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

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Do you want a history lesson with your historical romance?

By Nicole North

Personally, I don’t. If I wanted a history lesson, I’d take a history class, read a research book, a text book, historical fiction or fictionalized history. But if I’m reading historical romance, I want the romance to be the primary focus of the story.

So, why read historical romance instead of contemporary? Because the historical setting offers me far more escapism than a contemporary setting. We all live in a contemporary setting, so it’s all real and familiar to us. But if we can be transported back in time 400 years, that’s a totally new and different reading experience. It’s much like fantasy or science fiction in that way, but it could have happened. This is why historical research must be accurate.

Just because historical research must be accurate in historical romance, doesn’t mean you need tons of it in there. I’ve noticed in my own writing, it’s more like an iceberg. You only see a little of the historical detail, the necessary stuff. But most of the research remains just beneath the surface and is not obvious to readers.

Not only is this what most historical romance readers expect, but also editors and agents who acquire historical romance. An example from my own experience: I wanted to include a scene which takes place at Midsummer in one of my novels. I researched Midsummer in Scotland endlessly. I wrote the very detailed scene of several pages, showing all the Midsummer activities and customs my characters were participating in. Vivid visuals. The works. Wow, was I proud of that scene. But I was not allowed to keep it. Why? Because it had no purpose. It was basically a history lesson. It was shown rather than told, but still the Midsummer scene did not move my story forward. The details were unnecessary to the developing relationship and plot. A huge portion of it could be removed without changing the story at all. So that’s what I did. The characters are still having a Midsummer celebration, but it is only the setting and backdrop. Not the main focus.

Most historical romance readers want to be immersed in your vivid historical setting for the escapism value. Not for the extreme realism value. I certainly don’t want to read page after page of detailed descriptions of how bad hygiene and sanitation was during the 1600s. I don’t want to read gory details of battle scenes, torture or executions. That’s real history, but it isn’t romance escapism. Romance is an uplifting, positive genre. And the only way to achieve that in historical romance, is to leave out most of the gory and stinky details. Sure, a few of such details are fine and sometimes necessary. They do give a hint of the realism. I’ve written battle scenes and described the stench of a city. But it isn’t something I want to read about for hours. I want to know what’s going on in that developing relationship.

The insertion of unusual historical details has to be handled carefully. They shouldn’t make the story drag. The reader shouldn’t be confused by them or have to go look up words to understand what’s happening in the story. But if the reader happens to learn something about history while reading your historical romance, so much the better. You can do both, but in my opinion, any history lessons should probably be well disguised as entertainment. :)


I'm thrilled to report my anthology, Secrets Volume 27 Untamed Pleasures, was voted Best Book of the Week at LASR -WC and received a 5 cherry review.
Here is a snippet: "Devil in a Kilt by Nicole North is a time traveling romance with a brawny Scotsman under a curse. There’s a lot of heart in this story as well as heat. There are a few plot conflicts that interweave, between personal angst, a vile witch and the breaking of the aforementioned curse. I enjoyed Gavin, the hero, and his kilt wearing ways. Shauna, the heroine, was the perfect balance of modern day independence and sexual freedom which put her as the perfect counterpoint to Gavin’s alpha Laird. She’s not loose or scatterbrained, she is a strong woman who stands up for herself and her dialogue was crackerjack sharp. Also, I liked that Shauna isn’t afraid to enjoy the benefits of Gavin’s…kilt. Their coming together was pure romance. The battle or skirmish reminded me of the daring do of the old Errol Flynn movies – dashing and manly. It was very exciting." Review by Xeranthemum



Paty Jager said...

I agree, Nicole. As a historical writer you want to give the flavor of the time and what is happening around them but you don't want to overpower the story with information that sounds like a reference book.

Good post.

Nicole North said...

Thanks Paty!!

Carly Carson said...

I agree with you. Even though I'm an avid non-fiction history reader, I am not happy when a novel goes on and on about history. Which I've always thought was odd about me, so I'm glad to hear otherwise. lol

Tess said...


