07-14-18 Cassandra O’Leary

Thursday, September 27, 2012


The most important aspect of writing a good historical novel is that you must be passionate about your subject. You might get away without this passion in contemporaries but you won’t in historicals.

Historical accuracy is paramount. Without this, your novel is doomed and so are you.

A friend of mine read a novel from a well known author and found a glaring historical inaccuracy, which should never have been written by the author in the first place. It certainly should have been picked up by the editor, but it wasn’t. My friend has never bought another book from this author because she says, I can’t trust her anymore.

You should always write about an era that you are interested in. I am not into Vikings or Regency, so it would be tedious trying to do the research required for this, and I wouldn’t have the passion about it, and I am sure this would show in my writing.

Research options are many and varied now. The internet (use with caution unless you are certain that the person who posted knows what they are talking about).

Library reference books are a great place to start.
Cemeteries (as long as you aren’t scared of spiders and snakes).
Quizzing elderly relatives (depending, of course, on which era you are writing about). 2nd World War, Vietnam, Great Depression – all o.k. because they would have lived during these times.
Reading family diaries and/or letters.
Actually visiting places where your story takes place or somewhere similar is a must, if possible.

I visited an old jail (now a tourist attraction) for my novel, Daring Masquerade, because my heroine was jailed for being a spy. I wanted to see what it was like. The walls were solid bluestone and cold, even on a warm day. The cell was small, and I swear there was a spooky aura about the place. I took a notebook with me and jotted down these feeling as they came to me.

Depending on what you are writing, for your settings I think it is imperative to name some towns or cities near to where your stories are going to be played out.

You must know the area, either by having visited it, or careful research. You need to know what grows there, the terrain, climate etc. I always set most of my stories in Australia in North Eastern Victoria, because I know the area well. Mention a few main towns, but I am never too specific, because you can get easily caught out. (I am talking historical romance here, not a text book on history). I always make up a fake town near a main town or city.

In my novel, Wild Oats, set in 1916, I said the heroine lived at Dixon’s Siding (made up name) i.e. They left the farm at Dixon’s Siding, and after riding for an hour (I am talking horseback here,) reached Wangaratta, which is a major town in the area.
I purposely did not say that Dixon’s Siding was (exactly 10 miles west of Wangaratta at the fork of the Smith/Jones Road, because I didn’t know for sure, that there wasn’t a giant lake there or a massive quarry there in 1916. I probably could have found out with more research, but it wasn’t really necessary.

A little quiz, to show you what I mean.
From my novel, Lauren's Dilemma
1.30a.m., 25th April 1915. Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey
Danny shivered in the chilly air as he waited on the deck of the troopship. In the darkness he couldn’t see land, even though someone said it was less than three miles away. When his turn came, he climbed down the rope ladder and found himself in an open boat. Excitement surged through him. He had traveled halfway around the world for this moment and was keen to give a good account of himself.

A.    The soldiers landed at 0130 hours, not 1.30a.m. No soldier would say 1.30a.m. The army always uses the 24 hour clock

My work in progress is set in 1854
On arrival at the homestead, Melanie unsaddled the mare and let her loose in the stockyards James had constructed from split logs. Surprising how neglected a house became after being left empty for a few days
Within 5 minutes she had dusted the kitchen and was sitting down having a cup of hot milky tea?

Where did she get the milk?  Not from the refrigerator. She would have had to milk the cow first. The water would have to be boiled on a wood stove? She would have had to light the stove, maybe even cut the wood. (No microwaves in those days).

In my novel, Daring Masquerade set in 1916, the heroine, desperate to find out what has happened to her husband who is missing in action, rings up a family friend who is a Colonel in the army. She punches in the telephone number and anxiously waits for him to pick up the phone.

No, she lives in the country, so she would have contacted the operator, dialled the exchange etc. And she certainly didn’t use a mobile phone. And, on her wedding night, her nightgown was exquisite, a soft, white polyester, lavishly trimmed with lace.

No polyester in those days, it would have been cotton, silk or even satin.

Know the area you are writing about
This is an extreme example, but it does happen. 

England - It was December, the sun streamed down from a cloudless blue sky and Amy felt so hot she didn’t know how she would be able to walk back to the railway station.

Of course, in England in December, it would be winter time. Here in Australia it is summer.

You must be aware of modern language and slang, and don’t use it.

A poor, uneducated person wouldn’t speak the same way as a rich, educated person.

There are lots of traps for the unwary, but historical romance writing is very rewarding and if done correctly, can transport your reader back to another time and place full of daring exploits and handsome, swashbuckling heroes.

My novella, We Never Said I Love You, has just been released by my publisher, Books We Love, and costs 99 cents on Amazon and Smashwords.

Wounded soldier, Adrian Bancroft, has a whirlwind romance with his nurse. A foolish misunderstanding leads to a heated argument and he and Julie part in bitterness.

With the black clouds of war hovering overhead, he returns to the hospital to sort things out with the woman he loves, but Julie has been banished because she is pregnant. Amidst the chaos of wartime London, he begins a desperate search for her.


Judith Ashley said...


I love this post! and your examples are spot on!! Sometimes it is the simple things that are the most infuriating...of course in the 1800's it would take more than 5 minutes to brew a cup of milky tea.

And while I knew the example about making the telephone call was the problem, I'd stopped at 'punched' remembering the dial we used when I was little. But then with your example I remembered picking up the receiver and the operator came on. You told her who you wanted to talk to and were connected.

The challenge in writing contemporaries can be in the setting. I've fictionalized my home town because there are a couple of scenes I want set in a particular place and the buildings I need don't exist there.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Judith,
There are challenges with all types of writing. I have seen some blatant msitakes in contemporaries too. So you do need to research them to a certain extent. Writing in a setting/country you are not familiar with or haven't researched well can lead to mistakes if you haven't done your homework.



Sarah Raplee said...

Margaret, I learned so much from your post! I haven't written a historical, but am planning a Steampunk set in the 1880s American West, so I'm doing a lot of research. This is very timely information for me. Thank you!