My 5 Tips for Writing the Unusual Historical without Scaring People

"Robber Hiding Under A White Wall" by chanpipat

“Robber Hiding Under A White Wall” by chanpipat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The blogosphere buzz is about Historical Romance. Most of the perspective–including my own–is from a reader standpoint, but since I am a writer, I must throw a writer-oriented hat into the ring. After I overcame my pessimism over whether or not my writing career would fly as someone who doesn’t write Regency Historicals, I decided to be proactive. I can’t control the market or what readers will buy, but I can control my writing–meaning, I can package an unusual setting as appealingly as possible to readers/editors/agents/whomever who are happy with the current historical romance offerings.

I tend to be an inside-out writer in that my research sparks an idea or gives shape to an idle idea instead of the idea coming first and then the setting (though, sometimes I do move things around until it “fits”–my current WIP didn’t fully click until I made the hero the brother of a previous MS’s hero and moved the setting from Yorkshire to an Essex seaside resort). To turn that idea into a workable premise, I then brainstorm a solid hook that won’t require me to mention the book takes place in 1916 Serbia or 1893 Chicago or 1921 Derbyshire. This isn’t always easy, so I turn to the following resources:

1. Tropes

Entangled Publishing, for example, aggressively pursues their target readership by making certain their releases hit popular tropes: friends-to-lovers, wrong bed, revenge, arranged marriage, etc. On paper, a trope can seem trite and lifeless, but many can be easily combined to give some texture to a story. They also, naturally, spark the “What If?” part of plotting a book.

2. Reading Regency romance blurbs

I cut my teeth on traditional Regencies alongside gothic romance, so despite the perception of Regency-bashing in this conversation, I have no problem with the setting (incidentally, I re-read a comfort read two nights ago–Catherine Coulter’s Midsummer Moon and have recently enjoyed Tessa Dare and Ashlyn Macnamara’s latest releases). That said, there is a goldmine of premises to be found in the “genre” that I like to work into an Edwardian setting. Good Ton, a now defunct website devoted to traditional Regencies, featured pages of books that fit under popular plot lines found in trads–another version of the trope. With the Regency Historical, it’s enlightening to see what readers respond to–family series, group of male friends, etc–and see if that too can be worked into the Edwardian setting.

3. Looking at contemporary romance blurbs (especially Harlequin category romance)

Some tropes in romance transcend genre, and I like to look at what’s popular in category romance to see if there are any premises that could work in a historical setting. Funnily enough, Harlequin Presents and many Harlequin Romances from the 60s and 70s have plots that wouldn’t be amiss in a historical romance (especially those written by British authors).

4. Character types

Alpha heroes, hoyden heroines, etc etc, but to take it a step further, I can look at, say, the popularity of the tortured ex-soldier hero come home from Waterloo, or the governess heroine, and put them in the context of my setting: tortured ex-soldier hero invalided in WWI, and the heroine can be a professor in the 1900s!

5. Movies

I know, I know–people groan at using popular films and TV shows as part of the high concept hook, but it can work when you’re stumped. I like to dunk this in a little more history than most when I do turn to this source, but it’s a snappy and intriguing way to give someone a familiar reference to latch onto in an unusual setting (e.g. Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine–>My Fair Lady/Pygmalion in Tang Dynasty China). I also like looking up the plots of old movies on TCM.com–I do have plans for a Bringig Up Baby-esque plot, lol.

So there you have it–my five tips to keep from scaring people away from your books set in 1940s Georgia (US) or 1897 Australia! (tongue placed firmly in cheek about scaring people, by the way).

Author: Evangeline Holland

Evangeline is a public historian who brings her academic skills to fiction, in order to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Her love for history permeates just about everything she does, going so far as to "suffer" for this love--as the bruises and stuck fingers from fencing and sewing costumes to understand life in the past firsthand can attest.

4 thoughts on “My 5 Tips for Writing the Unusual Historical without Scaring People”

  1. Great ideas, Evangeline! And a great title for this column as well….I think people are scared some of the time, but putting in that bit of the familiar, as you’ve listed it here, can help!

  2. Great post! I still think for some reason there may be a romantic allure to a Waterloo hero that may be harder to translate into the context of WWI trenches, gas masks, and industrialized warfare. Is it the swords?! I often thought how different it would have been as a reader/viewer of the Sharpe series, if we had only seen him shooting his rifle, and not also seen/read him engaging in heroic feats of derring-do with his sword. This is a minor point, I know, but I wonder about how we may romanticize earlier forms of combat, in a way that is actually sort of irrational.

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