If you write historical romance, you’re probably an expert on researching your chosen era. We want our stories to feel authentic, and each new scene brings another set of questions to answer. Where exactly did one buy yellow roses in Regency England? How long did it take to travel from London to Constantinople in 1536? Did they have butter on the Oregon Trail? And when exactly did The Season start?
Most writers have a few treasured sources for answers to such questions. Whether using social histories or biographies, maps or cookbooks, a serious researcher learns how to find answers quickly. Personally, I am fond of the children’s non-fiction section of the library because those books are full of pictures and descriptions of how things worked. But my absolute favorites are primary sources like period letters, journals, city directories, and newspaper advertisements. The internet has made these treasures readily available. So why look any farther?
Well, before you submit that manuscript, you’ll need to check one more source: Hollywood films.
These days, people get their notions of history from the movies. Schools have cut back on history in order to devote more time to technology. So for many, history is whatever Hollywood says it is. If your vision of the past differs greatly from those images, you may have a problem.
When I first started writing, I was often confused if readers questioned my research. I’d double check my facts, and then argue the case for historical accuracy. But I soon learned that it really doesn’t matter if your historical facts are accurate. If the reader believes the details are wrong, then she will be yanked out of the story.
It doesn’t take a major historical debate to ruin a romantic scene. Recently, three friends stumbled over my use of the word “Yanks” in a Civil War story. They all felt certain that the shortened version was a World War II construct. Their argument? In Gone with The Wind, the actors always said “Yankees.” I looked it up and "Yanks" has been around since 1788. But I took it out anyway.
Why? Because this is popular fiction. In the reader’s mind, the fictional world we create has to coexist with popular, pre-existing images of what the era is like. While a college professor might be impressed with my etymology, the romance reader wants to be swept away by the love story. We have to remove anything that might interfere with that experience. Gone with The Wind trumps The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology every time.
Does this mean I always change my story if someone complains about my version of history? No. A contest judge told me the heroine in my Oregon Trail story should “simply take the train.” The story was set in 1847 and the transcontinental railroad was not complete until 1869. So I didn't change it. I would never intentionally make that kind of error.
So how about you? What are your favorite historical sources? How do you respond when popular perceptions conflict with your careful research? And where do you draw the line on taking poetic license with historical facts?