Identify Relevant Details

As I’ve already said, you don’t have to be an expert to write accurate, believable, historically based stories, romance or otherwise. You can be as knowledgeable as you like, but the only information that matters is what’s relevant to the story you want to tell.

This can encompass almost anything, of course. That’s why it’s important to understand your purpose in writing the story and establish its three important boundaries.

Ultimately, the details are what’s really going to distinguish your story, bring it to life in the mind of your readers. It’s also something that you will build on as you build out your story, because all the relevant details won’t be apparent at the outset. Many will only occur to you in revision. But the awareness, the sensitivity to them, is something you should cultivate through the entire period of your writing journey.

Below are two examples of how historical details have played into and distinguished some classic stories. Georgette Heyer is the grand dame of historical romance, writing between the 1920s and 1960s. Best known for her Regency romances, she also wrote eighteenth century and Elizabethan romances, and a series of more contemporary mysteries. Her books repay close study, and although she gets away with many literary quirks that wouldn’t be acceptable today, any author of historical romance can learn a great deal about effective character building and storytelling by reading or listening to them.

My one caveat is that Heyer’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of her era can be a bit intimidating. Rather than try to achieve that kind of knowledge, it’s better to identify her techniques and the way she creates boundaries to focus the reader’s attention on what’s most important in her story.

Venetia

In many ways typical of Heyer’s output, Venetia stands out for several reasons. Most pertinent is the way she develops the characters of the two protagonists and the principal secondary characters. She does this by selecting important details that reveal essential qualities and attributes that make for an unforgettable cast of characters.

Venetia herself is one of Heyer’s more mature beauties. At the age of 25, she considers herself beyond the point of having romantic pretensions, and besides that, has the management of the estate where she and her disabled younger brother live. The heir, her older brother, is away in the army of occupation after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and although his absence and influence are felt throughout the book, he never appears.

What distinguishes Venetia is her disregard for fashion and propriety. She is practical and versatile, knows she’s handsome but isn’t vain. So Heyer’s usual elaborate details about dresses and bonnets are less important here, and would only detract from the character if she overloaded the text with them.

Instead, we get a lot of detail about her daily concerns, and her relationship with her brilliant, studious brother. Here’s how the book begins:

‘A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,’ remarked Miss Lanyon. ‘A great-grandmother, too! You’d think he would be ashamed!’ Receiving no answer, she continued, in an altered voice: ‘Indeed, you would! It is a great deal too bad. What is to be done?’

His attention caught, her companion raised his eyes from the book which lay open beside him on the table and directed them upon her in a look of aloof enquiry. ‘What’s that? Did you say something to me, Venetia?’

‘Yes, love,’ responded his sister cheerfully, ‘but it wasn’t of the least consequence, and in any event I answered for you. You would be astonished, I daresay, if you knew what interesting conversations I enjoy with myself.’

‘I was reading.’

‘So you were – and have let your coffee grow cold, besides abandoning that slice of bread-and-butter. Do eat it up! I’m persuaded I ought not to permit you to read at table.’

‘Oh, the breakfast-table!’ he said disparagingly. ‘Try if you can stop me!’

‘I can’t, of course. What is it?’ she returned, glancing at the volume. ‘Ah, Greek! Some improving tale, I don’t doubt.’

‘The Medea,’ he said repressively. ‘Porson’s edition, which Mr Appersett lent to me.’

‘I know! She was the delightful creature who cut up her brother, and cast the pieces in her papa’s way, wasn’t she? I daresay perfectly amiable when one came to know her.’

Heyer, Georgette. Venetia (Regency Romances Book 18) (pp. 1-2). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.

Ignore, for our purposes, the descriptive dialogue tags, the use of adverbs, the liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks. The character traits we get are:

  1. Venetia’s concern with the minutia of the day-to-day running of the estate and her brother’s welfare.
  2. Aubrey’s obsession with the classics, and Venetia’s familiarity with them
  3. Her sense of humor and irreverence

The real genius here is that what seems like a random, off-chance mention of a text among the many we witness Aubrey studying comes back as a revelation of Venetia’s iconoclastic, rebellious nature in the final scene of the book. What Heyer knew was that Medea was not a story any well-bred lady should have been familiar with at the time, quite apart from its humorous applicability to this brother-sister relationship.

Aubrey’s scholarship is also a connection between Venetia and the rakish protagonist Lord Damerel. A man of ill repute who eloped with a married woman in the past, and whose neglect of his estate (neighboring Venetia’s) is a subject of censure in the neighborhood, turns out to be excessively well-educated himself. He and Aubrey form a bond almost sooner than he and Venetia do.

