laces?

      Best wishes

  7. Your post made me thankful I live in this time and place and can wear what I like and do.

    1. Dale,
      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I am thankful for the ease of modern clothes, but the fantasy for me is living in other eras and clothes (but knowing I can return to "normal" when I want.)
      Best wishes,

  8. Replies
    1. Eleni
      Thanks for the comment. Helen K did a wonderful job (as always!) setting it out.
      Best wishes,

  9. Thanks so much for the comments on my article. I am really thrilled to think that it has inspired -- when I was writing it I kept telling myself "no one is going to be interested..." Men who wore armour started wearing it from aged 5 (as pages to a knight, etc.) so they got used to the weight gradually. The same with clothes. It was what they were used to, so it didn't worry them. It's only us moderns who try on such clothing - it throws us into another style and way of life. Research is fun. My next stop is going to the men's store and researching "Armani" suits.