Party Guest Katharine Ashe, on How Much Historical Research is Enough?

Today’s book launch party guest is Katharine Ashe. Katharine (www.katharineashe.com) is a professor of European history who has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US. RT Book Reviews awarded her debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, a “Top Pick!” review.

This is a great post on how to use research for your stories, and it applies to all genres, not just romance!

How Much Historical Detail in a Romance is Enough?

In the prologue of my Regency-era historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, the hero, an Englishman in revolutionary Paris, encounters a villainous French politician in a dark  alley. Before I wrote that scene, I thoroughly researched suitable raiment for such a Frenchman. Did I describe it in detail in the scene? No, ma’am.

Why not?

Two reasons.

First, most folks who read historical romance already have an idea of period clothing. They’ve seen a historical film or two (or sixty), many of them with excellent costuming. Those images are lurking in the backs of their memories waiting to be revived upon the slightest suggestion.

Second, and much more importantly, most romance readers don’t care. Most. I certainly read historical romance for the sumptuous gowns, elegant tailcoats, gorgeous horses pulling fancy carriages, and heart-fluttering gentlemanly address. But as a reader I don’t need to hear about every gold-plated pressed copper button and imported Indian silk damask furbelow. Some of that, for sure! Just not all. Nor do I need to know every political or cultural detail of the era. Only the essentials that drive the romantic plot.

Here’s an example of what I mean. The first third of my book takes place aboard a French pirate ship. The hero, Lord Steven Ashford, is pretending to be a Frenchman, and the heroine, Lady Valerie Monroe, is fluent in French (as Englishwomen of her class in that era typically were). So if I were going to be perfectly historically accurate I would write all of this dialogue in French. Ye-ah. Was my first draft of this manuscript layered with French? Without doubt. Is the final book? Zut alors! Non.

One reviewer called SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS “highly sensual, the plot riveting and the backdrop vividly detailed.” Please note which comes last amongst those descriptors. This is not trivial. A romance novelist’s attention should be fixed firmly upon the romance. Everything else is secondary.

Want to see how “minimalist” to a writer becomes “vividly detailed” to a reader? Here’s that bit from my prologue about the French politician. Every detail.

The man they awaited appeared in the mist of rain-flecked lantern light at the alley’s end. Steven steadied himself, sensing Maximin’s same ready tension.

The caped figure strode down the narrow street, his tricorne ladling tiny waterfalls in three directions. Then, as though aware of danger, he paused.

“Who is there?” The downpour consumed his cultured accents. He continued forward more slowly, peering to either side.

That’s it. A cape, a tricorne, and a cultured accent. A few sentences later I gave him a sword at his hip — a sword that causes our hero no little trouble and later in the book results in a sultry forbidden gaze from our heroine.

There’s my point in a nutshell. Historical detail is crucial, but only in so far as it serves the romance.

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How do you decide what historical details to use in your stories? Leave a comment be entered into the drawing to win a free copy of Swept Away by a Kiss!

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13 Responses to Party Guest Katharine Ashe, on How Much Historical Research is Enough?

  1. I loved this post! I’m a lover of history (got myself a degree in History) and a writer of historical fiction. This was actually very helpful for me, as sometimes I struggle with how historically accurate I need to be about certain things, and what details I really need to include. Thanks for the post!

    • I’m so glad, Chantal! It’s so hard when you just love love love history — as we do! — not to put every single little detail on the page. But we can still immerse ourselves in all that historical yumminess if we just figure out when and how it will best serve our hero and heroine’s relationship. Happy writing to you!

  2. Jenny Brown says:

    LOL on the French. Years ago I posted a chapter online where a French character used the expression, “ma petite” only to have a visitor comment, “Why did you have to put in all that Italian.”

    • Kelly L Stone says:

      :)

      • Marvelous, Jenny. My students at the university wonder all the time why scholars writing in English will leave some medieval source examples in Latin. I tell them that most scholars are talking amongst themselves, not expecting non-experts to be reading their work. But that is definitely not the case with romance fiction. The wonderful thing about romance is that it embraces every kind of reader! :)

  3. Janel says:

    I don’t write historical fiction, but lately I have been thinking about description. How much is too much? I think it is better to leave a little to the reader’s imagination, so she can fill in the blanks and make the image of the hero more appealing to her.

    • Hi, Janel. For sure. There’s definitely an element of taste involved here, too. Some folks like a lot of physical description up front, others find it distracting. I like to give a little description–the essentials–for instance if your heroine has fiery red hair, or your hero has particularly sexy cheeks. Things like that. It can be effective to have other characters comment on other characters’ appearances to add to this. For instance, the hero’s short, balding best friend laughingly scoffs, “Your dark brooding good looks and blasted broad shoulders turn all the ladies’ heads.” Then you haven’t had to list physical characteristics like on a resume, and you’ve instead offered information about the hero’s relationship with both his best friend and women he encounters. Sound good to you?

  4. Hello Katherine & Kelly!

    Katherine thank you so much for your post. You answered several questions I’d been asking myself about my own WIP.

    My critique partner, J Perry, and I have long chats about period details…what to put in, what to leave out, what to pare down. So, I research a lot, write in all the details in my head, then try to keep to just enough (I hope) on the page.

    I want to give my reader a good sense of time and place, but don’t want them to get so bogged down in the minutiae that s/he starts skipping forward. So, I’m constantly fretting over whether or not I’ve veered into the “TMI” zone…or have I left out too much?

    Thanks again for the post. Most enlightening.

    • Thanks, Cinthia. I’m so glad! It’s wonderful to have critique partners to help with this sort of thing. I also like what I’ve heard folks call beta readers. For me these are non-writer friends who love and read lots of historical romance. They can tell me what they think without being wrapped up in all the behind-the-scenes stuff we writers are always thinking about when we read someone’s work.

      Happy writing to you! :)

  5. Kelly L Stone says:

    Chantal you are the winner of the giveaway! Congrats!

  6. It’s posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!

  7. Cookbooks says:

    After reading this I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this post together. Once again I find myself spending way to much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

  8. Pokerspiel says:

    I always inspired by you, your views and way of thinking, again, thanks for this nice post.

    - Murk