Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Writing Historical Romances and What Comes First: the history or the romance?


I've been asked this question often enough that I should have the response rehearsed. I don't. The answer depends on many factors.

Writing historicals is an unusual job for me. In school, history wasn't my favorite subject. In fact, I thought it was terribly boring. I realized as an adult, my teachers didn't make it interesting for me. So why am I writing historical romances? And how much of history goes into each story? Do I look up a historical fact and weave a romance around it? Or do I have a romance in mind and fill in history of the time?

Let's begin with the reason I write romances. Growing up, I read anything I could get my hands on. In my early twenties, I discovered historical romances. They certainly were more romantic than Jacqueline Susann or Jackie Collins. I credit Kathleen Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsey for tickling my muse and starting me on the writing path. What I loved about historical romances was the fantasy of visiting far away places coupled with a dashing hero and a heroine who, despite an aversion to the hero, fell in love with him anyway. This was the time when heroes were extremely Alpha. They ruled with an iron-clad heart and a libido they appeased no matter that the heroine didn't want him. She would eventually come around.

When I wrote my first historicals, I concentrated on the American West. I grew up in Southern California, near Hollywood. There were many influences from the acting community and my friends who were in the business. On TV, westerns were popular. I loved going to Knott's Berry Farm for its western feel, and to Universal Studios where my sister worked. I was able to get in without paying and attended many special events. One such event was an evening with actors and stuntmen from western movies and TV series filmed at Universal.

The American West's rich history spurred numerous ideas in my head. In fact, there were so many that I had to keep a notebook just to get them out and free my mind to concentrate on one story. Back then, I'd have a name and occupation for the hero and heroine. Next, I would come up with a story idea. And lastly, the location and history. I used to over research because of my lack of knowledge of history. But I concentrated mostly on the relationship and romance, sprinkling in the history.

I am and have always been a by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer. I couldn't write an outline to save my life. But the one thing that stayed true in my stories was the history. There were times when I discovered an interesting historical fact, which inevitably changed the story a bit. I'm a firm believer in "truth is stranger than fiction." So I keep an open mind and go with an unusual historical tidbit as well as the insistence of my heroes and heroines who often do their own thing. There were many times they backed me into a corner plot wise, and I had to figure out how to get them out of a situation.

I've come a long way since writing my first historical. And I've grown a complete interest in history, kicking myself over and over for not paying more attention in school. These days, I begin a book by researching the history. I do have a hero and heroine in mind, but their relationship is often worked around history. For instance, in the first book of my four-book Italian medieval series, THE LILY AND THE FALCON, I knew I wanted it to take place in 15th century Florence, the town of my ancestors. I learned that the powerful Cosimo de' Medici had been exiled from Florence by his rival, Rinaldo degli Albizzi. Immediately I knew the hero had to be a Medici (the more influential family) and the heroine an Albizzi. Because of their families' constant battle to be the unofficial ruler of Florence, they had issues of mistrust. To add the feeling of place and time to the story, I used actual events, such as a hanging, along with the broken down governmental changes, as well as researched portrayals of Cosimo and Rinaldo, both of whom make appearances in the book.

So in answer to the question of whether the history or the romance comes first, as I stated in the first paragraph, it depends. Although history is a vital aspect in my novels, it will always be the backdrop for the hero and heroine's romantic quest.
Jannine Corti Petska
Assapora la passione (Feel the Passion)

18 comments:

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

I, too, found history dry in school, but soon realized dates didn't make history; people made history. The people fascinated me and still do--so I blogged about it. (Isn't that what we do in this day and age?)

Good post, Jannine. Now you aren't alone. *g*

Ginger Simpson said...

J,
Wonderful post. I wasn't much of a history buff in school, but I think most historical authors find a time period with which they can identify and stick with it. You know me...I'm stuck in the old west. *lol* I'm convinced I was a squaw in another lifetime...probably one of those overweight ones. :)

Virginia said...

I kind of liked some of the history in school but not all of it. I do love it in the romance novels but I think that's because the hero and heroine comes first and that makes the book better.

