Posted On July 10, 2009 by Print This Post

CTW: Historical Romance ~ Blending Fact With Emotion

Today, I’m excited to introduce author Victoria Gray to Romance University! Victoria joins us to discuss ways of weaving historical facts into our romance novels. Her debut book, Destiny, hits stores in 2010.  Set during the Civil War,  Destiny is the tale of a spirited would-be bride and the soldier-turned-train robber who takes her captive.  The formerly by-the-book officer has his orders, but even a man on a mission has to follow his heart.

Welcome, Victoria!!destiny-book-cover

Why do I love reading and writing historical romance?  The answer is really quite simple.  Historical romances transport me to another time and place and immerse me in a love story.  Before I started writing historical romance, I never considered the skillful balance between facts and emotion in these stories, the delicate weave of details within a love story that creates a sense of time and place and brings the plot and the characters to life.  Now, as a writer of historical romance, I know firsthand the challenge of blending facts into a story without creating information overload.

The developing emotional relationship between the heroine and her hero is the central focus of historical romance, while historical details serve to sweep the reader away to another time and place.  As an author, infusing details throughout the story without sounding like a travel guide to historic places is a challenge.  Research, layering through multiple revisions, and a willingness to cut facts that don’t enhance the story are my keys to achieving balance between historical detail, story flow, and emotional intensity.  

Every author of historical romance develops an individual approach, but research is a given.  Historical inaccuracies pull a reader out of a story. Knowledge of the time and place is crucial to establish the setting.  Essential details about historical events, clothing, food, transportation, communication, occupations, and social structure – this list could go on and on – provide scaffolding for a believable story.

After I become familiar with the essential characteristics of an era, I map out the plot and research more specific aspects of the time period that factor into the story.  What weapons were available?  What historical events and historical figures might have impacted the characters’ lives? What literary and artistic works were prominent during that era?  In my soon-to-be released novel, Destiny, the heroine’s love of tragic romances factors into the plot.  Research to identify popular authors of the heroine’s time provided details that fleshed out the character’s actions and dialogue.

At this point in the writing process, I relax, smugly content that all my research is done.  If you believe that, I’ll sell you a condo in Antarctica.  Actually, as I plunge through my first draft, I continually delve to discover more details about the events, people, and culture of the setting.  I keep a notebook with interesting facts I come across while I’m putting the story in place.  These facts come into play during revision.

When writing the first draft, my main goal is to get my characters moving toward the happily ever after they deserve.  During revisions, historical detail assumes more importance.  I weave details that enrich the setting throughout the draft to create a more vivid experience for the reader.

How much historical detail brings a story to life without bogging it down?  Of course, that depends on the story.  Are historical events plot elements, or does the historical setting provide a context for the story?  Destiny is set against the background of the Civil War, but the plot events are entirely fictional.  Historical details woven throughout the story create a sense of time and place. On the other hand, a story I’m currently developing includes plot events that occur during the burning of Richmond in 1865.  Research to accurately depict this historical event will be crucial.  In this story, the history is a plot point, not a backdrop.

During revisions, I’ve learned to watch for detail overload.  Long, dragging descriptions and an overuse of period terminology bog down the story.  If I note my Civil War era heroine’s fondness for a bolero-like garment known as a Zouave jacket, I’ll avoid an abundance of period terminology to describe the other garments in the scene.  Balancing specific terms with general description avoids slowing the pace and pulling the reader out of the story. 

While revising Destiny, I noticed so many references to Colt and Remington revolvers, it seemed like a product placement scheme.  A character fighting for his life isn’t going to think, I’ll use my Colt revolver to blow a hole in my enemy.  Blessedly honest critique partners pointed out my penchant for dropping weaponry brand names with the fondness of a shopaholic for Coach and Jimmy Choo.  Did I include these descriptions?  Sure, but not so frequently that the reader wonders if I’m getting fees from Colt and Remington to endorse their products.  Likewise, references to historical figures can add to a story, but historical name-dropping can result in detail overload.  Your characters shouldn’t sound like Joan Rivers on a time travel adventure. 

