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.
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 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.
Join us on Monday to hear what editor Danielle Poiesz has to say about writing contests.
- CYC: History as a Muse by Victoria Gray
- Deepening Motivation and Plot in Historical Fiction with Marci Jefferson
- Powerful Settings: Finding What is Unique for Your Characters…and You by Tracy March
- CTW: How to Write a Synopsis Without Losing Your Mind
- Ask An Editor: Dos and Don’ts of Settings