Tabitha Shay said...

Hi Jannine,
And if you're a mother, Happy Mama's Day...I loved history in school, too....and like you, I think I read everything Johanna Lindsey and Kathleen ever wrote, but it wasn't the history that captured me, it was the Alpha male, the aggressive bodice ripper who still had style when he latched on to that bodice....lol...To this day, I still prefer that type of romance...Okay, so I'm not a women's libber...can't help myself...give me tall, dark and handsome with attitude....Tabs

Susan Blexrud said...

Lovely post, Jannine. Who cares that you didn't have decent history teachers in school. You've become your own best teacher.

Jannine said...

Gwynlyn:
It's nice to know I'm not alone. I often wonder if authors with a history degree are better at incorporating history into their stories than those who don't have one. I suppose it all comes down to how well you do your research.

Thanks for commenting.

Jannine said...

Ginger, you are too funny. You always keep me laughing.

I had my cards read once and discovered that I had lived in Renaissance Florence. Don't know if that has anything to do with my interest in 15th century Italy, but one never knows.

Thanks for coming by, Sis.

Jannine said...

Virginia:
Yes, the hero and heroine should be the focus of a romance and not the history. Why do we read romances? For the love story.

I've read romances with more history than characterzation. They were boring and, I thought, should have been in straight fiction.

Thanks.

Jannine said...

Tabs, OMG! I didn't realize we were so much alike. I refrained from saying "bodice ripper," but I loved them. I am so into that aggressive Alpha male. I think that is the reason I love my hero, Beau Hamilton, in Rebel Heart.

I love your "give me tall, dark and handsome with additude." LOL, that describes the heroes I love!! Although Beau was a blonde.

Good to see you here.

Jannine said...

Susan, you are so right. I have become my own best teacher of history. It helps that I live for researching, lol.

Thanks for stopping by.

Andrew Richardson said...

I like the article - very thought provoking.

Are historical writers who liked history at school (like me!) in a minority? You seem to choose periods that are well documented. Do you find the wealth of material available makes your job easier, or harder? Does having a lot of facts make it easier to add background, or do you find it constricts your plots?

Susan Macatee said...

I hated history in school too. It was through novels and movies, visiting historic sites and reading about historic events told through first person accounts that turned me on to history. I usually start with some historic fact that interests me. This gets my imagination going and I weave my love story around the history.

DCL Publications said...

You do both so well in your DCL novels Jannine. It's always fun & interesting to read your blogs!

Kathryn Albright said...

Enjoyed your post Jannine! I think what caught me in school was when I studied the Greeks and I learned about Greek mythology and Sparta. I was hooked on history after that because of the mythical stories. I also grew up loving fairytales...

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Jannine,

In the few historical stories that I've written, the history and the characters can't be separated. The conflicts often flow from historical or societal forces. I don't think I could take a character and just plop him or her down in any period.

For instance, in my historical menage romance "Monsoon Fever" (in TEB's Brits in Time), the heroine and her husband are living on a tea plantation in Assam just after the first world war. The third member of the menage is an Indian lawyer. Both Priscilla's and Jonathan's reactions to him are strongly influenced by colonial prejudice. This wouldn't work in a different time or setting. I could write a similar story, but the characters and their reactions would change.

Best,
Lisabet

Delilah Marvelle said...

Like you, when I was younger, history was about the most boring subject on the planet. More often than not, in the US schools they have a tendency to focus on only American history which adds to the snooze factor... Fantastic post! And you're right, it depends on what comes first :D It always does.

Nicole North said...

Great post! Many times in school I also found history boring because of the way the teachers presented it. We had to memorize dates and events. We couldn't get to know the historical figures as real people so there was no connection for me. I think that's why I love historical romance novels so much more. We live with the characters through the time period so it's almost like we get to time travel, at least in our minds.

Paty Jager said...

I loved history in school and love it even more now- though I liked American history more than world history. And I guess that shows in what I write.