Monday, July 25, 2011

Writing a Historical Romance -- The Process

Deciding to write a historical romance is not as easy as picking up a pen and pad or scooting your chair up to a computer.

Despite historical romances being dubbed, bodice rippers, a lot more goes into the writing than simply a lot of hot sex, and "Oh, my lord," and "Yes, my lady!"

Like any other fictional tale, a historical romance has to have a plot, a vibrant setting, larger than life characters with goals, motivations and conflicts. And on top of all that--you have to research your time period. A writer of historical fiction has to know their time period like they know the one they live in now--the setting, the clothing, the dialect, foods, mannerisms, etiquette, laws, ruling parties, transportation, phrases.

So if you've decided you want to write a historical romance, I suggest doing the following:

ONE: Pick a time period--and thoroughly research it. There are books you can purchase that will actually give you a good idea of what life was like in certain time periods. Beyond books there is the internet, reenactments you can go to, traveling to where you story takes place, talking to researchers and historians. Taking horseback riding, fencing, dancing lessons. Trying on historical clothing. Whatever it takes to get inside your period and your characters' heads to make the story more authentic.

For Regency, I like: What Jane Austen Knew and Charles Dickens Ate by Daniel Pool; Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloeste.

For Elizabethan England: Elizabeth's London by Liza Picard.

For Medieval Times: Knight, by Christopher Gravett; Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies; Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joesph Gies.

For all periods: Costume: 1066 to the Present by John Peacock.

I have TONS of other resources if you're looking for a certain time period, email me or leave a comment below.

TWO: Read fiction in that time period. The best way to learn about writing in a certain genre, is to READ in that genre. See how an author seamlessly weaves the history into the fictional prose. Also reading helps to widen our own vocabulary. 

THREE: Develop a plot -- what is your story? What is the purpose of your story? Why should the reader care? Come up with a good hook. If you're a plotter, this is where you loosely plot out the story. If you're a panster, this is where you loosely plot out the major points of the story--or at least where you hope to end up. Remember too, that in a romance, the focus of the story should be the relationship between the hero and heroine (or hero/hero, etc...). Show the progression of the romance so that it is believable to the reader. Make each scene meaningful, and in doing so, make sure that each scene moves the story along.

FOUR: Get to know your characters. You can't write a story--let alone the first paragraph of one, if you don't know your characters. How is the reader supposed to "get them", connect with them, empathise with them, if you don't? 

Great craft book resources I recommend:
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels
  • How to Write the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass ----> I actually use his checklists at the back of each chapter for each book I write.
  • The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler
  • Got High Concept? by Lori Wilde
  • Thesaurus/Dictionary -- these ARE your friends. Make sure you are not only using words correctly, but that you aren't using the SAME descriptive words OVER and OVER again. I like because it will also give you the etymology of a word so you know if it was used during your time period. is also a keeper!
FIVE: Start writing. Don't forget to hook the reader in that very first sentence, that first page, that first chapter, and every page thereafter. Show don't Tell. Be active not passive.

SIX: Thought you were done? No... Just because you typed "The End" does not mean you are finished. Now you have to edit your story. I HIGHLY suggest having a critique partner or two or more take a look at your story. Having a fresh pair of eyes to catch mistakes you might not have seen is a plus. Also, they can give you feedback and insight on your scenes.

SEVEN: Once you are confident that the story is the best it can be, take the plunge and submit it!

Remember above all, writing a historical romance isn't throwing in a few historical phrases here and there, you actually need your story to be authentic from all angles. If we stripped the history out of your story, would there still be a story? The answer should be no--because the history is essentially one of the main characters.

Happy Writing!

Eliza Knight is the multi-published author of sizzling historical romance and erotic romance. Most recently, she was featured in The Wall Street Journal as a self-styled expert on historical undergarments. Visit her at

Coming 12/19/11 to Carina!  Lady Seductress's Ball (cover coming soon...)

Olivia has suffered a loveless marriage to an elderly invalid.  Never knowing pleasure, she wants to experience first hand the delights of lovemaking.  When a titillating invitation arrives to Lady Seductress’s Ball, the temptation is overwhelming.  Her thirst for pleasure could finally be quenched, and with a man she fiercely desires.
Tristan wants Olivia for his own, and has sworn off all others who clamber for a place in his bed.  After trying to seduce Olivia without success, he attempts one last amorous tryst—a night filled with passion, love and adventure, that will leave them both yearning for more.


Victoria Roberts said...

Great and very sound advice, Eliza! I also keep Edit Your Book in a Month on my desk. ;-)

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Victoria :) I'm so glad you found the book helpful! That is exactly what I was hoping :) Keep writing those badboys!

Loni Lynne said...

I too am a big fan of Edit Your Book in a Month--it's right there next to my dictionary and thesaurus. I think this format for historical writing is great--knowing your time frame, reading others, etc. very important. Many of those lessons work for other genres as well, but especially for historicals :).
All the best!
Loni Lynne

Anonymous said...

Great, practical advice, Eliza. There's nothing better than a good piece of historical romance to sweep you away to another time. There's nothing like a bad piece of h.r. to make you want to sweep the book under the rug! LOL

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Loni! I'm so glad you found the book helpful too :) I agree it can go for other genres too, especially if you have a lot of world-building to do. But beyond that, every book should have a solid plot and larger than life characters. Thanks for stopping by!

Eliza Knight said...

lol, I love that saying Elyse! Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the post :)

derek dodson said...

Very helpful, thanks. Sometimes the research is as much fun as the writing. Working my way through King's "On writing" currently, but your editing book is up next.

Anonymous said...

The new book looks wonderful, Eliza...good luck!!!

Wendy Soliman said...

The two books you recommend for the Regency period are my bibles. I never leave home without them - or should that be they never leave my home?

Informative and interesting post.

Sarah Hoss said...

I did A LOT of research for my book. It wasn't always easy, but it was rewarding.

Great post Eliza. Thanks!!!

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks Derek! I love King's book, and his take on writing is fascinating. I hope you find EYBIAM helpful :)

Thanks Tess! I had a lot of fun writing it!

Thank you Wendy :) Perhaps they never leave your writing side? I know when I travel I take my "bibles" with me too :)

Thanks Sarah! Yes, researching can at times be hard, frustrating, and make you want to pull your hair out, but you are right, in the end it is rewarding, and if you retain that info, you'll know it for next time too :)

Susanna Fraser said...

I love the Vogler book, and also Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, which takes a Hero's Journey approach to plotting too.

As for research, let's just say I have no impulse control in the history section of Powell's. My military history collection alone takes up most of a full-sized bookshelf.

Georgie Lee said...

Great post. A Regency research book I like, but it is hard to find, is The Regency Companion by Sharon Laudermilk & Teresa L. Hamlin

Lu/Grace said...

Love the premise of your book, sounds like fun.

I'm writing a spicy story set in the mid-Victorian era, 1878 London. I pretty much emptied the library of their relevant research books. I own "What Jane Austen Knew..." and it's been a great help, but I'd like something closer to my time period. Do you have any recommendations?

Thanks for the great post!!

Erastes said...

excellent post - i can't afford to do tHe things, although I can ride and shoot- but i absolutely agree - read read read - particularly diaries of the time, and memoires.

Eliza Knight said...

Thanks Susanna, I will have to look that one up! I know what you mean about the bookshelves... we might get overrun in my house, lol

Thanks Georgie! I will have to check that one out!

Lu/Grace, Thank you! Check out this book, I used to own it, but it disappeared during a move, I used it for a Victorian and found it very helpful:

Erates, I totally agree about the diaries and memoirs! Great addition! I've never been shooting, that is something I would like to try.

Nancy said...

Hi Eliza,

Great point about reading fiction in the time period. I write 1880s and have been fortunate enough to read local newspapers from that time ... although I have to say the ads are the best part :-) And thanks for the mention of Costume: 1066 to the Present. I didn't know about that book and will definitely look for it.

Taryn Kincaid said...

Great post, great references!

Jana Jani said...

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