Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing Historical Romance: Historical Accuracy

In honor of Valentine's Day I thought I'd share a some posts this week about writing historical romance. So be sure to come by again and don't forget to enter my GIVEAWAY (see above). To write romance with historical accuracy requires a good knowledge of certain elements that will be woven into your story. I've listed some guidelines that I use to help keep my writing on track in this regard with a few examples included in the bullet points.

1)  Historical Era - It's important to have a general understanding of the historical period that you are writing about. What were some of the important world events and who were some notable figures of the time, and mores specific in your setting. Discern what general elements of history affect your novel as a whole.
  • Consider periods of war, famine, industry, etc. that may impact your story.
  • There are many sources to obtain historical accuracy and it is important to verify your facts.  Wiki is good, but not a true encyclopedia. First hand accounts are excellent, but sometimes have the stuff of legend. Period costume dramas and historical novels can be a great source of inspiration, but sometimes have factual error.

 2)  Setting - Know what makes your specific setting unique. What was the area like during your time period (population, statehood, industry, etc.)? What type of language was used, daily life, customs, dress?
  • In Colonial New England a woman could ride through the countryside unescorted.
  • In Puritan times a woman could be fined for wearing an expensive scarf unless it was proven that her family could afford. For many centuries, a man in a shirt without a waistcoat was considered in his undergarments.

 3)  Communication - In addition to understanding the language used in your setting and by your particular characters it's important to understand the acceptable communication between genders at the time. Can a man and a woman speak in public? What language was appropriate to pass between a male and female. How did they address one another at certain stages of their relationship?  What words and phrases were in use at the time?
  • In Victorian times a lady might communicate with the language of her fan. 
  • Intimate body parts in days gone by were seldom mentioned between the sexes, including limbs. 
    4)  Interaction - The acceptable interaction between genders  is also important to take into consideration. Are the couple's meetings mostly at public events? When are personal calls permitted? Are chaperones required? Under what circumstances might the couple be found alone?
    • In mid to late Victorian times it was not proper for a woman to greet a man on a sidewalk without an introduction by another party. There was also certain etiquette to consider when paying a call to one of the opposite gender.
    • The exchange of a handshake may not be considered a proper greeting in a particular region (Gaskell's North & South).

    5)  Customs  - Courtship and marriage have had their own customs through the ages, sometimes more lenient in rural areas or among a lower social class. How involved was the family involved in making a match?  What restrictions might prohibit a relationship? At what age or circumstance is marriage allowed? Is love a factor in this courtship or marriage? What qualities were considered attractive during the time period?
    • In Colonial times a man might use a courting mirror to propose to his beloved. In early colonial times (17th century) the ceremony was not performed by a minister since marriage was considered a civil union and vows were sometimes forged over an anvil. Bundling was done in colonial New England, but not in the mid or southern colonies (faux pas in The Patriot).
    • A widower with children was often expected to remarry as soon as possible after the death of a spouse, while a widow may have to wait until her required mourning period were over.
    Given these general ingredients to lend to the authenticity of writing historical romance there are other factors that can be infused into a story to make it interesting and non-cliche. When plotting I often look at the typical traditions and circumstances and ask myself a few questions:

    • How can I make an archaic tradition be considered romantic to the reader? 
    • What non-typical situation or setting could challenge this custom and lend to the story's interest, irony, or romantic element?
    • What typical or non-typical circumstances do I wish the couple to meet, grow their relationship,  acknowledge their love, find obtacles to their relationship, and cement their relationship?

    Here are some links for your perusal:

    Courtship in Early America
    Courtship & Marriage in the 18th Century (Colonial Williamsburg)
    Courtship, Sex, and the Single Colonist (Colonial Williamsburg)
    Colonial Love & Marriage (17th century America puritans and colonists)
    Regency Wedding: White Wedding Dress
    Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women (Pemberly)

    Courting the Victorian Woman Marriage in the Victorian Era

    What  are some of your favorite romance novels with authentic historical detail?


      1. Wonderful post Carla. And Thank you for the links. I never tire of learning (or re-learning) this stuff!

      2. Great post Carla. I enjoy reading Mary Connealy and Vickie McDonough.

        Happy Valentine's Day!

