Love in the Past Lane: Writing Historical Romance
by Natalie Murray, author of Emmie and the Tudor King
The contentious advice to ‘write what you know’ is particularly unhelpful for historical romance authors. I write books set mostly in sixteenth-century England and, the last time I checked, I wasn’t 450 years old (although sometimes I feel it… *creak*). So I admittedly have little experience with chamber pots, jousting, and high treason, but I do know romance, and romance was in full bloom back in the Tudor era—just ask Henry VIII, arguably the world’s most famous love addict outside of Elizabeth Taylor. To write historical fiction, we must write about what we know (love and swooning) in a world we’ve never seen. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Historical romance is still romance (heart flutter)
Romance is romance, regardless of the setting, and historical romance authors must follow the conventions of the genre. Just as you would with a contemporary romance (hopefully with fewer beheadings), aim for conflict that leads to a change both within the relationship and within the lovers themselves, with plenty of push-and-pull moments. Show us a love that’s so epic it’s worth fighting for, and ensure it makes sense in the era in which it’s set. Before I started Emmie and the Tudor King, I researched enough of the setting to understand what role the sixteenth century could play in complicating my characters’ relationship. Consider the era’s dating expectations—and fears about love—and how these can disrupt your lovers’ journey toward each other. In my case, it’s a twenty-first century girl trapped in the court of an infamous Tudor tyrant, so the two characters should really want to destroy each other. Ohhh, except they’d rather be kissing. Hawt.
Don’t judge your old-school characters
I adore my Tudor cast, but sometimes they do things that make my eyes roll, particularly when heads are rolling, too. My sixteenth-century courtiers are generally chauvinistic, prejudiced and bigoted, but that was par for the course back then, and to try to make them overly forward thinking for their time would just embarrass them. As historical authors, we’re not here to pass judgment on our characters: just to torture the pants off them until we get to their eventual HEA (*evil laugh*). If you struggle to step into the outdated mind of a sixteenth-century noblewoman, consider listening to the music of the day as you write or even dressing in some of the garments if that helps. I’ve never sat at my writing desk in a hoop skirt and gable hood, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Try to understand the characters enough to write from their shoes, but don’t give them an unrealistically modern makeover.
Write first and deal with the historical details later
When I started planning Emmie and the Tudor King, I devoured books about the sixteenth-century Tudor court, uncovering that a key issue was religious turmoil. I knew that had to play a role in my story, but I also knew that human romantic instincts then were probably consistent with today. Tudor tweenagers assumedly had crushes, and heartbreaks, and badly timed zits, and breathless kisses. That’s the place from where I wrote, and I finished the entire novel before I researched any finer details (such as clothing, furniture, transportation, etc.). This ensured that the story always came first, and that I was adding detail to enhance the story rather than adding story to enhance the detail. I discovered many gorgeous tidbits about the 1580s that I wanted to include, but that never made the final cut. Remove anything that’s only in there because it’s a fun anecdote rather than serving the story. I’ve binned pages of this stuff.
Thank goodness it’s a novel and not a textbook
A dump of description or backstory is rarely good in a novel, and a historical story is no excuse. Sure, you need to invite the reader into a world they have never seen, which requires description. However, drip-feed the sensory detail throughout your novel when it’s necessary to imagine what the characters are doing rather than creating paragraphs of setting explanations. If the book reads more like a handbook than a tale that’s page-turney and vivid, it will likely bore the reader. Just a word on research: make sure you choose a period you love and won’t get tired of reading about! Make sure to include direct sources in your research: letters, speeches and other documents from the time period; published books; newspapers; song lyrics, etc. I use an etymological dictionary when writing my Tudor novels, but I still make allowances for speech. If I wrote all the dialogue in pure Shakespearean, the books would be too laborious for most people to read.
I often think of writing historical romance as writing romance fiction, except with more work (the research). All you need to do is sit down with a cup of tea and one of Henry VIII’s letters to Anne Boleyn to grasp that the feeling of romantic love hasn’t changed in 450 years, just the obstacles in obtaining and keeping it. Try starting your historical romance novel in that sweet little quandary. Best of luck!
Natalie Murray is the author of EMMIE AND THE TUDOR KING (June 11, 2019; Literary Crush Publishing). A fast-paced YA time travel romance that pitches to readers a touch too young for Outlander or Philippa Gregory, Emmie and the Tudor King follows an eighteen-year-old high school graduate to a reimagined Tudor England, where she meets a doomed, but utterly dreamy, Tudor king. Books 2 and 3 in the series will be published in 2020 and 2021. You can visit Natalie at nataliemurrayauthor.com.