Romance is in the air… and checks are in the mail for writers who can craft a compelling love story, particularly one that not only transports the heart but engages the senses in the sweeping tapestry of another time and place. Before you sit down to pen the next “GONE WITH THE WIND,” though, here are some helpful tips you need to know:
WHAT IS COMMERCIALLY ‘HISTORICAL’? In the generic sense, historical romance novels can take place in virtually any century prior to the current one, although the most popular eras with readers tend to be the mid 1700’s to late 1800’s, and, of course, the much earlier ‘Age of Chivalry’ with knights and fair damsels galore. While romance plots, per se, tend to be as interchangeable as the heroine’s outfits, the distinction of this genre is that the vintage backdrop provides seemingly insurmountable complications to the lovers’ happiness which could be remedied fairly easily in a more contemporary setting (i.e., indentured servitude, feuding families, marauding pirates, etc.). So which “time zone” works best for your story? The advantage of utilizing an already saturated circa (the Civil War, the Wild West, Camelot, or turn-of-the-century New York) is that your targeted readership simply can’t get enough of them. The disadvantage is that their volume of past reading has accordingly made them armchair experts on the customs, clothes, foods, housing and everything else pertinent to that period. Unless you’re prepared to dazzle them with something brand new or engage in copious amounts of iron-clad research to substantiate what they already know, it might serve you well to select a lesser-known chapter of history. No matter how lavish the time-zone or expansive the sequence of events, however, there is one formula and constant which you, as the writer, mustn’t lose sight of: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back. How many of you (and be honest) have actually ever read “GONE WITH THE WIND” all the way through? Since you already knew how the war came out, wasn’t it tempting to just flip through all the battle details until you got back to the Scarlett/Rhett/Ashley/Melanie scenes? There’s no question but that Ms. Mitchell did ample research to bring the Civil War to life for her readers; we were just more interested in what was happening to the main characters she so vividly portrayed.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS If you’re going to write historical romance, you need to be prepared to research. And research. And then go research some more. It isn’t possible to research a topic too much, although it is an easy trap for writers to fall into when they make the mistake of trying to cram all of their library notes into the storyline. The result is that the project will either sound like a history textbook or a travel brochure, with the characters getting lost somewhere in the middle. First and foremost, it is the romantic aspect of the plot that needs to be kept in focus. Just as you wouldn’t frame a fine picture with a “busy” border that overwhelms the contents inside, be wary of including so much detail about the landscape, legends, and politics that your hero and heroine become incidental. I also feel compelled to caution you against using too much detail on those inanimate objects which can clutter your story. A well known women’s author, who shall remain nameless, was an interior decorator prior to her successful segue into literature. Unquestionably this lady knows her fabrics and furniture, evidenced by how many paragraphs (or even entire pages) she devotes to describing each one. For the same reason I have difficulty with Mitchener (who is known for spinning 700 pages of evolution and flapping pterodactyls before any actual humans appear in the plot), I find myself flipping back to refresh my memory on the characters’ relationships to one another. Yes, I well remember the lovely empire-waist brocade ballgown of emerald green with the choker of pearls and that she was sitting by candlelight in a Queen Anne chair of plum velvet but what the heck was her name again? This is not a good thing when it comes to holding your readers’ attention.
FLIRTING WITH FAME Although you can’t re-write what are already documented events, you can have fun manipulating the significance of them in you characters’ lives. There are several ways to illustrate this: 1. Living in a Vacuum: the rest of the world is going on but he/she is too absorbed in personal battles to really notice; 2. The Game of What-if: the antagonist is plotting to bring something about which could drastically alter the balance; i.e., a scheme to sell California and Arizona to Mexico. The lover’s deeds, of course, manage to thwart such mayhem. Likewise, it can be implied that the protagonist was instrumental in implementing positive actions which did indeed end up in the history books; 3. Going about Business: in this scenario, the lead characters are participating in a real event (the Gold Rush, immigration, the Battle of Bull Run) but are not directly influencing its outcome; 4. Let Me Give You Some Advice: last but not least, the protagonist(s) offer casual advice to historical figures which, ultimately, the latter appear to have heeded. Unlike time-travel novels in which the hero has intimate knowledge of the future and attempts to impart it, the lead character in the historical romance genre is simply speaking from the heart and unwittingly directing the life choices of local luminaries.
FITTING IN Unless you provide some sort of back-story/explanation as to why your characters defy the values and expectations of their contemporaries, you run the risk of imposing modern thoughts on period personae. This is especially glaring among romance writers who like to craft “sensitive” 13th century warriors who sit around sipping lattes and discussing their feelings, or Civil War southern belles who want to burn their crinolines and go save the rain forest from global warming. In order to write a credible historical romance, you need to put yourself in their shoes, boots or sandals and understand that they do not possess the same frame of reference by which to solve their problems or buck the stodgy conventions of the day.
HELP IS AVAILABLE Until such day as time-travel makes it possible to eavesdrop on earlier centuries for research, there are a number of excellent resources available from which to glean a sense of what the average person’s life was like. Writer’s Digest Books has an outstanding series entitled “EVERYDAY LIFE IN______________________” and covers everything from Medieval times up to World War II. Not only do these books provide details on what people wore, ate, or did for entertainment but offer insights on the origin of colloquial expressions to lend authenticity to your characters’ conversations. Another good reference, “THE TIMETABLES OF HISTORY,” published by Simon and Schuster, is a horizontal linkage of people, events, and inventions. (You would not, for instance, want your character sitting down and using a typewriter if, in fact, the typewriter was not invented until 10 years later!) Yet another comprehensive source of language information is William Brohaugh’s book, “ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES,” which traces how and what year various words and expressions came into our vocabulary.
FINAL NOTE As with any genre, you need to research what types of publishers are buying the kind of books you want to write. You would not, for example, send a manuscript about Ancient China to an editor whose specialization is Regency. It is also essential to request a copy of current submission guidelines, as well as the name of the editor handling new submissions. Do not, of course, send the entire manuscript—or even a partial—unless you have been specifically requested to do so.