I think we have to be careful about blanket statements concerning readers. There ARE readers out there who enjoy historical romance AND lots of historical detail. It's all in the way it's woven into the fabric of the narrative. If it's plunked in the way Dan Brown did in The DaVinci Code, then yeah, it's bad, but plenty of good historical writers (Jo Beverley, Denee Cody, Isolde Martyn, Roberta Gellis etc) can and DO include lots of detail.

As for not looking up words - I LIKE that. Really. Learning new words is a good thing - only the context in which they're used should also help the reader get what you're saying, so they don't have to interrupt the reading. I note down words and look them up.

Just my .02.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

As much as I love history, I agree on not wanting a history lesson when I am snuggled down with a romance novel. My imagination can grab onto what the fine points are and take it from there. Give me a great hero and heroine and I am a happy reader.

Nicole North said...

Thanks Carly! No, you are not alone. :) Non-fiction history is all about the history for sure. Historical romance, not as much.

Thanks Tess! That's one reason I wanted to write about this. It's a controversial subject. :) Someone made a comment a few days ago that they couldn't believe it when they were told people didn't want a history lesson with their historical romance. Interesting! Because I'm just the opposite. If there are any history lessons in a romance, for me to not be yanked out of the story, it needs to be well incorporated within the plot or characterization. In tiny bites, preferably. And if it has nothing to do with the characters, plot or the romance, then I'll probably scan or skip over it, unless it's something I've been wanting to learn about. I like to learn new words but I don't want to have to put the book down to look them up, or to figure out the meaning. If I do, I may start doing something else instead of finishing the novel. Dan Brown doesn't write romance, so I would expect he'd have lots of history lessons in his work.

While some readers who are big fans of historical fiction may love the same massive amount of historical detail in romance, it can also cause the pacing of the story to drag if not handled carefully. Thanks for commenting!

Nicole North said...

Thanks, Paisley! I'm the same way. If I'm reading historical romance, I'm wanting escapism, adventure and most of all romance. And an awesome hero. :)

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I'm thinking our heros might be resembling each other, Nicole. ;)

Susan Macatee said...

I agree, Nicole! You do have to be accurate, but don't bore or alienate readers with unnecessary information. I also have a few battle scenes, hospital scenes and a scene where a modern day time traveler discovers what kind of bathroom facilities exist in an 1860s army camp, but I try not to go overboard with details. Just give enough to put the reader in the time period.

Nicole North said...

Paisley, LOL! They probably do, especially if yours wears kilts. A hero in a romance is of vital importance to me. If, in a story I'm reading, he falls flat, so does the rest of the story. On the other hand, if the hero is awesome, the rest of the story can be less than stellar and I'll still love it.

Nicole North said...

Susan, I agree. We need enough of those details to imagine what it was really like, but not so much as to turn the reader off with disgust. I also enjoy describing how to "use the bathroom" in a castle. LOL! I do try to make it a bit humorous whenever possible, especially when a modern day woman has to deal with it.

Jeannie Lin said...

I get comments from beta readers that they'd like to learn more history in my story, but perhaps it's because the time period is unusual.

I agree wholeheartedly though! I'm sure the history lesson would have to be woven in so seamlessly readers can't tell it's there. History was my least favorite subject when I had to read it in textbooks. :)

Jody said...

Although i agree with most of what you say, I do find that there is a dumbing down of historicals of late. I am against info dumps that don't move the story along or excessive description that slows the pace. However, I believe the best historical romances are those where the author has done enough research so that her characters are behaving as people of that period/location would and that comes from research. Also personally I like historical romances where the romance is tied to the history creating a more intricate tapestry for the reader to enjoy. if he romance could be done in any period then I think there probably isn't enough history detail for me to enjoy it. I want the history to be another charcter in the story but I don't want history dumps where the narrator is telling me the history so I can understand what is going on: if i don't get that from the action or dialogue the author has failed me.

Nicole North said...

Thanks for commenting, Jody! I think it is simply the difference between pure historical fiction and pure historical romance. What you describe that you enjoy most sounds more like historical fiction to me. Though some historical romance may edge in that direction. Definitely a historical romance author has to do her research to bring the peroid to life and make the reader feel they are there.

