The Challenges of Writing Historical Romance (and some useful research links!) by Marie Laval

The Challenges of Writing Historical Romance (and some useful research links!) by Marie Laval

AccentPress AdminMay 31, '192 comments

I love writing romance, and there is something about historical romance that draws me back time and time again. Even when writing a contemporary romance, I feel the need to include a subplot linked to the past – sometimes the very distant past, like in A Spell in Provence. I have always been fascinated with the way people used to live, with ancient beliefs and artwork, and I love research – sometimes, I like it a little too much!

Writing historical romance is enjoyable but challenging. It can be difficult to make the characters, the period and setting, and of course the love story between the protagonists, not only plausible but genuine and lifelike. Research is always important whatever period you are setting your story, but it’s even more so for historical fiction.

The first challenge is to get the tone, the language and thought process of the characters right, and for this I try to take into account the more rigid social order of the time period when my story is set. That includes the constraints imposed on women, the importance of religion in everyday life, the relationships between men and women, as well as the broader historical background - such as political struggles and wars, for example.

Next, you need to take account of the political and social background. I set Dancing for the Devil in 1847, but the heroine's father fought in Napoleon's cuirassiers at Quatre-Bras and Waterloo about which there is a wealth of material. However I didn’t want to get too involved into warfare and military strategy, but this site was very useful: British Battles. It also has details of many other battles fought by the British army around the world, including the Punjab wars where my hero Bruce McGunn fought.

Reading social or political pamphlets or extracts of newspapers of the time helped me find out what was going at the time of my story, and what and who was popular, fashionable, or reviled.

By reading fiction of the period I could also pick up popular expressions and slang, and the way people addressed one another at the time. If you fancy taking a look at some Victorian slang click on A Dictionary Full of Victorian Slang, A Dictionary of Heterodox English Slang and Phrase or William Sutton's Dictionary of Victorian Slang. But be warned, it's not for the faint hearted! For lots of fascinating posts and articles on the Victorian age you must read The Victorianist.

There is also the clothing to grapple with. It can be hard not to get mixed up in the various items of clothing people wore at the time your story is set, and that includes underwear! There is a lot of reference material detailing men’s and women’s clothing throughout the ages, but for a quick glance at outfits for writing a particular scene I find Pinterest very useful. Other sites have great information about female underwear in different time periods, fashion of the 1850s, and fashion through the ages with beautiful illustrations and descriptions.

When writing historical fiction, you must also pay attention to distances. Travelling by horse or carriage took a lot longer in the early nineteenth century, especially in bad weather and considering that the state of the roads could be appalling. A good map is essential, and if you can find an old map dating from the time your story is set, that’s even better! If, like me, you don't know the first thing about horses and have never climbed on the back of one, this Writers Guide to Horses will prove invaluable, and for useful details about carriages I found the Glossary of Carriages very useful.

The same applies, of course, to sea crossings. I know it's not exactly relevant here, but I absolutely love this website and will consult it again for anything regarding types of ships.

Dancing for the Devil mainly takes place in the Scottish Highlands where I have unfortunately never been. Here are just a few sites I found useful, including this one on the Clearances. For general information about the Highlands, these were very useful: Highland dress and weaponsScottish folklore dance and songs, and the Scottish tongue.

I just don't rely on material I find online, however great it can be – and by the way, always check everything, because a lot of nonsense gets posted online! I am always on the lookout for great books too - books about fashion, travel and folklore. Visiting historic houses is inspiring too for ideas about design, furniture, and everyday items. I always love looking at family portraits and old sepia photos, and making notes of unusual names.

My novels usually feature at least one French protagonist and are partly set in France or in a French speaking country, and as a French speaker I am fortunate to have access to a wealth of reference and research material in French. For example, the maps and information in the 1923 Guide Bleu of North Africa was invaluable when writing The Lion's Embrace, and the beautiful songs, poems and texts of the Tuareg people can be accessed here, among many other sites.

Finally I would say that for me, the biggest challenge is always to avoid overloading the story with lots and lots of historical details. However frustrating it may be to leave out fascinating or quirky facts I came across during my hours of research, I need to remind myself that I am writing a love story, not a social or historical treatise!

I hope you found these links useful, but if you have any favourites of your own, I would be delighted if you could post them in the comments!


Author Bio

Originally from Lyon in France, Marie now lives in the beautiful Rossendale Valley in Lancashire. A member of the Romantic Novelists Association and the Society of Authors, she writes contemporary and historical romance. Her native France very much influences her writing, and all her novels have what she likes to call 'a French twist'!

Her titles include A SPELL IN PROVENCE, ANGEL HEART, THE LION’S EMBRACE and DANCING FOR THE DEVIL, all published by Accent Press. Bestselling contemporary romance LITTLE PINK TAXI is published by Choc Lit and available here and Marie’s new contemporary romance, A PARIS FAIRY TALE, will be published by Choc Lit in July 2019.

You can get in touch with Marie on Facebook and Twitter, and why not check the beautiful photos and illustration on her Pinterest boards?


Comments (2)

Tonette Joyce on Jun 5, '19

Not just as a writer, but as a READER, I thank you for doing research! I cannot abide a writer who ‘fakes’ it and ruins a perfectly good story buy throwing off facts.
I wish you all the best!

Matthew Peters on Jun 5, '19

Great article. I totally relate to your love for research. I spend at least a year doing research before I write a book. i wish you the best with your work!

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