        Jodie Wolfe

      3. I think sometimes, I get caught up in trying to make my stories TOO historically accurate . . . and I get caught up in the details and lose the story. But that's also one of the reasons why I have a hard time reading historical fiction set in "my" historical eras (Regency, American Civil War, and, now, early 1850s England)---because I probably know too much about those eras and can spot holes in research or fudged facts from a mile away.

      4. Hi! Great post! I get swept away by the beautiful pictures too! Happy Valentine's Day to a real Sweetheart!

      5. Hi Carla. Great Post. You are always an inspiration. :)

        Here's wishing you Happy Valentine's Day!

      6. I saw Kaye on here AFTER I decided to say how much I enjoy her Ransome Trilogy, particularly for the British Naval details. Now, she could be wrong but I doubt it!!

        I can tell when the writer has immersed themselves into the period/setting and so I trust their details.

      7. Favorites are Lawanna Blackwell, Trace Peterson, Georgette Heyer and Patricia Veryan. I was initially afraid to toake on the challenge of writing Historical, (regency) but keep learning as I do so an dlove the challenge and romance of it!!!

      8. I'm on a Susan Page Davis kick right now. ;-)

        Thanks for sharing these tips. I'm terrible at historical research, so I try to keep my stories contemporary. The balance comes in not making the settings and slang so trendy that no one will want to read them 10 years from now because they're SO regional or SO dated.

      9. Debra--if only you'd seen the amount of "detail" I left OUT of those books...:-)

      10. Thanks for your input, Kaye. You do a fabulous job at interweaving the historical aspects into your novels! I'm sure there is so much more that could be included, and I know when I write I am so tempted to write the research in, but lo, the information dumps are naughty! I know that I have to only include the history that actually serves the story. I have thus decided that part of my joy in the process is the research and I'll enjoy it for my own benefit and share only what I should with the reader. I have thought to put some bonus features on my website that will include some of the extra bits of research not included, for those who care to learn more.

      11. And Kaye, it's hard for me to focus sometimes as I, too, get caught up in the historical details. I need to see the big picture first to get me moving!

      12. Hi Lynne! So glad you enjoyed the post, and the pictures. A picture speaks a thousand words!

      13. Oh, I'm sure about that Kaye. I have pages of notes on one subject that I've ended up using for one sentence of background late in the book.

        Just think of all the knowledge... makes my head hurt.

        Susan B. I have to admit I'm intimidated by all the Regency rules. Good for you!

      14. You've all mentioned some great books! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. If you have anything to add while I post this week, please feel free to share!

      15. Groovy,
        Susan Page Davis does a great job with her historicals. I know you know that from reading Crimson Cypher. But her contemporary novels I sure are just as rich in detail.
        I suppose when writing a historical the novel becomes ageless in a way. I don't know much about writing contemporary novels, but if you get 10 years of reader out of one of your books I'd say you are doing pretty well.

      16. Mary, be careful or you are going to get requests to read through our novels before we send them to the editors!

        It would be so wonderful to have these kinds of resources (very knowledgeable beta-readers) because it's difficult to get to the level of expertise needed to be completely accurate.

        A majority of readers will not recognize the mistakes but that's no excuse, I suppose :)

      17. Wow - what an amazing post! How did I miss this one? Better late to the party than never...

        I've heard that historical novelists only use about 10% of their history knowledge in their books as it bogs down the story. I always struggle with wanting to give the reader a good sense of the time and place w/o the dreaded dump, as has been mentioned here. It's a lament of mine to NOT use all that I know, but then the story would read like a text book and lose the reader. I have to remember that just because I'm in love with research, the reader isn't to the same degree.

        I agree with Mary wholeheartedly about the inaccuracies in many historicals regarding dress, etc. It wasn't until the past few months when I bought a dress and reproduction 18th-century items, that I began to really understand what women wore. Recently in my galleys I corrected some of the mistakes I'd made in dressing my heroine. Much of this was due to reading Mary's blog and purchasing clothing items from her. Having them in hand, right down to the very feel of the linen shift, gives one a whole new perspective.

