The Challenges of Writing Historical Romance

There are certainly challenges to any kind of writing project.  The romance genre, and all of its attendant sub-genres, presents any number of challenges in a variety of combinations.  Romantic suspense combines the challenge of making romance steam while the H/H solve a mystery; sci-fi and fantasy romance dares its writers to build worlds from the ground up or create new rules for our own world, while still ending with an HEA.  Contemporary romance requires its characters and plots to blend in with todays quickly changing standards,  mores, slang, and jump-cut mentality that is part of the ever-shifting and colorful life in the 21st century.

And finally, historical romance challenges the writer to recreate, in as much detail as possible, life in times long removed from our busy world.  This genre sets up an expectation that what the reader sees on the page and in their mind as they read, is a truthful depiction of how life was lived in times and places long past.  It is a challenge not for the faint of heart. 

Even though I only started writing about two years ago, history has been my passion all my life.  I majored in history in college and have gloried in researching throughout my career.  I am truly a social historian, one who is fascinated by how people lived in times past.  And when my muse showed up on my doorstep, it was a no-brainer to figure out what I should write.  I’ve never even attempted to write anything non-historical.

But, even though I love to research, even though I love writing about life 200 to 300 years ago, the challenges of portraying that life correctly in the novel are sometimes daunting. 

Take, for instance, the area of clothing.

My current WIP is set in 1761 in London.  There are many sources to tell me what the fabric of the period looked like, what the silouette was like, what styles were in or out of fashion.  I can find these things readily, via the internet and books on period costume.  The challenge comes with translating this information onto the paper for the reader to imagine clearly.  And this is where the challenge becomes tricky.

Terminology.  If I write that my hero has put on his banyan, unless my reader is already well-versed in 18th century costume or has read a number of historicals and figured it out from context clues or has taken the time to look the term up, she is going to be confused as to just what contraption my hero is wearing at this most intimate moment.  So I, as the author, must either stop the action and explain that a banyan is a robe or dressing gown modeled on oriental garments from the same century, or simply give a context clue and move on hoping the foreign word does not jar the reader out of the story completely.

Follow this link to see what a banyan looked like and get a little more information on this sexy 18th nightwear for men.

So why use the term banyan if it can be just as easily called a dressing gown?  Character POV and perspective.  In the 18th century men would have thought of this article of clothing as a banyan (dressing gown is a later term).  So if I am in deep POV I must use the term that the character would have thought, to be true to the period.

Another word is petticoat.  Today we equate this word with an undergarment.  In the 18th century it is also an outer garment, the skirt of a two-piece ensemble.  The link below will take you to the site for a facinating project on constructing clothing from the middle of the 18th century.  It gives examples of petticoats, both undergarments and outer garments.

Another challenge regarding clothing is how to get your hero and heroine out of their clothing for that steamy first bedroom encounter.  You have to account for them taking off every piece of clothing, but you cannot take all day to describe the disrobing.  And considering how much clothing they wore, and how hard it was to get into and out of their garments (ladies were often either pinned or actually sewn into their clothing), one wonders how the fires will stay lit long enough for them to accomplish any sort of tryst. 

Below is a video from one of my favorite period movies, Dangerous Liasions, set in the mid-to-late 18th century that demonstrates just how complicated it was for the upper class to get dressed in the morning. 

It was a time for beautiful clothing, exacting manners, and dangerous liasions, which makes the 18th century one of my favorite challenges in writing historical romance.

What is your biggest challenge in writing romance?  Is it plot, character, research, setting or something more?  Come share a comment on how you overcome your hurdles in the romance genre.

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8 Responses to The Challenges of Writing Historical Romance

  1. Loved the post, J.J.! I’ve written two historicals (one published and one a contest winner), and there was a time I could honestly say that I couldn’t imagine writing a contemporary ever. In terms of language, it doesn’t matter what the terms are for various things, if they’re described a little bit, a reader ought to be able to use her imagination to glimpse it–or something close to it–in her mind’s eye. And, while we all love to learn new tidbits and trivia from what we read (any genre), that’s ultimately not what the stories are about. If you’ve got a good love story going on, they can all be wearing flour sacks and it won’t matter.

    By the way, if you want a really good reference book for English history, try The English: A Social History by Christopher Hibbert.


    • jennajaxon says:

      I will have to check that source out, Patricia. Sounds like it’s right up my alley. And yes, it is hard sometimes to not get caught up in the period so much that you focus only on that and not on the main business of romance. Like digging worms instead of fishing!


  2. D'Ann Linscott-Dunham says:

    I love historicals, but would never write one b/c of the research. My personal irritant is anything horse related. Made up stuff and movie crap drives me over the edge. Speaking of, the reins used by driving horses weren’t reins at all, but called lines. Used it in a ms once, and the judge crossed out lines and wrote in reins. Argh!


    • jennajaxon says:

      I’ve seen the term lines used in some historicals. I hope they are called reigns when you’re sitting on horseback–that’s what I’ve called them all through the novel! And people do tend to think they know what is correct just from having seen it done wrong so much. For instance, candelabra is the plural for candelabrum, but lots of people think it’s wrong when you talk about someone carrying a single candelabrum. So even when you get it right, they think you’re wrong.


  3. Lisa K says:

    Good post, Jenna. All the reasons you stated stop me from writing historicals, though as a reader I enjoy medievals, Regencies and Georgian period novels. To me, it almost seems easier to create a whole new world of my own making–almost. Even that’s not easy!


    • jennajaxon says:

      I would much rather dig into the archives than to even think about building a world from scratch. I can see where there is the freedom to create, but wow, there’s so much you thave to think about: political systems, social systems, the nuts and bolts of daily life that depend on how you’ve created the seasons to fit within your world. Anyone who even attempts that has my hat off to them!


  4. Kaycee Kacer says:

    Great post Jenna, this is one thing I have trouble with as a reader of historical romance. So many times the author will use a term whether it be for clothing or something else, that I don’t understand and it really does pull me out of the story because now I’m trying to picture them doing or wearing something that I have no idea what it is.


    • jennajaxon says:

      It is a fine line between how much to give the reader and how much to assume they will get from context clues. Of the people who have read chapters of my WIP most have commented that they didn’t know what the banyan was. Need to go back and fix that one, obviously. A delicate balance of information, to be sure.


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