How historical is historical romance?

Make no mistake: historical romance readers are looking for historical verisimilitude in much the same way as readers of straight historical fiction. The exception to this is in stories with an element of alternative history—such as Julia Quinn’s delightful Bridgerton series. Even here, though, Quinn has anchored her diverse society in solid, Georgian history.

If you approach your story as if you can simply dress your characters in period clothing, you miss so much of what makes readers passionate about the genre. Total immersion in the period—even if none of the big, historical events form part of your story—is vital.

Get the important details right!

It’s a given that major historical events should be correctly placed in history. But texture and verisimilitude only grow when you layer in the relevant details. Your historical world should feel seamless, accurate, and not distract from the story. In other words, no anachronisms.

All of this means careful research. Not just careful research, but careful thought into what historical information your reader actually needs. Don’t be daunted! Below are 5 tips that can help you structure your research and build your world in a way that lets the romance remain the guiding principle of the story.

Start with Wikipedia, but check the bibliographies

Wikipedia—and other online encyclopedia sites—can be a great starting point when you’re doing general research in your period. A lot of more detailed sources can be found by checking the bibliographies and sources listed at the bottom of the article. But be careful not to go too far down a research rabbit hole!

Check the sites of other historical romance authors who write in the same period

Authors are generous with their information, and have already done some of the work of sifting through what’s out there to narrow down to the essentials. Start with your favorite authors and see what they have to offer. Or go to Amazon and research others. Here are just a few sites I’ve found useful:

Join online groups of writers and researchers in your period

These can be great for asking questions and getting quick answers. Also, check the accuracy of something you’re not sure of—other members will tell you!

Boundaries are your friends!

Romance is the driver of your story, so don’t get lost in deep period research. Use your story as a guide to what you really need. Know exactly what year and location you’re in, and confine your research to those boundaries.

  • Map out your beats, or decide on your trope, then research to support those story elements.
  • Narrow down to your exact story present and exact locations and important characters.
  • Figure out how extensively any historical characters interact with your protagonists
  • Use a type instead of a  historical personage—which will mean less necessary research.
  • Historical events: Do they affect the plot, or are they just dinner-table conversations?

Historical verisimilitude starts with your protagonists

Making your protagonists real, relatable, believable, and historically true should be your first priority. This is the focus of Module 2 in this course, but in order to create them, you’ll have to have some research in place. Figuring out exactly who your protagonists are, what motivates them, how they are situated in their historical setting and more will direct your research to the most important areas.

Research will help you ensure that your protagonists behave in keeping with their times and stations in life, as well as allow you to flesh out the aspects of the period that matter most to your story. That does not mean you can’t have active, passionate protagonists. It only means they ideally express those sides of their personality within the bounds of their social milieu.

When it comes to avoiding anachronisms, words matter!

Just because you’re not writing the definitive work on Regency politics or Victorian morals doesn’t mean you can write as though you’re talking to a friend today. While it’s a bad idea to try to mimic the flowery syntax and colorful slang of a former period (except in moderation), you’ll jar a reader right out of the period if you use language that sounds distinctly modern.

A few things to guard against:

  • Modern slang that’s in such common use you don’t notice it—my favorite example: Okay.
  • Terms and expressions tied to technology—fast forward, rewind, SOS, telegraph, etc. etc. etc.
  • Nouns made into verbs—reference, impact, liaise, access, etc.
  • Concepts that weren’t in common use—feminism (although those tendencies existed, they wouldn’t have been referred to as such), gender (as opposed to sex), and others.

If in any doubt, it’s easy just to Google “When was XYZexpression first used?”

It’s the little things that really make a difference

You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be an expert. But there are certain details that are always important to get right. In fact, it’s better to be vague about them than to get a detail wrong. Here’s a list of what I think are the basics for any historical romance:

  • Clothing/fashion—I shudder when I read of a hoop skirt in the Regency, or a zipper anytime before the early 20th century! Luckily, information about fashions of different eras abound. How garments were worn by both men and women can provide a lot of texture to your story. YouTube is a terrific resource! Costumers demonstrate how people got in and out of clothing, how it was fastened etc.
  • Transportation—How detailed you need to be as to what kind of vehicle transported your characters here and there will depend on your story. But knowing the different kinds of carriages and their uses, as well as how many horses required and whether postilions or just a tiger was required, definitely aids the verisimilitude.
  • Money—Coinage, paper, values, what constitutes a fortune, what an individual needs to live a decent life, how much people were paid—these details will also depend on your story, but don’t minimize the importance of money. Just get it right!
  • Ranks, titles, social strata—It’s pretty easy to find out everything you need to know about the English peerage. But it also helps to understand where professionals and the merchant class fit in to the society. Although your historical romance needn’t necessarily only take place among the top 10,000, they will be a looming presence in one way or another.