Historical ROMANCE

Kalen Hughes has a very thought-provoking post over at History Hoydens about the difference between historical romance and historical romance, which you should read.

Caveat: I say all this as someone who really, really tries to get things right. Which is why I’m in England on a research trip right now. And I know that sounds sexy, but what it means is that I spent two hours today taking literally hundreds of photographs of the period maps in Bristol’s City Museum, and I will spend the vast majority of tomorrow at the Bristol Records Office, reading the City Recorder’s notebooks and notes from the Petty Sessions for the years in question. It’s why I spend hours with the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Historical Thesaurus in front of me when I’m in the revision stage, checking hundreds of words; and why I ask Franzeca Drouin to look over my manuscripts for a second eye to accuracy once I’ve given it my very best shot, because I know I still miss stuff.

(Caveat the second: In my upcoming book, my heroine wears night-rails not made from linen. But she has them specially made for a particular purpose; in fact, she usually wears linen. As I found a few records of night-rails of non-linen-fabric for the super-wealthy, this fell into the category of historically possible attire, although it’s not historically average. She could have done so. She was motivated to do so. It fit the story for her to do so.)

In any event, Kalen makes the following assertion:

To me, it seems ridiculous to even bother writing “historical fiction” (be it romance, mystery, whathaveyou) if the “historical” part is optional.

I don’t think that the “historical” part of my books is “optional.” I work very, very hard at it. But I also don’t think that the history is the point of my books, either. Or, rather: I think the past is a vehicle for the present.

When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, he wasn’t writing an indictment of Puritan hypocrisy. When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, he wasn’t trying to villify the people who ran the Salem Witch trials. And I am not trying to say that I am the next Hawthorne or Miller. But neither Hawthorne nor Miller were “ridiculous” even though they weren’t always historically accurate, and were not striving for historical accuracy. It would be bizarre to condemn The Crucible on the grounds that it was a wallpaper historical courtroom drama. That’s because Hawthorne and Miller weren’t trying to write period pieces. They were using the past as a safe space to discuss the present.

I write in the late 1830s/early 1840s. I do so not because I am completely enamored of early Victorian times, or because I think it is sexy or because I think that it has pretty clothing (because, actually, the clothing of the era is quite ugly). I’ve explained this elsewhere in greater detail, but I write in a time period where everything is changing: the notion of society, the meaning of community, even what things have value. Towns are breaking up; the industrial revolution is hitting hard, and nobody knows what tomorrow will look like. It’s a time of enormous uncertainty.

In other words, it sounds a lot like modern times.

Today, we know that the industrial revolution wasn’t as horrible as some feared (Mr. Milan, who is a Luddite, will contest this). We know that the democratization of society and the erosion of class boundaries was a good thing. We know that giving women more freedom worked out okay. It didn’t destroy the family. It didn’t lead to anarchy. My readers know that; I know that. And so the historical setting is a safe place to explore what it means when society, culture, community, and even basic notions of value all change drastically, with that unknown future hovering on the horizon, waiting to swallow your child’s inheritance.

I do a lot of research–hundreds of hours for every book. When departing (or even appearing to depart, which is the bigger problem) from history, I agonize over the questions for weeks. I care about being historically accurate, to the extent that it is consistent with the story I am trying to tell. But I’m not ashamed to admit that if it comes down to a question between the accuracy of the history, and the theme and message and feel of my book for the modern reader, I will pick the theme and message and feel of my book every single time.

I’m not writing period pieces. And that’s not ridiculous.

Courtney Milan writes historical romances, which might lead people to think that she could be cool. In reality, she's about four different kinds of geeky. At present, this blog is where Courtney applies semi-dormant geek skills to publishing.

10 thoughts on “Historical ROMANCE

  1. Hi Courtney – love this post! I think you and Kalen both make good points in discussing the duty of the writer to the story versus duty to history.