Avoiding the overuse of historical detail is achieved with ruthless revision.  I might really want to impress my reader with fascinating facts about gilded age Manhattan, but I don’t want my story to read like a travel guide or encyclopedia. Use details that make sense from a character’s point of view and set the scene.  Point of view is particularly important when describing clothing.  The hero isn’t going to think about the exquisite styling of the heroine’s French pantalettes.  He may focus on the silky cloth or the way the fabric clings to the heroine’s thighs, but he’s not going to be concerned with French styling.  Think about the men we know today.  My husband has no clue whether I purchase a blouse at Macy’s or an expensive boutique.  He might notice the neckline and the color in general terms…blue, not turquoise…but that’s about it. 

Every author develops a method that works best for him or her.  To me, the keys to engaging historical romance are research, layering details, and revision to eliminate distractions.  Details should enhance the story, not slow the flow.  With research and revision, your historical romance will transport the reader to a love story in another time and place.

victoria-grayVictoria Gray wrote her first story soon after she started elementary school.  When she was in the third grade, her mother bought her a Smith Corona manual typewriter.  She was officially a writer! A certified library media specialist, Victoria uses her research skills to explore other eras in time.  Her interest in research is a perfect fit with her work as a writer of historical romance. 

Victoria lives in Virginia with her own hero, her husband Greg.  The mother of two sons who are used to their mother burning food to a crisp when she runs back to her computer to write “just a little bit more,” she enjoys cycling, hiking and long walks on the beach when she’s not writing, reading or burning dinner.

www.victoriagrayromance.com

Join us on Monday to hear what editor Danielle Poiesz has to say about writing contests.

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14 Responses to “CTW: Historical Romance ~ Blending Fact With Emotion”

  1. Hi Victoria,
    Welcome to RU! You and I write in different time periods/locations, but I’m wondering what sources you use for research. I bet you have some sort of library specialist secret handshake or something that allows you to tap into unusual resources. LOL

    Thanks again for joining us!
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | July 10, 2009, 5:38 am
  2. Welcome Victoria!

    What a great article! I fell in love with historicals years ago when I read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Flame and the Flower. As a matter of fact, I didn’t read a contemporary until probably 5 or 6 years ago! I never realized when I was reading historicals, how much research had to have gone into them, I congratulate you on all of your hard work, and look forward to reading your book!

    How much time would you say you put into research on a book?

    love this line – Your characters shouldn’t sound like Joan Rivers on a time travel adventure.

    lol

    carrie

    Posted by carrie | July 10, 2009, 8:54 am
    • It’s hard to quantify how much time goes into research, as it’s an ongoing process, and it doesn’t seem like work. I’m a fact junkie (and trivial pursuit queen), so the time flies by. Before the first draft is written, I spend quite a bit of time researching the time period, and from that point, it doesn’t stop. I just finished a draft of a new story, a historical romantic suspense set in the 1890s – countless hours were spent reading about the period, but it didn’t seem like work, because it was so fascinating. I found out the most interesting little details, such as the fact that bicycling was all the rage then. Unfortunately, I never could come up with a way to put my heroine on a bicycle…though I would have loved to… With Destiny, I’d read a long time ago about the daughter of a prominent politician with connections to the Lincoln administration who’d had a love affair with John Wilkes Booth…my wandering mind started with “what ifs”, that later became the seed of my plot for the story. Many hours of “research” that didn’t feel like it : )

      Posted by Victoria Gray | July 10, 2009, 9:19 am
  3. As long as you enjoy the research! I’m amazed at how much time I’ve spent doing research for just a little modern day novel….and that’s on stuff that’s easy to find on the internet! Do you use the internet? or do you find more information in books, newspapers etc.?
    I remember reading eons ago a historical romance that had the heroine on a bicycle..she was a city girl from NY who moved to the country to take over her aunt’s farm…and all the horse-riding inhabitants of the little town were absolutely appalled at her bicycle! Made for fun reading tho….=)

    carrie

    Posted by carrie | July 10, 2009, 9:48 am
  4. The Internet is my best friend some days…on others, it’s in the top 5 : ) Books and historic newpapers are a great source, but thanks to archives, you can find so much on line. The best part of research is all the ideas I get for more stories : )

