Tag Archives: historical romance

Writing a reader-friendly historical romance

by Janet Lane

For thou with me while iuel shall I not dread…

???????????????????????????????My first inspiration to write fiction involved a thought that flashed through my mind when entering rather boring sales data into date fields. I inadvertently entered something like 1798 instead of 1998, and a “What if?” idea flashed above my head, just like in the commercials. What if my protagonist entered an ancient date and was somehow transported to that time?

That initial spark grew into a time travel romance, which has yet to see the light of day, but the vision revealed my passion for the past. I told my husband, John, that I was writing a novel. I visited Denver Public Library and hauled home a dozen monster books on England, covering the twelfth through the eighteenth centuries, and dragged them to bed with me for late-night research.

“I thought you were going to write a book,” John said. “You’ve been reading these books for a month.”

And so my research began. I eventually settled in the fifteenth century, in Somerset. To this day it feels to me as if I indeed traveled to the past.

Writing about it, though, was a different story. I studied dialogue in historical fiction novels, learning antiquated sentence structure and vocabulary, and laboriously inserted it into my story. I was bombarded by helpful contest judges with comments like, “Your dialogue is so stilted.” “Your scenes sound formal, unnatural.” And, “Don’t be afraid to use contractions!”

My research was helpful for scene-setting, describing dinners and clothing, but dialogue continued to mystify. Writing in the 1400s, was I limited to the vocabulary of the time? Fearful of being called a research flunkie, I hauled entire chapters to the library (little was available on the Internet then), painstakingly researching the history of each suspect word.

Chaucer was not much help: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath.” (During a plotting session, I asked Jasmine Cresswell for help. She amazed me by speaking flawless Middle English. It was exquisitely beautiful, but more suited for academic tomes than historical romances.)

Four historical romance novels later, I’ve reached a comfort level with my dialogue. Here’s what I have found useful for my fifteenth century characters.

  1. I write my first draft dialogue as it naturally leaves my pen or keyboard. I refine it later in revisions.
  2. I take more freedoms with narrative than dialogue. For example, if I find a word that came into use in the sixteenth century, I have no problem with using it in narrative. I hesitate to use such words in dialogue, however, and research further for similar words specific to my century. If I can’t find a suitable substitute, however, I am not a slave to etymology. My genre is historical fiction.
  3. I purge all obvious slang and anachronistic words or expressions that will wrench my reader from the historical world I’ve so carefully created. I purge them from both narrative and dialogue.
  4. I get help. Fresh, more experienced eyes can catch seemingly small errors that may disappoint and upset an avid reader who knows better. For example, fellow RMFW member and accomplished historical writer Denee Cody pointed out that I used a screw-top lid when a scrivener inked his pen to begin recording a legal document. Forewarned, I had the scrivener remove the stopper. (I also avoided referring to a cork.)

Contractions and more familiar sentence structure make the writing more graceful and easy to read–provided it isn’t peppered with anachronistic words or phrases such as my protagonist “rocking” his latest set of armor or having a “meltdown” moment.

Lane_TraitorCover11_14_14And there are appropriate times to inject a feeling for the past, when my characters appropriately say, “Good morrow,” “Nay,” or “Godspeed.”

To evoke the past, I added historical dialogue in my latest release, Traitor’s Moon, but I made it brief and added a succinct background for the reader. Queen Margaret is recruiting young boys to accompany the king to the Battle of Blore Heath (King Henry VI was devout and ill, and even in times of war, Margaret brought young boys to the battles to entertain him by singing hymns.)

Here’s that dialogue.
Enchanted, James clapped his hands and began singing, “Gabriel fram heven-King, sent to the Maide sweete, Broute hir blisful tiding, And fair he gan hir greet…” He sang the carol with a clear and perfect pitch, a song of the angel coming to Mary with news of the conception and salvation of mankind.

That’s my personal history on the struggle with historical dialogue. Have you had a similar struggle in your genre? If so, how did you solve it?