        Also, as you've mentioned, internet research is a bit of a mine field and rife with inaccuracies. I find the best sources are diaries and letters and books of that time period. My Amazon bill is terrible! I am trying to get a handle on that. Some of the best sources aren't affordable and must be had through inter-library loan. The best costuming books I own are from Colonial Williamsburg collections but they come at a price.

        Anyway, love the comments here as we are all continually learning and can share and make the journey less bumpy:)

      18. Lori, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I thought you might! ;) I know you are just as fascinated with learning about period details and customs of the time. You are very committed to your historical research! I'm so looking forward to reading your books someday!

      19. Thanks for chiming in, Laura! I think your novels are so carefully woven with the perfect balance of history. I believe what you said about authors using only 10% of their history knowledge in their books. I think you, Kaye, and Laurie Alice use perhaps 1 %!! And there are so many others. It is such a temptation to include much historical detail. I've had to cut a great deal out of my stories, although I carefully tried to sneak it in during character's conversation. Trying to be sneaky. But again, it didn't serve the story. But I do believe whatever is included should be as accurate as possible. I get much of my information from Google Books. My Amazon bill isn't high, but my printer cartridge cost is!
        I can only imagine what it is like to actually have your colonial garments in hand! I think that the sense of touch is often neglected in fiction, save for the touch of skin. Oh, to know what the garments feel like!! And to have the experience of holding objects and seeing them first hand.
        I plan to go on a research trip to Connecticut in June to a ship carvers shop at Mystic Seaport! And I cannot wait! And I can't wait to see you in your lovely Colonial dress!

      20. Debra, thanks for being here! But next time, don't eat all the chocolate! LOL!

      21. Susan, yes, you are brave to write regencies. I'm trying, but this is so much to learn. Kaye's always an excellent mentor, I'm sure she'd be glad to have you as one of her minions.

      22. Hi Carla, This is a wonderful informative writing. I like it so much I copied and posted it in my ONE BOOK. The pictures look as though each one is a story. Writing historical romance must be a constant challenge. I admire what you can do. (Oh, is all the chocolate gone?)

        Barb Shelton
        barbjan10 at tx dot rr dot com

      23. Oh, yes, there's always room for more minions! :-D

      24. Before this goes any farther. Further? ha ha. I did NOT eat the chocolate. Baked goods are not safe around me but I can't eat chocolate!


      25. Farther = measurable physical distance

        Further = figurative distance

      26. Kaye, I know that on most days, but today... not so much.
        So, what if you are figuratively measuring distance?

        PS got one Kaye Dacus novel in the mail, and bought one this weekend. Pretty good, eh?

      27. Oh, did I blame that missing chocolate on Debra? I stowed it away in the cupboard. Do I really have to share?

      28. Barb, I'm so glad you stopped by. Did you see I found the chocolate? Help yourself! I'm glad you found the info useful. Yes, writing historical fiction is challenging, but well worth the effort. It's so much fun!

      29. Carla, The very name "mystic seaport" sounds wonderful. Wish I could go with you, my friend! There has always been something about the sea that I love, even for this inland gal:) Well, not inland anymore, I guess, as the beach is only 2 miles from here. Thanks for such a great post and all the wonderful feedback. I'm ever learning...

      30. I have the (mis)fortune of being married to a Doctor of History (PHD), and in writing my historical novels, we always get into heated arguments regarding accurate historical fact. When he edits my work, I find he gets far too serious about it, whereas I only want enough fact to compliment my story. After all, I am writing a tale for someone to enjoy on a rainy day, not trying to give a histroy lecture. There has to be a balance, as with all things. Too much fact detracts from the enjoyment of a story, and once you get into a situation of being one of those people who can no longer enjoy one because you are too busy poo-pooing what the author has done, then surely you have destroyed the enjoyment of it for yourself. At least, this is what I keep telling my husband. :} Want some fact, yes, but also want a darn good story. I tend to write in the genre of Victorian/Gothic Horror, and while he enjoys the somewhat fantastical nature of it, he finds that it jars, being such a stickler for reality and fact. lol! Too much of one thing over another never works, and I do my best to avoid looking for writers' mistakes and focus more on how well they have managed to entertain me, as it should be.


      Thanks for visiting Adventures of the Heart. Be sure to check back for my responses to your comments. Be blessed!