Historical romance showcases an interesting period, along with the requisite fun facts and tidbits, in an emotional and uplifting story about two people falling in love. It’s a great way for readers to immerse themselves in another time and place without getting bogged down in a tome. The key to writing historical romance is to remember that first and foremost you’re writing a romance, not a history book. In this post, I’ll share how to balance research with plot so you can write an engaging page turner that also takes a reader into a wrinkle in time.
Plot Comes First
The definition of a romance is a story where the central focus is on the growing relationship between the hero and heroine. The other rule? It must have a happy ending. If you hit these points, you’ve written a romance. It’s crucial that you keep story at the forefront of your manuscript. Although you will be setting it in the past, and certainly external plot points are important, don’t lose track of your ultimate goal with the book. Plot around the romance.
Emotion is Key
People read romance because they want the thrill, fear, longing, and lust of falling in love. It’s one of the most exciting and bewildering experiences humans have. Although romance is sometimes demeaned as being “just for women” or “too light,” what is more essential to life than love and relationships? What is more consuming? Readers don’t want to see two people have a great first date and a year later get engaged. We want the ups and downs. We want the emotional upheaval, the will-they-or-won’t-they? These elements are not secondary to a romance. They’re primary. Don’t let your interest in history derail you from the reason you’re writing the book.
Layer in Research
Although readers want to fall in love right along with your characters, they pick up historical romance (as opposed to contemporary or fantasy romance, for instance) because they like to be transported in time. To send them back to the future, you’ll need to do your homework. Details like social norms, wardrobe, technology, pop culture, major historical events, famous people, etc, will not only be window dressing. It will be crucial for the story. Readers want to know if that ripped bodice has bone stays or buttons—don’t disappoint.
Oftentimes it’s easy to get so excited about the fun facts you discover that you want to add them all in. It’s okay to put the kitchen sink in your first draft but be mindful in your revisions to discard anything that makes your novel sound like an encyclopedia. If it’s not pertinent to the story or if it weighs down your pacing—get rid of it. Also, be sure to sprinkle in historical details like they’re seasoning on a dish. Each bite, or paragraph, should have a taste of history, but no one is reading romance for pages upon pages of description—even if it is sort of interesting. Story first, always.
Historical Facts as Plot Points
Setting your book in a time with limited technology, as we would see it from our modern perspective, can aid your plotting. After all, there’s more inherent conflict and difficulties when you can’t pick up your phone and call for help. The limited access to communications and other things we take for granted can amp up the action in a story. And this is to say nothing of gun battles, train robberies, and other hijinks of history. These historical facts can drive story—let them.
Expand Your Horizons
Let’s say you find the Civil War time period interesting. Instead of focusing on history many people know (like rewriting Gone with the Wind), turn your attention to lesser known history. Are there groups, subcultures, or communities you could highlight? Get out of your comfort zone and definitely go beyond the suppositions and stereotypes we have of the past.
A great example of this comes from author Beverly Jenkins. She is a historical romance novelist who writes about an all-Black community in Kansas during Reconstruction. Her novels are free of the sad stories about the fate of Blacks in the post-Civil War era. Instead, her characters live self-actualized lives as seamstresses, shopkeepers, and outlaws—and they have the chance to fall in love. Look for untold stories, and you might find a best seller.