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Lane_Coin Forest 1 2 3 copyJanet Lane is an Amazon Bestselling Author. The latest book in her Coin Forest series, Traitor’s Moon, released recently on Amazon as a Kindle. Her awards include Best Novel of 2006 Award–Preditors and Editors; Best Seller List–Rocky Mountain News, and Best Romance Novel—RMFW Colorado Gold contest. Her social media sites include her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

An Awkward Confession

By Mary Gillgannon

I’ve been writing historical romance for over twenty years. In the beginning, the genre was also my favorite reading material. I read the best-selling romance authors to find out what magic they worked to rise to the top. I read the “up-and-comings” to see what they offered and get a feel for the direction the market was headed. And I read pretty much anything in my preferred sub-genre, medieval and Viking romances. I once heard that before writing a book in a particular genre, you should read a hundred books of that type. Over the first few years of my writing career, I probably did that.

But gradually I got away from reading historical romance. I discovered historical mysteries, which helped me immerse myself in the world and time period I was writing in and often gave me new ideas for stories that were more unique than the ideas I got from romances. I dabbled in literary fiction, which had been my preferred reading in college and immediately afterwards. Chick lit came along and I ate it up. Fantasy started getting popular and I added it to my reading “oeuvre”. Then, a few years ago, I stumbled onto a contemporary mystery I really liked and started reading them too.

I’m currently writing my fifteenth historical romance, and yet I have to guiltily admit that, except for books written by friends, I haven’t read a historical romance from start to finish in years. I have good intentions. I purchase e-books that sound interesting and download free copies to help other authors get exposure. I order historical romances for the library where I work and sometimes even check them out. But some other book (or books) always seems to be calling me, and I never get far into the romances before I move on.

It doesn’t help that I acquire fiction as part of my job at a public library and read dozens of reviews every month, covering fiction in all sorts of genres. I usually skim the non-fiction reviews, too, adding to my choices. When I check in the new books (to confirm the cataloging is correct, etc.) I set aside the order slips of those I’m interested in. I now have a pile about fifty order slips on my desk. I’d like to read these books, but it seems like there’s always something new and irresistible and I seldom end up going to “the pile”. I guess I’m sort of ADHD when it comes to reading for pleasure.

Lately I’m obsessed with gritty contemporary mysteries set in the British Isles. I could never write stories like these. I don’t have a good feel for contemporary dialogue and as an American, I certainly couldn’t pull off the slang or the authentic local details that make these books so intriguing to me. For the most part, I avoid portraying much violence in my own stories (they are romances, after all), while these mysteries are full of dark and disturbing scenes. They also don’t have “happily ever after” endings. Indeed, sometimes the endings are downright grim.

I suspect that my preference for reading books that are nothing like what I write is a little weird. When I read interviews with writers and they discuss their reading habits, they may mention stories that are a bit different than what they write, but not usually the complete opposite. I’ve tried to analyze why my tastes are this way. Maybe it’s because when I’m writing, I’m living in that world on a much more intense level than when I’m reading. When I’m writing as a character, I really am that character, and I don’t want them to endure too much violence, pain or suffering because I don’t want to experience it myself on that intense level.

It’s one thing to be exposed to darkness and evil vicariously. Another to feel like you’re actually living it. In the books I read, I identify and care about a lot of the characters, but I don’t become them the way I do my characters. I can read a gritty mystery and go on an exciting, vicarious ride. But I don’t envision my real self in that world.

I’ve heard other authors complain that writing fiction takes away from enjoying reading it. You become too critical of technical details, too aware of pacing flaws and places where the characterization is weak, etc. You stop reading as a reader and start reading like an editor. For the most part, I’m pretty forgiving and tolerant of these things. If I find the story compelling, I can ignore a lot of issues that might bug some of my writer friends.

At least when I’m reading non-romances. When I read a romance, it’s much harder for me to turn off the editor in my head. And even if I have no problems with the writing itself, it’s hard for me not to think about how I would write the story. That puts a distance between me and the story and makes it hard for me to really immerse myself in the book. More specifically, other authors’ fantasies are not my fantasies, and that is ultimately a very important component of the romance reading experience.

Despite all these things, I plan to keep trying to read more romance. After I get through the two mysteries and the historical novel I’m waiting to come in at the library, and that book I just ordered that sounds so interesting and well… you know the rest.

What about you other writers out there? Is there a big discrepancy between your reading and writing interests?

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Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook.