1889 Montana minersAs I have mentioned more than a few times, I am back writing an historical romance, one that joins up with my Arizona historicals. Frankly there are times I've said I never want to write another, not because I don't like the research. I love research. It's so much fun to find out more about an earlier period, learn details I never knew, then set my characters into that for their own emotional run.
In the writing, I have always separated in my own mind the difference between a non-fiction history book, historical novel, and historical romance. I mean come on-- romances are not meant to be realistic. They should feel like they could have happened but all the time are also fairy tales for adults (just like a lot of adventure, sci fi, fantasy, etc.). In a romance you have a story centered around a hero and heroine who eventually, no matter what the odds, conquer all. Where do you draw the line between that story and the historical facts you are setting it into?
I get it. For 'hard core' historical romance readers, the story has to be accurate down to the last eyelash for them to feel they are really there. I have heard some say they learn history from them. O-kay! (incidentally, that word has been in use a lot longer than some might imagine).
So here's my rebuttal to purists-- what we know about historic periods is what somebody from that period wanted to leave us and someone from a later period interpreted. Sometimes the journals or books are scrupulous for detail, but some are written to make a point or sugar coat something. Almost always, if you read many regarding any important event or person, they will have widely differing viewpoints.
We might think we know important facts about an historic period from those who have studied it for a career, using what has been left behind in books, journals/letters; archaeological digs; old photos, which were often posed and sometimes faked for setting and garments even those as revered as by Edward Curtis; often repeated quotes by someone like Chief Seattle, except he never said what they say he did; or objects and clothing that survived to be placed in a museum.
The biggest problem I have with those who adore historical details is the details can get in the way of the story for anybody who is most interested in plot and character. For someone hoping to get the equivalent of a history book from their historical romance, they will ignore plots that make no sense at all. Heaven forbid though that a writer uses a fabric that didn't exist then.
This could be called anal writing and reading. The language their character will use must be accurate even if today it seems staid and forced-- because the only real example we have of past language is written-- which is not often how people talked-- then or now. Fiction of that period also often sugar coated real language. And don't even get me started on dime novels from the western era.
When the TV series, Deadwood was on cable, there was a huge fit made over the crude, obscene language being used. Not realistic went the cry of historical purists. Except how do they know? Oh yeah those books written back then-- which are so likely to be how real people talked...
If you write a western romance set say in the 1880s and you have your heroine ride astride, you have just committed an atrocity. Ladies rode sidesaddle, dontchaknow. Except women did ride astride even before that. I mean let's face it a side saddle is practical more as a puritan device devised to make sure a lady didn't spread her legs or become stimulated by the movement of the horse. Practical? Not so much but horse shows still do events to show a gifted equestrian can do it-- not intended to illustrate it is the best way to ride. As for riding with a full skirt that flowed out all over the place, let's hope there's no wind and that the other horses in the area aren't easily frightened.
The problem with this drive for historical perfection is we do not know exactly what people thought back then or how life was lived except as stated above. The obsession by an author to include details to prove they did research can get in the way of plot action. So if I read a romance by a detail driven purist, but her heroine is acting more like a modern woman (aside from stilted language), I should be impressed even if the plot has enough inconsistencies that nothing makes sense?
But despite all that, here I go again with that third Arizona historical, set in Arizona Territory, 1899. There was a LOT going on then and not just that impacted Arizona but the whole nation. My main emphasis on research has involved details that I know help the story to come to life and that are often sooooo hard to find without combing through book and article after article. Because I love history, I enjoy this kind of activity but only include what I think would be part of the characters' experiences. When we are living something, we don't think constantly about details.
When reading someone else's book, I can't imagine noticing if they have the proper number of petticoats on the heroine. I'd be more interested in how her dress might've varied depending on her class status. I would care if how she had to dress was impacting her emotions and told me something about her character-- think Calamity Jane. Otherwise what I care about are plots and characters. I have never once read someone else's western historical and thought-- wow, that's the way it really was. I don't for a second expect that it was-- it's a romance for Pete's sake. I want to enjoy the ride and not find it being distracted by trivia.
When I write, I am most interested in motivations, in making the characters act consistently or grow in a way that makes sense. Maybe that means I am better suited to writing contemporary stories where I can make it seem real-- oh along with a few demons and fairies... pardon me Fae (that's what I just read fairies really are-- and if you thought they were nice little guardians of the forests-- they're not-- well, that is one truth).
And the real Old West, well it wasn't quite as glamorous as romance writers/readers might like to imagine. Nothing wrong with fantasy, imagination and fairy tales... just so long as nobody confuses it with real life-- then or now.
Henry Plummer, a real old time sheriff, maybe road agent, was definitely the man who was hanged by a vigilante gang in Bannack, Montana, January 10, 1864, when he was 32 years old. Was he a bandit or did he get killed by the real bandits? His wife wasn't there. Was that significant? That's what real life is like and it's
always not often tidy ;).