A Quickie on Historical Accuracy

by Cynthia Sterling

LLB: We're always discussing here at All About Romance historical accuracy and what readers are looking for in romance. Some readers demand a great deal of history in their romance. Others prefer a smattering.

Author Cynthia Sterling, who answered one of our Ask an Historian questions about Texas history, has published numerous articles of historical non-fiction. She is in the process of making the leap to historical romance; her first book will be published by Berkley in 1999 as part of the new Quilting Circle line.

I asked her to comment on what an historian looks for in a romance, and how an historian alters her writing to make it suitable for romance readers. Does she see a split of 80/20 of romance to history? Or more? Or less?

The love story has to receive top billing in an historical romance. No matter how great you are at painting an accurate picture of a particular time in history, if you shortchange the romance you'll lose your readers.

When I'm writing nonfiction history, I like to focus on lesser known people and events, and historical aspects of everyday life. This history, sometimes referred to by scholars as "little history" is the history that breathes life into historical romance as well. Details such as clothing, food, mannerisms and figures of speech help the reader experience the historical time period in which you've set that great love story. I think the historical author has to get these details right. Readers always spot someone who hasn't done her homework.

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I think an author can run into trouble, however, when they plot a romance around specific, big historical events. It's easy to get sidetracked into describing battles or political scandals or other things that take your reader out of the romance. Since I love history, I just love to research. I can spend days going over old newspaper articles, photographs, diaries, etc.

When I'm done, I want to share all of that wonderful information with my readers. But I know if I did that, I'd probably bore them to tears.

In fact, when I plot an historical romance, I plot the love story first. I usually have an idea of the time period and setting, and I make myself familiar enough with general historical facts by reading a nonfiction account of the time. But when I sit down to write, I put the history books away and concentrate on the characters. If I come to an historical fact I need, I insert a question mark into the manuscript and go on. Thus my rough draft is peppered with lines like "Determined to make Trace notice her, Lucy chose a ???describe dress here." or "The innkeeper set before him a plate of ???what would he have eaten?" I go back later and answer these questions.

As for switching between fiction and nonfiction, I have to say my nonfiction work often inspires my fiction, and vice-versa. In fact, Lucy O'Connor, the heroine of my first novel, Patchwork Hearts, was inspired by a real-life woman, Lizzie Johnson Williams, the "cattle queen of Texas." Like Lucy, Lizzie Williams wrote romantic stories for Leslie's Illustrated Magazine and invested the money she earned in cattle. Even after she married, Lizzie insisted on keeping her money and her cattle separate from her husband's. Lizzie's independent spirit intrigued me and I decided to write about a character who was just as talented and independent, and a man who could be her match.

Since Lucy's long-incompleted bridal quilt plays a big role in the book, which will be part of Berkley's new Quilting Circle line, I had to research historical quilts and quilting. Now I'm using that information to write non-fiction articles on this subject.

--Cynthia Sterling

 

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