Checking the Facts
I love historical research. I love finding out strange and interesting facts, and I love incorporating real-life events and people into my stories. But how much history do you really need in a historical romance?
A little goes a long way. There’s nothing worse than a history lesson in the middle of a romance, but there’s also nothing worse than a story which relies on a historical fact or event and doesn’t explain it. A common trick, and one that works really well, is to have one character ask another to explain: ‘who were the British allies in the Crimea?’ for example, or ‘tell me why the plaid was banned after Culloden?’ Alternatively, you can put in a historical note, but I’ve found that a lot of people don’t read these at all, or they read them at the end, which kind of misses the point. It’s a balancing act, trying to decide how much you need to tell the reader, especially if it’s a subject dear to your heart, but I’d bet most historical writers incorporate less than a tenth of their research.
So where to start? The easiest answer to that is, with what you already know, but that’s not always possible. When I was asked to write a historical sheikh story, I was starting from zilch. It’s easy enough to find out the facts about an era – who was fighting with whom, who was in power, etc – but it’s more difficult to find out what it was really like to live then. Memoirs, biographies and letters are great for this. Lady Hester Stanhope’s travels to Arabia were a first class source for my heroine Celia in Innocent in the Sheikh’s Harem, as were the experiences of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who visited a harem in Turkey, and another obscure biography that my local library turned up for me. That same librarian found a selection of children’s educational books for me about the desert which were invaluable, and she also recommended the same series of school texts when I had to research the Titanic for A Date with Destiny.
But far more than facts and dates, it’s the detail in a historical romance that gives the reader a sense of time and place. Costumes and furniture are great for ambiance. I have a copy of Le Repertoire de la Cuisine, which is basically a reference guide to Escoffier, which I use when describing a dinner. There’s nothing like a bit of Gaelic for reminding the reader she’s in the Highlands, though you do need to be very careful with that language. For my Legend of the Faol series, I asked some of my Gaelic-speaking relatives to translate the motto, Beware! For I am come!, and got five different versions. After that, I decided to stick with English translations of Gaelic sayings, and found it easier still to invent my own.
Wherever possible, I like to incorporate places I know and artefacts I’ve seen, into my stories. The clock in the opening scene of Outrageous Confessions of Lady Deborah is in Glasgow’s Art Gallery, as is the chocolate pot used by Isabella in The Captain’s Wicked Wager. The description of Lachlan’s boatyard in The Highlander and the Sea Siren comes straight from my mum’s recollections of her uncle’s yard in the real Port of Ness where the story is set. Castles, ferry inns, taverns and cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, which I know inside out, feature in a few of my books. I wrote a whole different ending for The Highlander’s Return set in Glasgow’s Merchant City which was then scrapped, but I recycled the descriptions of the city and the Merchant’s graveyard when I came to writing the ending of The Lady Who Broke the Rules. All my research into the Hope diamond was lost when I deleted most of the crime caper element from Rake with a Frozen Heart, but it’s a part of the Hope diamond that Elliot steals in Outrageous Confessions of Lady Deborah. It pays to keep drafts and copious notes, believe me.
Incorporating obscure facts into a story is a really effective way of lending authenticity to a setting. I read about the fight between ‘Hen’ Pearce (the Game Chicken!) and John Gully, in Nicholas Foulkes’ excellent book on the Derby, Gentlemen and Blackguards. It’s mentioned only fleetingly in Lady Deborah, but it has that smack of being real that makes a huge difference. Or so I like to think.
Another trick, is to use real lives as the basis for your characters’ achievements. In my contribution to the upcoming Castonbury Park series, The Lady Who Broke the Rules, my hero Virgil is a freed black slave who has become an immensely successful businessman and philanthropist. How realistic was this in 1816? My research uncovered Robert Purvis, the son of a slave whose life seemed to mirror my hero’s exactly. Purvis was about fifteen years younger than Virgil, but provided you own up to it, I think it’s fine to take a few liberties with dates.
Right now, I’m reading up on the Romantic movement in art for my current Regency, and I’m researching the Crimean War for a brand new idea. I’ve got a lovely new stack of books on all things Victorian to work my way through. I love research.
Links and Info
You can find out more about my books on my website, www.margueritekaye.com
My latest Harlequin Historical, Outrageous Confessions of Lady Deborah, will be released in August in the UK, US and Canada.
Flirting with Ruin, the novella prequel to the upcoming Regency upstairs/downstairs series, Castonbury Park, is out now and available free for the month of July in the UK and US.