Writing Historical Romances….How Do You Get Into the Historical Mindset?

I asked for questions you might have, so I could answer them by video.  One question I got was how to best write a historical novel.  In addition to answering this in video, I’ll write out my answer so if you’re unable to play the video, you can read it.  (The video is 8.5 minutes long.  In the future, I hope to get the videos to less than 5 minutes.)

When you’re starting out with historical fiction, it can be intimidating because we live in a  contemporary world where we got so used to modern conveniences, we don’t naturally think “historical”.  But if your heart is set in writing historical fiction, such as historical romance, don’t let the fear of not being fully authentic to the time period stop you from your dream.

If you take a look at my reviews, especially of my older books such as An Inconvenient Marriage, you’ll find I didn’t so well when I started out in historical romances.  But you know what?  It’s all a learning curve.  You get better with each book you write.  You will get a better feel for the time period with each new book.  And before you know it, when you start a new book, you’ll feel like you’re right there.  These days when I do historical western romances, I truly do feel like I’m in the middle of that time period.  I can see, hear, and smell things clearly.  It took me about four years before I was comfortable writing it, and I started back in 2007.

So I get how intimidating it can be.  It intimidated me, too, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most historically authentic historical romance writer out there.  But to be honest, the historical romance time period in genre fiction is wallpaper.  It’s not the focus of the story.

Always Keep Your Focus on the Main Character

Everything in every scene of every book needs to have at its core the character whose point of view you’re writing for that scene.  If the character has nothing to do with something in the background, there’s no reason to include it.  People reading your books will fill in the gaps.  What is crucial is that you only pay attention to things that the character actually needs in order to advance the plot.  For example, if the character needs to keep warm in the winter, mention the box stove in the bedroom.  There’s no need to go into the type of bed the character’s on, what material the wardrobe is made out of, or what the walls look like.  Sometimes less is more.  Trying to cram too much of the setting into the story can pull the reader out of the character’s head.  And you don’t want that to happen.

Now that I’ve added the disclaimer about keeping the character first, I’m going to offer a couple of tips to help research the time period of your choice.

1.  Read two or three books in the genre you’re writing, and make sure these books are from big publishing houses.

Why would I suggest this?  Because big publishing houses will have editors who know what they’re doing.  If they don’t, they’ll get fired.  Big publishers have their reputation to protect.  As much as I love self-publishing, there is no checks and balances on self-published books.  Some self-published writers have editors.  Some don’t.  Some have good editors.  Some have lousy editors.  So I think a good rule of thumb is to go with a big publisher’s book.  Find a topic that interests you, and read the book.

When I started out, I would mark up pages with a pen and earmark the pages.  In an ereader, you can highlight text and make notes.  I would specifically look for items people used back then that is mentioned in the book, like cow chips which could be used to heat up a sod house in the winter time or a kerosene lamp which a character uses to light up the place.  These are wallpaper items that can be easily tucked into the story.

2. Research.

You can look up information online, in a library, through a show like the History Channel. There are many ways you can find out when things were invented, and you can browse some blog posts by doing a search for something you’re interested in, like wagon trains.

3..  Visit old homes or towns.  Take a tour if you can.

I have learned so much more from taking a guided tour through historical homes and towns than by researching or reading books.  For example, when I wrote my Native American Romance Series, which featured the Mandan Indians in North Dakota, I read a couple books written which explained their lifestyle, and there were some pictures and drawings in it.  But when I took a trip to North Dakota and went to the Bismarck Heritage Center (where someone was kind enough to talk about some of the artifacts they still had from that tribe) and took a guided tour through one of the Mandan villages outside of Mandan, I learned so much more than I did reading the books.  Seeing the items in person and being in a earthen lodge with what they used and hearing someone explain the typical day just really put me right there in that time period.

Another example was going to the 1880’s Town in South Dakota, where they keep the houses and businesses from that time period in good condition.  They even had the furnishings, clothing, and every day items people used (like cookstoves and pots).  And if you wanted, you could wear a costume from that time period.  Below, I’ll attach a picture of my four sons who wanted to dress up like boys did back in 1880.

kids in 1880s clothes

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But with all of this being said, nothing replaces the physical act of sitting down and writing your book.  It’ll probably feel awkward at first because you’re not used to writing historical fiction.  But press through this phase.  It might take a couple books before you feel comfortable, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start.  And, if  you have a good editing team, these people can go a long way in helping you iron out the pesky little details of the time period.  Here’s my post on polishing up your book with a good editing team.

About Ruth Ann Nordin

Ruth Ann Nordin mainly writes historical western romances and Regencies. From time to time, she branches out to contemporaries romances and other genres (such as science fiction thrillers). For more information, please go to www.ruthannnordin.com or check out https://ruthannnordinauthorblog.wordpress.com.
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13 Responses to Writing Historical Romances….How Do You Get Into the Historical Mindset?

  1. I’d be careful with the History Channel these days. Most of their shows seem to be reality TV and shows devoted to proving all of man’s early achievements were actually the work of aliens. But yeah, great video and great post. I’ll probably find it useful if I end up writing historical fiction.

  2. I love that you don’t go into great detail about clothing, furnishings, and the rest. I find that sort of thing dull enough that I start skimming. And since I don’t enjoy reading it, you can bet that I don’t write it. 🙂

    • I think it’s dull, too, and will skim it. If I were to write it, I don’t think I’d ever edit…and no one wants that. 🙂

      • There are probably a few readers – and authors – who love details, but I’m just not one of them. And I can’t write about things I find boring. 🙂

        • I heard a couple people say they love knowing what everything looks like, but I think most people read genre fiction to get caught up in the lives of the characters. When I was in high school and was forced to read books considered classics, I would imagine people I knew as the main characters. This was the only way I could motivate myself to read the books. In doing this, I also learned to “tune out” details in the setting and focus in on the main character (which was usually the boy I had a crush on). One in particular was Treasure Island. I know the author described a lot about the inn and sailing and the island, but to this day, what I remember is the boy going along with the pirates to look for treasure. Part of the fun of reading is being able to add things we want.

    • It only took me the first run through to do the video, but it took about three hours to figure out how to transfer it from iMovie to my desktop to You Tube. And oh boy, is my You Tube account out of date. So much to update, so little time. lol

  3. OH MY GOSH! I finally got to hear your voice, after all this time of “talking” to you it was wonderful! I love the photo of your “cowboys”. They are too cute for words. – Shelley

    • I was nervous about doing the video, but I figured it was time to get out of my comfort zone. I just attended an online event and loved the video aspect of it. It inspired me to do some of my own. 🙂

      I love that picture of the kids. I blew it up and have it on my wall. They’re all sitting together and happy. That doesn’t happen often.

  4. I know that you’ve really been trying to stretch yourself this last year or so with speaking in public, etc. I think the video was great.
    I know how hard it is to get a picture with everyone sitting still and smiling. I only have the two kids but KT was so hyper that just getting a non-blurry picture was amazing.

    • I decided I wouldn’t try to make the video perfect. I know some would consider it unprofessional, but I’m doing this for fun. If I make a mistake, I’m going to keep going and not worry about editing it.

      I hear you on the blurry pictures. We have a ton of those. 🙂

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