Research: Setting Your Historical Romance

By Tina St. John

In late 1994, I quit my full-time job to try my hand at writing a novel. Yes, it was an enormous risk, and yes, I have a very understanding and supportive husband. Naively, I expected to complete my book by year’s end — never mind that said book consisted of less than fifty pages of a pre-Civil War time-travel idea that was going nowhere fast. Around Christmas, I had made no real progress and I began to panic. The story wasn’t coming together at all. Even worse, I was bored to death of it. How was I going to break the news to my husband that I had nothing to show for my four months of “full-time writing” at home?

I was in my car, pondering my immediate and utter failure as a novelist when I was hit with a sudden, blinding flash of inspiration. An old U2 song came on the radio, and, like a scene from a movie, I watched as a new story began to unfold before my eyes. Well, maybe not an entire story, but rather, a scene. A very compelling scene of a young boy fleeing from a band of armed men on horseback. He was beaten, crying, and running for his life. It was so vivid, so emotional, I just knew I had to write it. The only problem was, the scene was, without question, medieval. A subject about which I knew nothing. Where to begin?

The Internet had not really taken shape yet then, so I started my search for information at my local library. I read encyclopedias and general histories on England — including children’s books — learning what I could on a cursory level about feudal society and life in the middle ages. After some investigation, I found a brief biography on King Stephen (1138-1153). It was said that while he reigned, God and His saints slept. Stephen’s noble barons ran wild in England, plundering and pillaging their neighbors, making war without consequence or reprimand. Based on that one observation, I knew I had found my perfect setting.

Once I determined where and when to set my book, I read voraciously within that period — everything from reference books and biographies to other historical romance novels set in my chosen era. I delved deeper into the history of the twelfth century, specializing and allowing my curiosity to lead me where it would. As I read, I started my own glossary of terms, jotting down period words and adding their definitions for easy reference. I photocopied costume etchings and made a binder for all of my notes and pictures. I collected reams of information and grabbed up every book I could find on medieval culture. I could have easily spent another year immersing myself in the history of England in the middle ages, but sooner or later, I knew I would have to start writing. The question was, how much of this fascinating information should I include?

You’ve probably heard reviewers criticize historical romance novels for either not enough history to make the story seem real, or too much history that overpowers the romance. While it really comes down to the author’s personal style, I believe the trick to a commercially successful romance novel is to keep your historical content somewhere between pretty “wallpaper” and the primary focus of your story. It should provide a foundation and a framework for your story, but never forget that your focus — and your reader’s focus — should be rooted on the characters and their budding romance. Resist the temptation to show off all that you have learned about your setting. Your knowledge of setting and timeframe will show in the detail you leave out, as much as it will show in the detail you choose to include.

Another temptation to resist is that of bending historical fact or people to suit your story. If you know King Richard was on crusade in 1191, don’t put him in England just so he can interact with your fictional characters. The same goes for historic battles. If you have to change a date or location of a well-known battle, then perhaps it’s not the right battle to include in your book.

On the flip side, there are some instances where a little harmless bending of facts can help make your story or scene clearer to the reader. For example, in my next book, Black Lion’s Bride, which is set in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, I have the English hero and Muslim heroine playing chess together. Chess, I discovered through my research, actually originated in Arabia (or China, depending on who you believe) and was brought to England and France by the crusaders in Richard’s army. What a fun and serendipitous fact! The game was called shatranj, but the board, the moves, and most of the pieces were similar to the later European chess. (For history buffs, the winning move in shatranj was called shah mat which meant “the king is dead.” This later became anglicized to “check mate” in European chess.) Rather than confuse readers with the Arabic names of the pieces, wherever possible I either described them, or gave them the more widely recognized European names. It’s a brief scene, and the chess game is used as background to the sexual tension between the characters, but thanks to historic fact and a little creative “massaging” of a detail or two, it’s got an historically authentic feel to it. (Plus I feel pretty darned clever for being able to weave it into the story!)

In addition to reference texts and biographies in researching your setting, don’t discount travel guides and other unconventional sources of information. I recently found my new favorite resource for settings while browsing my local B&N. Have you heard of the Knopf Travel Guide series? Even better than my old favorite, the DK Guides, the Knopf books are filled with full-color photographs and drawings on everything from regional flora and fauna, to geography, architecture, and clothing. There’s even a section on history, which will give you a nice starting place as you begin your study of your chosen setting.

While you’re digging for history for your book, don’t limit your research to politics and culture of your chosen timeframe and/or place. Read as much and as widely as you can, probing deeper into the fiber of your setting for greater texture and ideas. And keep an open mind– you never know what fascinating little surprises you might uncover in your investigation. You might even find the plot for your next book.

Which makes a nice segue into my next topic: Plotting!

Tina St. John’s medieval romances (Ballantine Books) have won numerous writing awards, including the National Readers’ Choice and the Booksellers Best. Her novel Black Lion’s Bride, sequel to 2002 RWA RITA Finalist, White Lion’s Lady, was a Featured Alternate Selection at Doubleday’s Rhapsody Bookclub. For more info on Tina’s books, or for links to more writing tips, see Tina St. John’s website. Tina St. John also writes under her best-selling pen name Lara Adrian.

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