Historical author Sherry Thomas offers aspiring writers several tips for giving their manuscripts what the author calls “That Touch of History.”
We often hear about world-building in terms of writing science fiction and fantasy. But writers of historical romance also world-build. We do not write about lands and peoples that have never existed, but nevertheless we are taking our readers to a vanished era that we must recreate.
You already know that. You know that to make your historical romance truly shine, you must make your period come alive. For that you have lovingly—or grudgingly, as it may be—compiled a huge dossier of research. What they ate. What they wore. Who were the king and the prime minister and so on and so forth.
But the thing is, everybody has had the tepid lemonade at Almack’s and heard the hero casually greet the Regent. What can you do to make your world-building stand out?
1) You can’t do that anymore!
History is different. History is foreign. Lots of things people did as a matter of course way back when would strike us as totally incomprehensible. Think of Mad Men. The characters from the show drink and smoke constantly. You immediately know that you are in a different time period because that kind of publicly shared vices—in the workplace, no less—is simply not accepted these days.
In Meredith Duran’s 1880s-set historical romance Written on Your Skin, the hero, Phin, is poisoned by nightshade in his drink. He lies incapacitated. The heroine, Mina, must help him escape. And this is what she gives him.
“It’s only vin Mariani,” she said. “They call it the French tonic, sometimes.”
He knew the wine. He’d told Collins he wanted to create a brand of it for American distribution. Its main ingredient was not alcohol, but syrup of—“Coca.” The word was his, the voice unrecognizable. Hoarse, as though he’d been screaming.
“Yes. And the powder you inhaled—also from coca.” Her lips quirked into a strange smile that made her appear much older. “Mr. Monroe, you will be so full of coca by the time you leave, you won’t even feel a bullet.”
Holy smoke. She is giving him a diluted form of cocaine. And he talks about selling it! (It would have been good business too. The word coca in Coca-Cola was truth in advertising: Until it became frowned upon to consume cocaine, cocaine was present in minute amounts in Coca-Cola.)
We are taught from kindergarten to say no to drugs, but many of today’s forbidden substances were considered legitimate medicine 130 years ago.
Very effective world-building, that.
2) Wow, you couldn’t do that?
This is a corollary to our first point: Lots of things that we consider quite acceptable these days would have given people heart attacks in earlier eras. Go ahead. Emphasize that.
3) Interesting parallels
It makes people feel history when history is so different. It also makes people feel history when history kind of has a familiar ring to it.
In my latest book, His at Night, the hero, Lord Vere, is investigating the heroine’s uncle. The uncle lives in a grand place in the country, and this is what Lord Vere knows about it: Edmund Douglas’s estate, in which he’d maintained residence since 1877, was a manor constructed to his specification. There were hundreds of such new country houses all over the land, built by those with a fortune to spare, thanks to the prosperity of the Age of Steam.
4) Fitzwilliam who?
A very easy but often neglected way of giving authenticity to your historical era is to have people address each other formally.
Think about it, did Elizabeth Bennett ever refer to Mr. Darcy except as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice? Only immediate family and very intimate friends called each other by their given names. All other acquaintances were called by their titles and honorifics. And even husbands and wives referred to each other in public only as Mr. This and Mrs. That or Lord This and Lady That.
5) Show me the money!
If you can lay your hands on exactly how much something cost or how much someone earned in your historical era, by all means use it. The cost of living is one of those indicators of history that is both subtle and all-encompassing.
In Courtney Milan’s novella This Wicked Gift, set in 1822, the hero is a young man robbed of his inheritance. Working as a clerk, he earned precisely eighteen pounds a year. While that was enough to keep body and soul together, he was far too poor to marry the girl of his dreams. And that heartbreaking poverty is all the more real for the specific figure of his wage.
In Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, the heroine, a seamstress, loses her position and must assess her situation.
She set the note and coins in piles, arranged in order of value, until the whole of her hoard lay on the bed: a single pound note, three shillings, and twenty pence, before subtracting this week’s rent on the room and the sewing machine. Precisely eight shillings and tuppence with which to eat, bathe, and launder. Even if she found a position, she wouldn’t have enough to carry her through until she was paid, especially if the employment agency arranged to have the premium taken out of her first month’s wage.
Pretty dire straits. Again, all the more so for the exact amount of her savings.
And remember, always have a great story. Or nobody will care about the history in your story.
- Sherry Thomas
You can see the author put her tips into practice in her latest historical romance, His at Night.