Getting the History into Your Historical Writing

Historical WRitingI won’t lie: the historical romance sub-genre is not an easy one. Not only do you have to craft your characters, develop your plot and write a manuscript of anywhere from 50 to 80 thousand words, you also have to do your research on the historical elements.

Working history into your novels is a two-pronged attack. First, you can’t ignore the fact that your plot is part of history. It is either woven around actual historical events, in which case you need to know about that event in order to write about it, or it is based on fictitious events that happen within an actual historical time period, in which case you need to know about the culture, the society and the codes of behaviour appropriate to that time period.

Second, the things your characters do in their everyday life have to offer your readers insight into a life that’s foreign to them. That’s the draw of historical romances: the chance to become part of a long ago life. If you don’t write in those small, everyday things that people did “back then,” your story will come across as incomplete. A recurring criticism of readers on historicals are that they could have been written in any time period.Headache

There is no getting around the first part of your historical romance. You have to do your homework to get the events and the culture right. As to the second, it might seem daunting to work those little bits of history in. Where do you start looking for things to add in?

Fortunately this isn’t as hard as you might imagine. Forget spending hours hunched over your computer frantically Googling “what-kinds-of-stuff-did-medieval-people-do-in-everyday-life?”. History is all around you. All you need to do is pay attention.

Let me give you an anecdote. Every holiday season the local liquor stores where I live import a boxed set of four ales called Historic Ales of Scotland. I love these ales, they’re delicious! I look forward to them every year. For the consumer’s benefit, to increase awareness and interest in these craft ales, the bottles are labeled with the individual variety’s particular history. They are:

AlesGrozet: Auld Scots for Gooseberry (from the Gaelic Groseid). Since the 16th century Scots monks and Alewives have brewed special concoctions from a blend of malts, wild spice and ripe gooseberries.

Scots Pine (ALBA): Introduced by the Vikings, spruce and pine ales were very popular in Northern Scotland until the end of the 19th century. Alba is a “triple” style ale, brewed to a traditional highland recipe using the sprigs of spruce and pine collected every spring.

Ebulum: Elderberry black ale. Introduced to Scotland by Welsh Druids in the 9th century, elderberry ale was part of the Celtic Autumn festivals where the ale was passed round the people of the village. This recipe was taken from a 16th century record of domestic drinking in the Scottish Highlands. In medieval times elderberries were used for many purposes and are known to be high in fruit oils. It is a rich black ale with fruit aroma, soft texture, roasted grain and red wine flavour, with a gentle finish.

Fraoch … I seem to have discarded the bottle before thinking about writing this post, but it’s a lighter, floral ale infused with heather flowers.

DrinkingNow, as a Highland historical romance writer, what a perfect opportunity to write in a little bit of history in the form of ale. Don’t just say “So-and-so drank ale in the great hall,” give your readers more than that. Take the opportunity to describe the ale. Perhaps your main character debates the merits of Gooseberry over Elderberry ale with the laird of the castle. Perhaps he’s a Lowlander, and is tasting heather ale for the first time.

You see, that’s the trick. Don’t look for things to include in your books, find ways to include things you already know about. Your history will appear seamless to your readers, and you’ll look like a master of the genre, a historian in your own right.

Documentaries are a great place to start. I don’t mean the boring, dry kind you’re forced to watch in school, there’s a whole new generation of documentaries that are interesting and even humorous. My favourites are Worst Jobs in History with Tony Robinson, The Supersizers Eat with Giles Coren and Sue Perkins, and History of the Home by Lucy Worsley. From them I’ve learned that in medieval times, eggs were roasted in ash and would explode if you didn’t crack a small hole in the top, because medieval dye makers used rotten shell fish as an ingredient they reeked to high heaven and were treated like quasi-pariahs because of the smell of them, and King Henry VII had his own, personal bum-wiper to clean the royal sphincter after his morning bowel movements.

Here is short, nine-minute snippet of Tony Robinson’s Worst Jobs in the Middle Ages:

If you’re a historical romance writer, pay attention to the places where history lives side by side with your life. Perhaps it’s the television shows you watch, the books you read or the artisan products you buy. Perhaps it’s from an entirely different source altogether. Once you start to notice these pieces of history, record them, and then work them into your novels.

Do you have any great sources for picking up random pieces of history? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.


5 thoughts on “Getting the History into Your Historical Writing

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  1. Historical fiction has always been my absolute favorite genre. I really like the advice you have offered here to historical fiction writers. I have only ever started pieces in bits and starts but maybe now I’ll give it another go!


  2. Love your observations. Hemingway said to write what you know; and it can be as simple as ale, porridge with all the trimmings, or crannachin. Even if you don’t like whisky, drink some single malt and be able to describe the peaty, malty flavor. But experience it so you can write about it! Fill in all the little details; that’s what rounds out the story and makes it real. I just read a Highland romance by a popular author (which is what I do while I procrastinate with my own writing) and in one scene she has her characters riding east from Perth to Glencoe. That’s just annoying – look at a a map! I can not imagine writing about Scotland, especially the Highlands, without having been there on an organic level, yet so many writers haven’t taken that step. Spending time in small villages, getting to know the wonderful people there, sitting in a pub surrounded by Gaelic speakers, going to a ceiladh, eating the food that comes from the lochs and the land, all informs and develops authentic writing. More than that, witnessing the burned out crofts and listening to people who still haven’t forgotten that they were sold out and their families devastated in the 18th and 19th centuries is vital to being able to tell their stories. The Highlands are ancient and deep, and anyone who purports to write about it needs to understand and respect that; otherwise it’s fluff.


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