I also think what you see as a "dumbing down" is actually making the historical romance more accessible to a far wider audience. Some readers know little about history and don't want to learn. And that's okay. But they do want a fun read, entertainment and escapism. Fortunately, there are various levels of historical romance and historical fiction. Something for everyone.

About characters behaving as they would have 400 or 800 years ago... my opinion on that is yes and no. I think we need to give the reader the illusion the characters are behaving as someone from the era would have, but if we make it absolutely 100% authentic, a lot of modern romance readers may not relate to the characters nor find them sympathetic. A lot of wealthy men back in history were autocrats and their wives had to obey them or be punished for it. And most of the women were submissive. Rarely are heroes and heroines portrayed this way in historical romance, thank goodness. Because I wouldn't enjoy reading about that kind of relationship. Both my heroes and heroines have slightly more modern day sensibilities and are more openminded than real people of the day would've been. I do this so modern day readers can relate to and sympathize with them. Perhaps this is another difference between historical fiction and historical romance.

Nicole North said...

Jeannie, thanks for commenting! I'm with you on that. I didn't enjoy history classes in school. Part of the problem was the boring textbooks which didn't bring history to life. And part of the problem was the teachers who droned on and on and made us memorize the dates of battles and such. I think history classes need a major overhaul. LOL! Only when I started reading historical romance did history start coming to life for me and I became far more interested in it.

Tess said...

Jody and I are obviously singing from the same hymnbook.

And we're not talking about historical fiction. Historical romance CAN and does have examples of authors who convincingly and skillfully layer the history into the narrative without the boring info dump. It's a matter of grounding your characters in their world and moving them around in it so that the history comes through in a believable way.

Re: Dan Brown - just because he doesn't write romance, doesn't mean he needs to use info dumps. In TDVC, in at least two places he has one character lecture the others on da Vinci etc.. It pulls the reader right out of the story and serves no real purpose other than to show off the depth of his research.

I agree with what you said about the tip of the iceburg, it's just the height of the tip over which we differ. I NEVER put in nearly as much as I've learned into my work, but I do make mention of the actual events of the period and even place my characters at some of them. BUT, I also make sure that there is a point to the scene and that it moves the story forward. I don't do it just for effect.

Mary Jo Putney and Mary Balogh have both written historical romances (Shattered Rainbows and Slightly Sinful) which feature the battle of Waterloo and both reveal their talent for integrating history into their stories without making it seem like a history lesson.

I'm not saying ALL readers want more historical meat in their romances, but there are definitely SOME who do and who welcome it when it's done WELL.

In the end, if the romance is compelling, well written and the history that appears is accurate, I'm fine with whatever degree of historical depth the author chooses. Every reader is unique and has different expectations. What appears to be too much history for one may be just the right amount for another and not enough for a third. The best we can do as writers is ensure that we write to our comfort level, keeping in mind that the history must never overwhelm the romance, while also maintaining an accurate and believable setting.

And now, I'll be quiet.

Blythe Gifford said...

Nicole, you write: "if it has nothing to do with the characters, plot or the romance, then I'll probably scan or skip over it." There, of course, is the key. If the writer has integrated the story seamlessly with the time period, you won't feel as if you're getting a history lesson. You'll feel as if you are living the story, truly transported in time and space.
I think readers like all kinds of historical romance. Some prefer costume dramas, others want more historical detail. The same reader can enjoy both! That's why there's a wide spectrum of readers and writers. My stories tend to feature more historical detail, rather than less, but my rule is that it must touch the character emotionally before it gets into the book. (The other really interesting stuff that doesn't fit I save for blogs and my website!)

Nicole North said...

Tess, we're on the same page. :) I love historical romance where the historical detail is layered in skillfully. I think that is the key, the well-done layering. Another key for me is, even though there might be some fantastic and pertinent historical detail in there, the ultimate focus of the historical romance is the romance.

That's true that Dan Brown doesn't need to use info dumps. But he's Dan Brown so he'll get away with a lot more than the rest of us. LOL!

Placing characters into real battles or other real historical events is awesome if well done. But like you said, they don't make it seem like a history lesson. They've brought it to life and placed the reader right there in the action. If the reader loves that hero (or heroine), then, yes, she's definitely emotionally invested in seeing him/her survive. That doesn't sound like a history lesson you would have in a class. :)

Another example: Just because I have King James as a secondary character in one of my stories doesn't mean I'm going to launch into a couple paragraphs about him or his reign. (That would be a history lesson.) I present him as I would any other secondary character, feeding the reader bite by bite only the information they need to know about him at this moment.

Nicole North said...

Thanks for commenting, Blythe! Absolutely, you have hit the bull's eye! I love integrating tiny, little-known details into my stories to transport the reader fully into the time period and setting. Combining those details with character emotion brings it even more vividly to life. And this is far from a history lesson. To me a "history lesson" is something from a classroom or textbook.

Miriam Newman said...

Good article, Nicole. I find when I want entertainment I read historical romance, and when I want something deeper I go with straight historical fiction. Each one has its own appeal for me.

Mari said...

I like a good balance of history and romance, but I definitely do not want the historical details to overwhelm the story.
The romantic tension between the protagonists are the most important thing.However "modern" type of phrasing will jolt me out of the story.

Jerrica Knight-Catania said...

Great article, Nicole! I feel like we might share a brain, because there's nothing you've said in the post or in your replies that I don't agree with! Lauren Willig gave a great workshop on this very subject at Nationals, and much of what you talk about, she said as well :)

Nicole North said...

Thanks Miriam! That's so true! Which goes back to expectations. If someone reads a historical romance expecting it to be historical fiction (or vise versa) they may be disappointed at times.

I agree, Mari! I don't want to read modern phrasing in historical romance either. I really love that historical feel to the dialogue and narrative. And I love romantic tension! One of my favorite elements.

Jerrica, LOL! Thanks! I didn't know she gave a workshop on this subject. Wow, that's interesting! Guess that makes me even more sure of my opinions on this. :)

Eliza Knight said...

Well said!!!

As a huge fan of historical romances and a writer, I still think the story is the main focus. For me its about escapism too.

Info dumping is boring, and pulls me out.

But I also get pulled out if the bit of history sprinkled in is blatantly wrong.

Eliza Knight said...

Well said!!!

As a huge fan of historical romances and a writer, I still think the story is the main focus. For me its about escapism too.

Info dumping is boring, and pulls me out.

But I also get pulled out if the bit of history sprinkled in is blatantly wrong.

Nicole North said...

Eliza, Queen of History, thanks for commenting! :) Yes, I'm with you on that! I want those little details to be accurate.

Michele Ann Young said...

Nicole, I think you have the right of it. I quite often get readers saying they loved learning the bits of history that appeared in my books and I go oh, I wonder what they mean? My guess is they found something in there they didn't know. For example in one story I have my heroine wanting to go to London for Princess Charlotte's wedding, but I never ever explained it as history, she just says she wants to go. In another I talk about the dreadful weather as a result of a volcano. Whether it was that or something else, I'm not sure.
One of these days I will pluck up enough courage to ask.

Nicole North said...

Michele, thanks for commenting! Yes, it would be neat to find out what they meant. I love learning those interesting little tidbits of history, too. A light touch is so effective.

Tess said...

Nicole - yep, we're on the same page indeed :) Thanks for such a thought-provoking discussion!

Virginia said...

For me it all depends on the historical time frame and the character development. My favorite time period is the Old West of the mid to late 1800's--never dull to me. At times, I have been surprised at how a seemingly dry, musty subject can be brought to life by vivid detail and rich characterization. It's nice to "read outside my box". Of course, I do also love a really sexy historical romance where passion dictates the outcome of the story. Obviously, passion has been quite popular throughout history! gcwhiskas at aol dot com

Nicole North said...

Thank you, Tess, for dropping by to read it and comment!!

Nicole North said...

That's so true, Virginia! I love passionate, hot historical romance! Vivid details and rich characterization are also two of my favorite elements. Thanks for stopping by to comment!