Anne M. Marble, Associate Editor, Romance
Issue # 2: 03/01/01
and Using Language in Fiction
Most importantly, you need to be a storyteller first, a historian second.
How to Write and Sell Historical Ficion
Writer's Digest Books
are two big mistakes a romance writer can make when incorporating
research into her novels. One is neglecting the research and making huge
factual errors. The other, less obvious mistake is overusing your
in historical romance novels can be very obvious. One best-selling
author, not known for her historical accuracy, had her Regency era hero
complaining about the "simpering females at White's."
However, White's was a men's club, so there were no females,
simpering or otherwise, to be found. This novel was full of errors like
this, and the characters acted as if they were modern-day people in
fancy costume. Readers who went to this book looking to be immersed in
the historical environment were disappointed.
out for anachronisms. These can pull a reader right out of your story.
Are your medieval warriors dining on corn on the cob even though corn
wasnt brought to England for hundreds of years? Does your heroine
read by gaslight in 1800, even though that wasnt introduced to London
until 1817? Even worse, do your Victorian characters have modern names,
such as <shudder> Crystal? Then maybe you're not at home writing
in that era.
youre writing novels set in the American West, you have a new set of
challenges to face. Many romance writers have their characters travel by
train. Unfortunately, they forget to look up information about trains of
that era, so they have their character traveling on tracks that dont
exist. Other writers err in the other direction, having their characters
travel by wagon train when they could have easily taken a train for less
cost. When you write romances set in the West, many of your readers live
in that area, and they will spot those mistakes quicker than you can
say, Howdy pardner!
dont have to be so obvious. Inaccuracies can be subtle yet damaging.
One of the biggest flaws in many historical romances is that the
characters don't behave like typical people from their era. For example,
if your frontierspeople all treat Native Americans fairly, or if your
British lords are kind to the Irish servants, then you are neglecting
the historical context of your story. In addition, you may be
sacrificing potential drama.
you write a historical novel, remember that youre writing about
another era. The culture is often as alien as what youll find in a
science fiction novel. In all too many historical romances set during
the Regency era, the courting couple often goes off together, alone. But
this was simply not done at this time. A couple going off unchaperoned
would create a huge scandal. Proper women simply wouldnt allow such
isn't to say that your characters can't be iconoclasts, but you must
explain why your heroine is strong-willed enough to refuse to marry the
husband her father picked out for her. After all, most women of the
upper classes accepted that their marriages would be arranged. So unless
you have portrayed her as rebellious, don't have the heroine act with
shock and horror when she learns her father expects her to marry a man
she has never met.
you plan to write only contemporary novels? You will still have to do
research. Is your book set in a certain city? Is it about a particular
profession or region? Make sure you get all the facts right. If you make
obvious errors, such as having your characters visit the Baltimore
Aquarium when the proper name is the National Aquarium in Baltimore, you
risk alienating readers who know the area. The same is true if you have
a character referring to Silver Springs, Maryland when the correct
name is Silver Spring. If you make lots of subtle errors, such as
having your characters get take-out from exclusive restaurants such as
Sardis, readers will think you dont care about your setting.
base your research on what you've read in other romance novels. Remember
-- those novels might have gotten the facts wrong. Also, remember that
research is more than just facts. Research is a great way to find
information that can help you out of a tight plotting situation or give
your characters a more detailed background.
often get the titles of the British nobility wrong. Its a very basic
error, and its bound to annoy your readership.
you want to write British historicals, its imperative to learn the
proper way of referring to nobility. Mistakes can make you look like a
newbie. For example, lets say your hero is the Duke of Earl. Do not
have your heroine call him Duke. Only the dukes familiars are
allowed to do this. Everyone else must call him Your Grace.
is a complicated topic, and too involved for a couple of paragraphs.
Luckily, there are lots of web sites to help you research titles.
Romance writer Jo Beverley has a wonderful page about the proper use of
can pose another problem to the romance author. There is the danger of
being so in love with the facts you've discovered that you want to tell
the world about them. All of them. That leads to a potential deadly flaw
-- not interspersing information carefully throughout your novel.
I read a novel where the action stopped for about two pages because the
author decided to lecture the reader (in an omniscient voice) on the
importance of the rain forest. This came in the middle of a novel set
during the 1800s, before anyone knew that the rain forest was important
to the environment. So it was not only a huge expository lump, it was
also an authorial intrusion.
rain forest seems to have an odd effect on writers. I read a
contemporary novel dealing with issues of the rain forest. Potentially
interesting background became dull and listless because characters who
felt strongly about the rain forest would stop and tell each other how
important the rain forest was. I kept expecting one of the characters to
suddenly say, "Stop! I'm a research biologist. Don't you think I
know all this stuff?" But the characters didn't do this because
they were being used as "sounding boards" for the author.
nothing wrong with incorporating research into your novel. But you have
to break it down into smaller pieces, and you can't have characters
lecturing each other on things they already know. (See, science fiction
novels aren't the only ones that suffer from infodumps.)
include details for the sake of showing off. Try to include details
because they add to the story. Do they advance the plot? Reveal
character? If you're a good enough writer, you might be able to get away
with more detail, but you'll have to watch yourself. Some writers lavish
their attention on trivial details and end up writing dull stories.
Others seem to know every trivial detail but forget to fit them in the
context of the times.
forget that youre writing to entertain. Some poetic license may be
necessary. Its possible to be too accurate. Few readers will want to
read about a medieval hero who never takes a bath or a cowboy with bad
teeth. They will also have a hard time accepting a dandified hero who
wears pink and waves a perfumed scarf in the air. On top of that,
readers have little patience for writers who use realistic historical
dialogue because that can be impenetrable to modern readers. (And
whatever you do, dont add lots of perchances and tiss
to make the dialogue seem historical. Most likely, youll end up with
a faux historical atmosphere.)
amount of detail in your novel will vary depending on several factors.
Some publishers prefer novels that use historical background as
wallpaper, while others prefer novels with excruciatingly
researched details. If youre more comfortable writing a novel where
the history serves as wallpaper, then go for it. This style of
historical background is much better suited to romps and farces.
However, you can raise your novel above the crowd by making sure that
while you dont let the historical details get in the way of your
story, those details are still accurate.
keep in mind that some types of books require more research than others.
Regency fans are sticklers for historical accuracy, while readers of
historical novels set during the Regency are generally less demanding.
remember that research isn't everything. You must have interesting,
sympathetic (or at least charming) characters in a fascinating plot.
That comes first. However, good research can make a potentially generic
book ("Oh, not another guardian/ward novel.") into a keeper.
("Gee, I didn't know that men during the Regency wore shoes made
final word. Some readers wont care. They want to be entertained, and
they dont let inaccuracies bother them. If you dont mind writing
for this audience, then go ahead and have fun. You might even become a
best-selling author. However, you wont reach those pickier readers,
and they are the more rewarding audience.