    Ideally, both would be perfectly served. But I agree with you that modern writers sometimes need to make compromises (dare I use that word?) to help modern readers connect with a story. Within a historically accurate setting (we hope), characters might have a very modern GMC in order to serve the book’s plot or theme. For example, in romance, economics is often secondary to love. In history, I suspect it was usually the other way around.

    If the writer can pull off this combination and keep the reader immersed in the story, I think that is a win for both writer and reader.

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  2. I’m so glad to see this. I work very hard to be accurate, but I’m not writing a text book. I’m writing fiction. Sometimes my editor pushes me to make something more accessible to modern audiences and I do it. I trust her in this.

    It’s supposed to be entertainment and that doesn’t make it any more ridiculous than sparkly vampires.

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  3. Does this mean you figured out how to describe market stalls that dated back to 1400s in a way that was historically accurate yet still conveyed the sense of older than dirt to the modern reader *without* being ponderous?

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  4. I could not agree with you more. I do my best to keep my setting authentic by means of accurate historical details, but my characters’ conduct is largely modern, and I think it has to be in order to appeal to today’s (predominantly female) romance readers.

    Romance – historical or otherwise – is FICTION. If readers are willing to embrace thirty-plus-year-old spinsters with distinctly feminist attitudes and vicar’s daughters-turned-prostitutes-turned-spies marrying into the upper echelons of the British aristocracy for the sake of the story, surely they are also willing to suspend disbelief (or at least accept as within the realm of historical possibility) silk night-rails.

    The disagreement over the level of historical accuracy needed in historical romance led to my break with a certain RWA special interest chapter. I applaud historical accuracy and conduct quite a bit of research myself, but at a certain point that obsession with strict historical correctness can and likely will interfere with the story. As long as my readers are plunking down hard-earned cash for a work classified as romantic fiction, I will always try to tell them the best story I can and hope they will delight in all the wonderfully ridiculous happily-ever-afters romance has to offer.

    Sara Lindsey, Ridiculously Proud to Write Ridiculous Historical Romance

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  5. My Dearest Courtney,

    My dear. My sweetest. I simply must protest. I certainly am not a luddite.

    I, too, think that the erosion of class boundaries, freer women, and a more democratic society are good things. To object to industrialization is not to embrace every misbegotten pre-industrial habit and superstition.

    After all, if we still lived in the actual pre-industrial world that predates the one in which we are now so fortunate to live, there would be virtually no chance of your having developed into such an excellent author and blogger.

    With love and vigorous disputation,

    Mr. Milan

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  6. Great post! I’m currently going through tons of research as I polish my book and just learned that the Gentlemen’s club I wanted my MC to belong to wasn’t founded until after the book takes place. My second choice actually closed two years before my setting. GAH! It’s a minor detail, but I can’t move my story to a different year for other historical reasons. So, he’ll probably just end up going to some random, unnamed “gaming hell” instead of Waitier’s or Crockfords.

    There is something to be said for accuracy, though, because I only passed high school history thanks to historical romance. I don’t mind having a small detail changed for “artistic license”, so long as the big stuff stays true.

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  7. Couldn’t agree with you more. I try very hard to get all the details right, but the details won’t matter if they don’t serve the story, and the story won’t matter if the reader is not emotionally connected to the characters. I don’t think most readers care if the garment is made of linen or silk or burlap as long as it makes sense and illuminates the characters’ choices.
    Thanks for the great post.

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  8. What Courtney and Sara said. I, too, left an RWA special interest chapter over a dispute regarding accuracy in historical romance. That one was about the depiction of sex in historical romance, but there have been other disputes that seem to suggest that story and character should come second to historical accuracy. To me, story comes first. I strive for historical accuracy in my books, I work hard to avoid anachronistic boo-boos, and I sweat bullets to create believable motives for my characters when they depart from historical norms. But mostly I want to write a corking good story that will end up on a reader’s keeper shelf. My historical research supports the story, not the other way around.

    And is it heresy to say that I’ve read historical romances that aren’t, in fact, very accurate, but I enjoyed them anyway? Does that make me a shallow person? I guess so, but that’s ok with me!

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