The first time I sat down to seriously write a novel, it was a historical.
Admittedly, I was reading a lot of historical romances at the time. My ex-sister-in-law and I still hung out together after her brother and I split and, though younger than me, she’d discovered the vicarious thrill of the bodice rippers.
Yep, it was back in the Jurassic era.
Or so it now seems.
At the time, I was reading mystery, not romance.
Let’s face it. I’d just broken up with my first husband, so romance wasn’t high on my list. But Judy knew I liked history. She handed me two really thick books: THE WOLF AND THE DOVE by Kathleen Woodiwiss and SWEET SAVAGE LOVE by Rosemary Rodgers. And I, like a lot of other readers, lost myself in adventurous history. Well, that and scenes that if they’d played out in my marriage, wouldn’t have seen it ending…or not ending when it did. Who knows? This is when I learned to love deliciously irresistible heroes in books more than the pastel guys in real life.
I still love my heroes. They may disappoint the heroines in their storylines, but they never disappoint me.
That’s beside the point here though. The point being that I fell hard for the historical romance as a genre.
So, as I said, the first novel I wrote from start to finish was a historical romance: BIRD OF PARADISE by Elizabeth Daniels. A book that fell at the close of the bodice ripper era and thus will never be reissued. I love the hero but can’t figure out how to take the other elements that are no longer in favor out of it.
If this makes it sound like I had an instant hit on my hands, no I did not.
I wrote this book first in the late 1970s and sent it off full of hope and cried when it came back. Though it came back with a helpful rejection letter that made suggestions, the best of which was “if you rewrite this, I’d like to see it again.” I rewrote the book completely from scratch three times over the next ten years and was ready to just shelf it and forget the dream of being a professional novelist when it suddenly sold!
Oddly enough, this all happened before I’d completed my degree in history. Late bloomer, that’s me. Didn’t go back to college until my late 30s…when I was on husband #2 – who also fell short of my romantic hero bar.
Once I had the degree, my research on the follow up book was more than double what I’d done on that first historical. But I also discovered the delight of finding specific things to use rather than just do a generalization, which, I’ll admit, was what the research on the first book amounted to.
My research got better but it also became more specific to the story.
In the second historical I dropped the names of bars, of streets, of districts, and used a real-life villain as my villain. I learned the sorts of knots a cabin boy might learn to tie, what a sadistic ship’s cook might do when his helper (heroine in disguise) got blisters on her hands that then broke. Suffice to say, it wasn’t nice much less comfortable. My heroine took it like the boy she was pretending to be.
The third historical came out under the name I was using for romantic-comedy – Beth Henderson, which I stuck with for romance after that. In looking for specific tidbits to drop into the storyline for RECKLESS, I researched luxury steam ships doing the run between the US east coast and Europe…Liverpool, England to be specific. But while combing the library shelves at the university, I stumbled upon a full year of Demorist’s Ladies’ Magazine for 1879. As I hadn’t decided on a specific year at that point…well, that gave me the specific year for my story. And a cavalcade of lady’s wear and the specific type of cloth used for each. Fortunately for me, Demorist’s clued me in about the style of bustle in fashion that year. As my heroine was a San Francisco heiress, she managed to stay very much in style for the duration of her story. Well, probably after that, too.
And then an even more wonderous piece of historical data fell in my lap.
A reprint of a Victorian Ordinance Map. All I had to do is decide where in England my hero’s home was then buy the map in question. It supplied me with the names of farms, of manor houses, of copses, of streams, of hills, of the railroad nearest where I plunked the Hawk’s Run estate. I once read that if a character in a Louis L’Amour book stopped at a stream or a watering hole, that if you went to the same location, you’d find that same stream or watering hole and the surroundings would be just as they were painted in the book. Well, any time traveler visiting that specific area of Shropshire in the 1870s-1880s would find the same things that were dropped into RECKLESS. I’ve often wondered whether the landmarks are still known by these names today. I’ll bet the chances are good that they are, though maybe the railway name has changed.
For the follow up book, WICKED, I headed back to Gilded Age San Francisco, where it wasn’t just street names and other features worked into the story, it was events like the funeral of Norton I, the self-styled Emperor of the United States. It was the ways thieves culled a crowd and where they went to look over their take and possibly sell it. I’d even seen an antique pocket watch with a very naughty bit of clockwork inside it that I worked into the haul.
AT TWILIGHT began with the discovery of an 1870s map of Texas that marked an outlaw hideout not far off the San Antonio road between the city and the Mexican border. I’ve talked about this research in many a workshop…and will again. Why? Because one reviewer gave what I felt was the best comment a historical writer can possibly get. They said, the “attention to historical detail is [so] thorough…it actually seems like it’s really 1868.”
And, in the upcoming workshop TAKE READERS TIME TRAVELING BY DROPPING IN SMALL PERIOD DETAILS, that’s what we’ll be after…the detail that really makes the reader feel like they are in the historical era wherein your story plays out. The workshop runs October 14th through November 10. In other words, very doable before the madness of the holidays hits!
I hope to see you there – virtually, of course – and rarin’ to find details to sweeten the story you’re writing. Not only can it take readers on a trip into the past without the use of H.G. Well’s time machine or Dr. Who’s TARDIS, these data bits will take YOU and your characters there as well.
Although she’s had “prequel” novellas available at Amazon since last year, the first of the Raven Tale novels, Raven’s Moon, launches from Burns and Lea Books October 8th this year.