by Kiernan Kelly
A reader recently remarked to me that he found the thought of writing a historical piece of romantic fiction intimidating. “I don’t know enough. I’m not a historian, like you,” he said.
After I finished laughing hysterically, I had to set him straight.
When it comes to being an authority on anything besides tying my own shoelaces, I’m the first to admit to my sad lack of expertise. I am not a history buff; I cannot quote the dates and places of famous battles, nor can I pull details of Victorian Age fashion, or Renaissance architecture out of my ass. I cannot intelligently contribute to discussions of pre-Greece Middle Eastern culture — or post-Greece, for that matter. I do not offhand know the difference between a brigantine and schooner; or what Edwardian men wore under their trousers.
In my opinion, it’s much easier to write contemporary romance. I already know what the locations look like — even if I’ve never been there personally, there’s a good chance I know someone who has, and there’s always Google Earth, travel documentaries, and the web. I know the protocol of dating, the etiquette of the dinner table. I know from personal experience how it feels to ride in a car, a train, a plane, and on a cruise ship. I know how hot dogs taste, have eaten truffles, and understand how a thick, frosty milkshake can give you a brain freeze. I know how to rent a room in a motel, and the differences one might find between a room at Motel 6 and the Hilton. I can place a character virtually anywhere on the planet, and describe him and his setting with some conviction.
Writing historical romance is much, much trickier. The details of the story, the setting, the props, and the landscape are as alien to me in my personal bubble of experience as the far side of the universe.
All of which raises the question: why is this person, who admits to being the human equivalent of a historical factoid void, posting to a historical fiction writers’ group blog?
The answer is simple. While I know precious little about history, I do write historical m/m romance, and enjoy it. Before anyone begins sharpening the guillotine or fashioning a hangman’s noose, let me explain — my statement isn’t as oxymoronic as it sounds. While my brain cells aren’t steeped in historical data, I do hold both a fondness for, and interest in our species’ past. I don’t profess to be a historian, neither professional nor amateur, but I do possess a healthy imagination, a computer, and a library card.
That said, all I can possibly contribute to this blog is to share what I told the reader who mistakenly pegged me as an expert — my view from the short bus, the remedial history class as it were, where I sit at the back of the room trying to pass the exam by shooting my cuffs.
I believe it is entirely possible to write a piece of credible, believable historical fiction without holding a PhD in Ancient Civilizations or the high score in Jeopardy. While I won’t begin to pretend to be a historian, I can discuss how I, someone who doesn’t know the difference between a cutlass and a scimitar, can write a historical romance.
The trick — for me, at any rate — is research, and lots of it. It isn’t unusual for me to spend as much or possibly more time researching details as it does for me to write the story. Sometimes I begin collecting data months before I even take the time to rough out a plot.
I’ll take trips to a brick-and-mortar library where I’ll take copious notes in chicken scratch decipherable by me alone, later to be transcribed into a Word document, and I’ll surf the web until my fingers are worn down to nubs. I’m in the process of building my own library of reference books, fettered only by the limits of my sorely overtaxed credit cards.
Has any of this research made me a historian? No. Again, I must remind the reader that I am not an expert. What I am is an information pack rat.
I keep my notes along with everything I’ve found scouring online resources — whether in the end, I use them or not — in a computer file. I never delete these files. My reasoning is that if, in the future, I decide to write another story set in that period, the research is already done and at my fingertips.
I never make the mistake of assuming I know anything. Aside from the entire ass/you/me thing, assuming I know something as fact is a surefire way to screw up the details, and believe you me, someone, somewhere will notice and call me on it. I once got an angry two-page letter from a reader berating me because I didn’t correctly describe the splatter pattern of a shotgun blast.
Two entire pages. Seriously.
The only other tip I can offer is never to take anything you read at face value. Wikipedia, perhaps the most oft-used — while equally oft-lamented — database on the Internet is a good stepping-off point for research, but an unreliable one. I’ll take what I’ve learned there and find other, credible sources to support the information. I’ll double-check my facts, then triple-check them to be certain. In this stage of the game, I feel free to be as obsessive as I’d like — in this instance, anal retentiveness can only stand me in good stead when I finally put pen to paper.
I question everything as I’m writing. For example, if writing a dinner scene set in ancient Greece during the Bronze Age, I’ll ask myself whether my characters would know what a fork is, let alone how to use one (probably not, considering the fork didn’t make an appearance in Greece until roughly 400 AD, and yes, I had to look it up). What type of furniture did they use? What type of bowls and serving platters? What did they eat? What kind of clothing did they wear, and of which type of fabric? I’ll make a list of these questions and more, then hit the books to find the answers.
If I’m writing a pirate story set on one of the aforementioned brigantines during the early 18th century, I’ll research how the ships were built, find diagrams, and learn which parts served what functions. I’ll learn how many sails there should be, how they were rigged, and the difference between the forecastle and the poop deck.
Speaking of poop, I’ll even consider how my pirate hero might manage the most routine of everyday chores and ablutions — how was food cooked aboard a wooden ship, and how did they manage their waste? Even if I don’t use all the information collected, I feel the knowledge of the most intimate details of my character’s life will only add believability as I write the story.
I’ve become comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and “I need help.” When all else fails, I’ll ask an expert. The web is stuffed full of contact information for historians. I’ll send an email explaining who I am and my mission, along with my question to an appropriate source, and politely ask for an opinion. At worst, I’m ignored, and at best, get an educated response, or at least, a nudge in the right direction for further research.
I’ll also ask other authors for their favorite informational sources. Most, like the Macaronis, are more than willing to share their special sources, those books and websites they rely on when fishing for facts.
I think another invaluable tool for a historical writer — or any writer for that matter — is a strong sense of empathy. It isn’t enough to simply find the facts, to envision a ship or a castle, to stare at illustrations of doublets and frock coats, or paintings of wattle-and-daub huts, or cobblestone streets lined with gas lamps. I think a writer needs to be able to feel what it’s like to be their character in that setting, wearing those clothes, living in that civilization, in that time period.
As children, we found this an easy task. We became the pirates, the knights, the princes on our white steeds. We lived and breathed inside their skins, with little or no effort on our parts. As we grew older, we were taught to put aside childish nonsense, to act our ages. What a shame. The ability to pretend so easily, so completely, would do us in good stead now.
A writer needs to know how to recapture that long-lost freedom to believe we are the character, to look at our modern kitchens and see an open hearth and rough-hewn table, to walk the aisle of a supermarket and see an open-air market in Babylonia. That skill and the facts uncovered during research will combine on paper to form a believable, historically accurate story.
Will I ever be a historian? Probably not. I am a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, stuck forever in the back row of the remedial history class, admiring those among my peers who’ve aced the honors course.
Can I write a believable piece of historical romance? Sure. I can, and I have.
So can you.