But their meet-cute lays the foundation for what we subsequently learn about him and his developing romance with Venetia. Note that this vital romantic episode doesn’t occur until we are nearly 10% through the book. However, Heyer’s front-loaded backstory isn’t something that’s advisable to attempt today.

She had been making her way round the outskirts of the wood, and had paused to disentangle her dress from a particularly clinging trail of bramble when an amused voice said: ‘Oh, how full of briars is this working-day world!

Startled, she turned her head, and found that she was being observed by a tall man mounted on a handsome gray horse. He was a stranger, but his voice and his habit proclaimed his condition, and it did not take her more than a very few moments to guess that she must be confronting the Wicked Baron. She regarded him with candid interest, unconsciously affording him an excellent view of her enchanting countenance. His brows rose, and he swung himself out of the saddle, and came towards her, with long, easy strides. She was unacquainted with any men of mode, but although he was dressed like any country gentleman a subtle difference hung about his buckskins and his coat of dandy gray russet. No provincial tailor had fashioned them, and no country beau could have worn them with such careless elegance. He was taller than Venetia had at first supposed, rather loose-limbed, and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance. As he advanced upon her Venetia perceived that he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation. A smile was curling his lips, but Venetia thought she had never seen eyes so cynically bored.

‘Well, fair trespasser, you are justly served, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Stand still!’

She remained obediently motionless while he disentangled her skirt from the brambles. As he straightened himself, he said: ‘There you are! But I always exact a forfeit from those who rob me of my blackberries. Let me look at you!’

Before she had recovered from her astonishment at being addressed in such a style he had an arm round her, and with his free hand had pushed back her sunbonnet. In more anger than fright she tried to thrust him away, uttering a furious protest. He paid no heed at all; only his arm tightened round her, something that was not boredom gleamed in his eyes, and he ejaculated: ‘But beauty’s self she is…!’

Heyer, Georgette. Venetia (Regency Romances Book 18) (pp. 30-31). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.

Their acquaintance begins with a literary quotation, and the scene progresses with Venetia matching him and demonstrating her own knowledge about the contexts of these nuggets, even correcting him in one instance. The first of the citations is from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the second from an anonymous early-17th-century poem (and no, I didn’t know that from my own experience, but read it in an article about the quotations in this book). Important to know here is that Venetia is not dressed like the gentlewoman she is, but looks like a peasant picking blackberries—thus being true to character as established from the beginning.

I could write an entire paper on this book, but that’s out of place here! So onward.

A Civil Contract

The relevant details here have to do with economics, and the relationship of the nobility with the merchant class. The book starts with the male protagonist, who has just bought out his commission in the army so he can come back to the estate he inherited—which is near to bankruptcy. He left behind before he went to war a romance with a young lady who is not enough of an heiress to enable them to marry, and so he has to end their unofficial understanding.

Although he resists it—thinking that instead he will simply sell the estate and live in reduced circumstances (although the existence of a younger sister who is dependent on him complicates matters)—the father of his true love introduces him to a Cit—a very wealthy merchant—who has a daughter he wants to marry into a title.

Heyer exploits the class distinctions between the landed aristocracy and the wealthy merchants to create conflict and tension in the book—without judgment. The true heroine is Jenny, the merchant’s daughter, who proves herself to be kind, resourceful, and the ideal mate for Lord Lynton.

Lynton is introduced as someone without pretensions, used to a rugged life in his regiment. A much more somber opening sets the tone for the novel, with its serious focus on the financial realities of life for an impoverished nobleman.

The library at Fontley Priory, like most of the principal apartments in the sprawling building, looked to the south-east, commanding a prospect of informal gardens and a plantation of poplars, which acted as a wind-break and screened from view the monotony of the fen beyond. On an afternoon in March the sunlight did not penetrate the Gothic windows, and the room seemed dim, the carpet, the hangings, and the tooled leather backs of the books in the carved shelves as faded as the uniform of the man who sat motionless at the desk, his hands lying clasped on a sheaf of papers, his gaze fixed on a clump of daffodils, nodding in the wind that soughed round the angles of the house, and passed like a shadow over the unscythed lawn.

The uniform showed the buff facings and silver lace of the 52nd Regiment; it was as threadbare as the carpet, but for all its shabbiness it seemed incongruous: as out of place in this quiet room as the man who wore it felt himself to be.

