I realize readers often complain that historical romance has been reduced to costume dressing and wallpaper setting. I assume there must be some truth to that, but in the books I read, research surfaces in the details that readers might overlook or dismiss as fictional.
Just for one small example—Amanda Quick’s most recent historical Otherwise Engaged in which the heroine uses a Japanese tessen. How many of you had ever heard of a war fan before you read that book (or this blog)?
This is not material one pulls out of thin air—because truth tends to be even stranger and more interesting that what our creativity can conjure. Material like this requires research and lots of it, and when we stumble across a stroke of genius like a war fan, entire stories whirl in our creative unconscious.
In digging my way into a new Malcolm/Ives series in which the women tend to paranormal/abnormal pursuits and the men tend to be highly scientific and inventive, I’ve been burying myself in the history of 1820’s-1840’s. Not political history, not to start with, but the history of science, the history of what we could call magical thinking—Mesmerism, phrenology, and spiritualism—as well as cultural history. I need to know what my characters will be doing, what goals they’re pursuing, what obstacles stand in their way.
I have books and saved articles stacked all around my desk. I’m filling up folders in my computer (bless computers and Wikipedia for making bibliographies so accessible!)—just to plot the place in time where my characters will exist. The 1800s were filled with fascinating ideas and devices, some of which didn’t find a foothold in history until much later in time, ie: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter) and their Analytical Engine, which was an early computer prototype.
So, yes, I will eventually research costume and maybe even the color of wallpaper in my heroine’s house (although at the moment, she’s inclined to inviting painters to cover the walls in murals), and maybe that’s all you’ll see when you read the story. But the underpinning of historical romance is all the research that went into developing a realistic time and place in which we can employ our creativity to combine what was, what could have been, with what if to develop a unique story and characters that stand out from all the others.
I’m very bad at remembering the unique details of the books I’ve read, so will others chime in and mention historical romances you’ve read recently that used history in fun ways to create a story? I would really like readers to be aware of the information we’re conveying, or trying to convey, when we weave our tales!
And just because the holidays are coming… I’ll remind you that Millington House is releasing three of my Christmas novellas in a lovely new package called Christmas Enchantment!