Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Adding Detail to Historical Romance

Last night I finished writing a guest post which (hopefully) will appear in December on 4covert2overt - A Day in the Spotlight. The piece was about putting detail into your historical romance novels and making sure that a) you’ve got enough in there, and b) it’s accurate.

I won’t rehash the article, but after it was done I decided I want to say a bit more on the subject. What prompted me to write the post was a reader review on Amazon for Legend of the Mist (my latest novel, for those of you that don’t know). In it, the reader said: “the author took quite a bit of information from the ancient times and made it relevant for me.”

I’m thrilled to hear stuff like that, because obviously that is the most challenging part of historical romance: making it believable and relevant. I’ve had comments and reviews like this before, where the authenticity of my historical detail is praised.  I’ve even had someone remark that they thought I was an expert in the genre.

No, I’m not sounding my own horn, I actually have a point. And here it is …

I’m not an expert. Not even close.

What you see in my novels is the result of a combination of critical thinking and a lot of Googling. And here’s the other thing … it’s not a difficult skill to master; anyone can do it.

Take, as an example, Legend of the Mist. In it, the brochs of ancient Scotland are a key feature. I describe not only what they were used for, but also how they were constructed in enough detail that they are easy to visualize.

But believe it or not, up until February, 2013 when I read Monica McCarty’s The Chief (in which a broch was featured) I had no real concept of what a broch was. All I knew was that it was an ancient stone structure that had fallen out of use by the time of Robert the Bruce. What that structure was for and what it looked like I had no idea.

It could just as easily have been a commode as a castle for all I knew!

To find out, I Googled “what is a broch,” and (besides the occasional image tagged with a misspell of “brooch”) I got enough information to describe one. Only then did I decide to add it to my story. If I hadn’t read The Chief there would probably be no broch in Legend of the Mist.

I can give another example from my first novel, Bride of Dunloch. In it, I had to figure out how Jane would have boiled water alone in the woods to care for a wounded enemy warrior named Robbie. And, of course, the first image that popped into my head was a cast iron cauldron hanging over a fire on a tripod.

This is where critical thinking came in handy. I had to ask: how realistic would that have been? Did peasants use tripods? What about hunters and nomads? It’s unlikely that tiny, feminine Jane would have snuck a heavy tripod from Dunloch castle out into the woods in the middle of the night.

It was then that I realized I would need another way for her to boil water.

So I looked it up by Googling “how did people cook in ancient times?” And not long after I found the specifics of stone boiling, where stones heated by fire were dropped in pots of water to create a boil.

There’s no secret to knowing that kind of detail. It’s nothing more than knowing when to ask the questions.

This is an easy skill to acquire if you are a writer of historical fiction. What I do, anyone can do. When you’re in the writing stage the internet should be your best friend. Assess your manuscript with a critical eye and determine where detail is required (hint: lots of places – the more the better). Then look the detail up to ensure it’s accurate. This is what will make your historical novel stand out and resonate with authenticity.

Remember: your readers are investing a lot of time and effort in you and your historical romance. What better way to show them you appreciate it by investing time in the detail that they want to see?

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