    Posted by Victoria Gray | July 10, 2009, 10:11 am
  5. Hi, Victoria and thank you for being here today. I’m always amazed by what historical writers go through during the research process. I think it would drive me to madness! LOL. The thing I noticed is your article doesn’t just apply to researching historicals. I had an “aha” moment when you mentioned enriching the setting details during revisions. I tend to skimp on setting descriptions and it distracts me when I’m writing because I keep thinking I need to do better, but you’ve just given me permission not to worry about it until I do the final revisions!

    Wonderful post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | July 10, 2009, 10:36 am
  6. Hi Victoria,
    I’m not sure where my first message went, but I’ll try again.

    Welcome!
    I’m curious about what type of research resources you use. Being a library specialist, I bet you have all sorts of secret sources you can tap into. LOL

    Thanks for blogging with us!
    Tracey

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | July 10, 2009, 1:11 pm
    • I don’t have any secrets, but I’m adept at using search engines to seek out information that I need. In addition, I have a Port-a-portal page I’ve created to bookmark sites I’ve found that I think will be useful. I’m not shy about finding resources from others. Eliza Knight’s online research course provided links that have proven very useful. In addtion, the Library of Congress has established a database of newspapers from 1880 to 1922. The web addy for this is http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ The Library of Congress also has a wonderful site, American Memory, that has historical collections of photos, documents, and the like. That’s found at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html Last, but not least, is the Smithsonian website at http://www.si.edu/ For the most part, these sites are useful if your setting is America, which is my primary area of interest.

      In addition, to online resources, I love my books! Amazon is a great source for used books that can be used for research. I have a shelf with books on everything from the early 1800s to the early twentieth century. Some of these books cost about less than $1 before shipping (with shipping, a whopping $5).

      Posted by Victoria Gray | July 10, 2009, 3:55 pm
  7. Adrienne,
    Thanks for your positive feedback. Every author has a method that works best for them, and I have to admit that mine is a work in progress.
    Thanks to all of you for inviting me here today!

    Victoria

    Posted by Victoria Gray | July 10, 2009, 3:57 pm
  8. Victoria –

    Thanks for joining us today! How do you keep yourself from overloading and getting bored with your research topic?

    Many thanks!
    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | July 10, 2009, 3:57 pm
    • Hi Kelsey!

      I’m writing about subjects that interest me, so that eliminates boredom. If anything, I get so interested that I lose interest in other things (such as cooking, cleaning, sleeping…). I tried to research Regency England, since that setting is so popular and I enjoy reading novels set during that period, but I found I couldn’t get interested in the class structure and titles, etc. Even when I read books set during that period, I breeze right by the titles and truly couldn’t tell you the difference between a Viscount and a Duke…King I have straight, and Prince, but after that, it boggles my mind. So, honestly, I haven’t forced myself to research a topic I’m not interested in.

      Victoria

      Posted by Victoria Gray | July 10, 2009, 4:05 pm
  9. Good article Victoria,

    Lots of good information.. I enjoyed reading it. You have a good eye for details

    Posted by Nan O'Berry | July 10, 2009, 7:06 pm
  10. Excellent post with some great advice. I love historical research and details so I have to be careful not to include too much detail, which is ironic because when I first starting writing 10 (cough) + years ago, I neglected those details. I think it’s interesting how our writing goes through so many different stages and levels as we grow and develop in the craft.

    Congrats on your debut novel!

    Posted by Jennifer Hudson Taylor | July 11, 2009, 5:48 am
  11. I have truly enjoyed reading these posts! And, have been ‘released’ from my own personal ‘guilt’ of burning food to a crisp while I run back to my computer to reduce to writing and capture those sudden thoughts that would surely move on, out of my brain, when something new captures my immediate attention.

    Posted by Brenda Novak | August 3, 2009, 9:27 am

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