He should not have done so: the Priory was his birthplace, and he owned it; but his adult years had been spent in very different scenes from the placid fens and wolds of Lincolnshire, and his transition from the grandeur of the Pyrenees had been too sudden, and attended by circumstances of too much horror to make it seem to him anything other than a bad dream from which he would presently be awakened by a call to arms, or by a stampeding mule brought down by the guy-ropes of his tent, or by the mere bustle of a camp at first light.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract (Regency Romances Book 21) (pp. 1-2). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.

Heyer’s research and knowledge about the Napoleonic wars is legendary—her novel An Infamous Army is purportedly used at the British military college of Sandhurst for cadets studying Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo. But here, she chooses her small details very carefully to paint only the picture she wants to paint that’s important to the story and the character. Lynton’s uniform—described and identified by his regiment—is faded. He’s been in the Pyrenees, which means the latter part of the Peninsular War. The detail of the stampeding mule brought down by the guy-ropes of his tent is so specific and vivid that a reader hardly needs more to have a complete sense of his environment prior to returning home.

Not only is this an example of needing to provide only the details that get the point across (it’s not necessary to have a comprehensive knowledge of the battles and conditions of the Peninsular War), but also of lightly penciling in sufficient information to convey to the reader only what is necessary for them to know.

Just as in Venetia, the seeds for the climax of the story are sown in that first scene. Mining the real history of the Battle of Waterloo, Heyer has Mr. Chawleigh (father in law) advise Lynton in a panic to sell out of the funds because there’s a rumor that the army has been beaten at Waterloo. Chawleigh is deeply embedded in business in the city, but Lynton knows the army and Wellington. Rather than sell, he acts on his instinct that the so-called rout is only a strategic retreat, and does the opposite of what his financially savvy father-in-law advises. Here is the scene between Lynton and his man of business:

‘Oh, I’m not selling!’ Adam said cheerfully. ‘I beg pardon! Of course you supposed that that was why I needed you! No, I’m buying.’

‘Buying?’ gasped Wimmering, turning quite pale. ‘You’re not serious, my lord?’

‘I’m perfectly serious – and perfectly sane as well, I promise you. No, don’t repeat Mr Chawleigh’s Banbury story to me! I’ve heard it once, and I don’t wish to hear it again! My father-in-law is an excellent man, but he has not the smallest understanding of military matters. As far as I can discover, word of a retreat has reached the City, brought by some agent, who had heard that the Prussians had been cut up a trifle, that we had retired, and who no doubt saw the refugees pouring into Antwerp, or Ghent, or wherever he chanced to be, and out of this built up a lurid tale of disaster! My dear Wimmering, do you really imagine that if the Army was in headlong flight not one hint of it would appear in today’s journals?’

Mr Wimmering looked rather struck. He said: ‘I must own that one would have supposed –’ He stopped, as a thought occurred to him, and asked hopefully: ‘Have you, perhaps, received news from Belgium, my lord?’

‘I’ve received a good deal of news during the past weeks,’ Adam replied coolly. ‘I won’t deceive you, however: I haven’t any secret source of information, and I’ve heard nothing that confirms or refutes my father-in-law’s story.’ He paused; the disturbing smile grew more marked. ‘Have there been moments in your life, Wimmering, when you have felt, within yourself, a strong – oh, an overwhelming compulsion to do something that perhaps your reason tells you is imprudent – even dangerous? When you don’t hesitate to stake your last groat, because you know the dice are going to fall your way?’ He saw the look of horror in Wimmering’s face, and laughed. ‘No, you don’t understand, do you? Well, never mind!’

But Mr Wimmering was unable to follow this advice. In a flash of enlightenment he had recognized his late patron in the present Viscount, and his heart sank like a plummet. He shuddered to recall the number of times the Fifth Viscount had yielded to the compulsion of an inner and too often lying voice, how many times he had been confident that his luck had changed. He sank into despair, knowing from bitter experience how useless it would be to attempt to bring his lordship to reason. There was nothing he could do to restrain him, but he did utter an anguished protest when Adam, enumerating his tangible assets, said: ‘Then there’s Fontley. You know as well as I do how much land I have left unmortgaged – unsettled too! My father blamed himself for that, didn’t he? I wish he could know how thankful I am today that the estate never was resettled!’

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract (Regency Romances Book 21) (pp. 386-387). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.

This is perhaps an unfair example, but it does demonstrate how taking a slice of the history and looking at it a certain way, without an info dump or a lengthy explanation to your reader, can reveal character and create suspense. Anyone who actually knows the history knows that the battle was not lost. But the possible financial ramifications in London are a detail often unexplored in fiction of the period. And it vividly demonstrate’s Lynton’s character arc, from despondent bankrupt worried about having to compromise his principles, to practical steward of a large estate who dares to exert his own influence.