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Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Spotlight: Ginger Hanson

Writing the Historical Romance


Ginger Hanson

“Never write a historical novel as your first book.” I read this piece of writing advice in my first how-to-write fiction book. I discarded the advice and spent the next two years penning a 900 page tome about Roman Britain set in 60 A. D. Gladiator it was not.

By the time, I wrote “The End,” the advice made sense. A novice historical romance writer is giving herself two difficult new skills to master: the craft of writing and the creation of a different time period. For example, if I decided to have my heroine look in a mirror, I had to find out if mirrors were around during that time period.

The beginning writer who decides to write a contemporary story is not quite as handicapped and can draw upon a store of shared contemporary images when creating a setting. For example, the word “McDonald’s” puts the reader in a fast-food restaurant replete with smells.

Life isn’t as simple for the writer of historical novels. You don’t have this store of contemporary images. In fact, if the story is set before 1827, you can’t even use the word restaurant because the word didn’t exist. Not only does the historical writer need to know if a word existed, she also needs to know the context in which it was used during the time period of her novel.

Still anxious to tackle your first historical romance? Of course, you are. If you weren’t passionate about writing and history, you wouldn’t be reading this article. Okay, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when writing a historical romance.

Whether your story is about Viking warriors or Regency rogues, you must enter that world in order to bring your reader into it. The world you create must be historically accurate because your readers know their history. Make too many historical mistakes in your writing and you will lose readers.

Too much history can cost you readers, too. Describing every ribbon and bow on the heroine’s dress can be as mind-numbing as endless pages of farming techniques in 17th century France. Always remember your characters live in this time period, they already know all about it. It’s your job to bring your reader into the time period without making your characters seem like strangers to the time.

Another challenge for the historical romance writer is to offer the reader a strong and independent heroine while staying true to the heroine’s place in time. This challenge can be turned into an asset if you use the social mores of the past as added conflict. Good research and writing will keep your heroine rooted in her time period no matter how much she rebels against the mores of her time.

Once a writer has settled on a historical story, how does she go about getting the goods on that time period? When I begin my research, I prefer to get a general feel for the time period before zooming in on the small things. To obtain an overview, I read a general history that spans at least twenty years. College textbooks are an excellent source because I can’t think of any period in history that some college professor hasn’t written about.

At the back of every textbook and nonfiction history book will be a bibliography, a valuable resource. The bibliography opens the door to the specific. Scan the bibliography of every resource you use, because nuggets of historical gold will be found there.

No, I’m not skipping the Internet. It’s a wonderful resource for today’s historical writer, but validating the information can be difficult. History buffs turned web site managers don’t always equal historical accuracy.

When used wisely, the Internet offers the historical writer a cornucopia of valid information. Archived newspapers, diaries, out-of-print books and other historical references are now available via many college and public libraries. The Internet traveler can enjoy virtual tours of everything from museums to period houses. As with any data, validate the information found on the Internet to ensure its accuracy. Remember, a good story plus good research is the key to a good historical romance.

Beware of the pitfall of too much research. For someone who loves fact digging, research can get in the way of the actual writing. In fact, the Internet has made it even easier for the historical writer to get sidetracked and spend too much time researching rather than writing the next chapter.

But at some point, your story has to be written. Research doesn’t have to stop, but don’t let it bog down the writing. Put asterisks where you need to do further research as you write and set aside time for research that doesn’t interfere with writing. Continued research offers another plus, an unexpected historical detail that adds more texture to your work in progress. Better yet, you might stumble across the perfect plot for your next historical romance!


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let those of you who commented how much I enjoyed reading your comments. I'm eager to learn who will win the gift card.

And Nancy in NC, I got a real laugh from your experience b/c that happened to me, only the other way around! We were at a motel in New England and I asked for "ice" and well, it went pretty much the same way but it was the motel manager trying to decide if he'd heard what he thought he heard!!

Good luck to all of you who took time from your busy schedules to read the blogs.....


coastie_jo said...

Ever thought about dusting off the Roman nov and applying all you've learned in the years of writing?