Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writing Historical Romance

I write western historical novels because I love that time period. The old west was raw, hard, and character building. To survive, the people had to have exemplary strength and determination. But, my fascination doesn’t end with the pioneers; I’ve always had an unexplained interest in the history of American Indians, so much so that I wonder if I lived a previous life as one. By writing about them, I can help alter the perception that TV westerns have fostered—that the red man was always the bad guy. In two previous novels, I focused on the customs and traditions of the Lakota Sioux. I tried to portray them as the proud people they were.

I often wonder if readers realize that writing an historical is much more time consuming than say writing a contemporary or suspense. Although the story is fictional, the facts to support history have to be accurate and true. The language has to fit the period as does the dress, and the gadgets available at the time. Back in the 1800s, which is the era of my choice, kids were goats, mothers were Ma, not Mom, and fathers were Pa, not Dad. The idea is not to overwhelm the reader with a history lesson, but pepper the story with facts that relate to the scenes and characters.

In writing my first novel, I had my hero delivering his bride to in a shack in the middle of the prairie. I described her reaction to a rundown house, grass growing through the wooden shutters, a few pieces of splintered furniture. When I described the rooms, I also described a heavy iron stove. My editor was quick to point out that a deserted shack was more likely to have a fireplace and hearth where cooking was performed, and that the abode wasn’t likely to be more than one big room. Thank God, for editors who help us learn our craft. Now, when I write about a room, I put myself back in the time period and see through the hero or heroines eyes what should be there. If there is a question in my mind, I research the object and see exactly when it was invented.

There’s no faster way to lose your credibility as an historical author than to yank your reader out of the story by having written about something that doesn’t fit the time. Imagine my Sarah, dressed in gingham, with her bonnet securely tied under her chin, coming in from the barn, carrying a pail of fresh milk. She sets the heavy container on the floor, and deciding to have some more coffee, pops a cup in the microwave to heat it. WAIT a minute. Something is wrong with this picture, and although I’ve used a very obvious discrepancy in time, you’d be surprised how quickly some historical readers are to pick up on even the slightest faux pas.

Still, despite the extra time and effort required, historical writing is my preference. My heroine in Sarah’s Journey is the kind of person I strive to be. I want her survival strength, determination, and her ability to stand up to people when others are mistreated. I want to right the wrongs of humanity, and if only through becoming Sarah for a brief time, I can show my readers how badly people of half blood were treated and how hard life was in the old west. I can hold up my head, trudge along the Oregon Trail and wonder what looms over the next horizon. Sarah’s Journey is a historical fiction but more so a story about a woman’s struggle to find a new life, deal with disappointment, and handle the realization that she loves a man that no one in the world but her is ready to accept. I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it. It doesn’t have a “traditional ending” but that’s all I’m going to say. You either GET it or you don't.

I asked a fellow author at Eternal Press to do a review of Sarah's Journey for me. He said the only western-type book he'd read was Shane, but he would give it a try. I picked this part from his lovely summary to share with you. Robert Appleton made my day when he posted:

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Simpson’s recreation of Western life. The word that kept coming to mind as I read this story was uncompromising. Little is omitted, whether it be gruesome wounds, the preparation of herbs and food, Sarah’s body language, or the precise terms for the different noises made by a horse. I loved seeing all this research come to life. The author’s passion for the period and particularly for her characters shone throughout. This was clearly a labour of love.

And he's right. Every book I've written is a favorite for different reasons, but I have a very soft spot in my heart for Sarah and Wolf and I think it showed. *smile*


Marie Higgins said...

I have always loved your stories, but since you know I'm a fan of historicals, your historicals are my favorite. (grins)

I totally agree with your post. Writers must write the setting and dialogue to fit the time period or it yanks me out of the story. I remember critiquing a story a few years ago. My author friend was writing a historical, but clear back in the 16 or 1700's. Anyway, she used the word 'hello'. I don't know why but it yanked me out of the story. When I researched the word, I discovered it wasn't used until the late 1800's. Go figger, huh? lol


Lin said...

You know how much I love you, Gonger. You are one of the most conscientious authors I know. Paying attnetion to detail is vital no matter what era you are writing about. Even a contemporary romance must have all it's facets fit the current life we live. For instance if I were to write to today's youth, I'd better make sure I took an indepth crash course in the lingo they use when texting, or the reader is goign to fgure it out in a nonosecond that I am not as cool and Justin Bieber.

You are such an inspiration to a newbie author like me and I thank you for that.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great post, Ginger. I know I strive to keep the historical facts straight. I have a big boo-boo in a Victorian historical I wrote, which didn't jump off the page until it was in print. I have the heroine saying 'It's okay.' Gag me! How did I, the editor and multiple critiquers miss that?

Still, do you find it odd when people argue with you about something you know is fact, but they think is fiction, because Hollywood doesn't have it that way?

Larion aka Larriane Wills said...

oh, yes, Kathryn, Hollywood used, still used a lot of literary license. I'm okay with okay though as most of mine were written in the time period after the civil war. :-) still I'm very careful not to have them using weapon that wasn't invented yet and agree totally that even though it takes more time in the writing to research, the product is well worth it. good going.

Margaret Tanner said...

Wonderful blog Ginger.
I agree one hundred percent with what you said. Except you omitted to mention what a great writer you are, you have such a feel for the old west and it truly comes out in your stories.
Being an historical writer myself, I know how much research you need to put into a story, how exacting you must be, because if someone finds a mistake, you have lost your credibility.





Cate Masters said...

Great post, Ginger! It took me literally years to write the two historical novels coming out this year because of all the research. But then, I love research. :) As you well know, authenticating details can make or break a historical. Enough so the reader can feel the time period, but not feel like they're in a museum. :)

Kat said...

I like to do research for stories, but this is why I wouldn't write a historical. I'd be too worried about getting the facts of the time period right. You are correct, it is more time consuming than people realize.

Anita Davison said...

Ginger, I agree with everything here. You put a lot of heart into your stories and I have never encountered anything that doesn't fit, or 'jars'. As I said in a review I did for you once: 'You will hear the jingle of a bridle and smell wet leather as you read.'

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