Historical Research (Or: How Many Browser Tabs Can I Have Open Before the Window Crashes?)

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Historical accuracy is highly important to a significant number of romance readers, especially those who almost exclusively read historicals, so getting all the details right is part of a historical romance author’s job in addition to crafting an engaging plot, well-paced narration, and a memorable love story.

But historical research can be a real bear. While some places and eras are well documented in every area of interest, from clothing to food to everyday life to politics and more, the same cannot be said for all times and places throughout history. You’re likely to find an avalanche of information for writing a novel about political drama between upper-crust characters in Regency-era London, but getting your hands on enough research to convincingly write about the everyday life of a common farmer in rural, fourteenth-century Scotland might just require a bit more grunt work. And that’s not taking into account the additional research effort needed for some non-Western settings.

Moreover, determining how deeply to research a certain subtopic can be difficult to gauge. For example, does one really need to spend six hours locating information on medieval roofing methods in rural France in order to write three historically accurate sentences for chapter five? (I got this way with maps and whether I’d oriented my characters correctly.) Or will readers be satisfied with the information you found after thirty minutes, even if the exact roofing material you chose technically wasn’t invented until ten years after the novel’s setting? (“How would readers even know?” you ask. To which I’d say, “Please re-read the part at the beginning about how important accuracy is to die-hard historical romance readers. They know their shit.”)

Historical romance authors doing their research will also sometimes discover details that throw a wrench—or a whole box of them—into the gears of their plot. What?? The tavern where three scenes need to take place didn’t exist for another forty years? Now what do I do??

Just a few of the books I used for research. I liked them so much I bought my own copies!

Just a few of the books I used for research. I liked them so much I bought my own copies!

Having done research for both Stay With Me (set in 1351 Scotland) and Escape With Me (set in 1783 London), I now understand why many romance authors tend to write novels all set in the same time and place—beyond the obvious reason that the author simply likes that setting the most. Why research the clothing, occupations, contemporary events, etc. for a whole new setting when you already have a thorough understanding of, say, Edwardian England?

And yet, that’s what I did when conceiving my time-travel historicals. Why? Well, I grew up reading a wide variety of historical novels by authors like Kathleen Woodiwiss, Julie Garwood, Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, and so many more. Their novels were set in places like 1830s Southwest US, late twelfth-century Scottish Highlands, Civil-War era Southern US, and every century of England from the eleventh to the nineteenth. So once I’d gotten it in my head to pen my own historical romance, I really didn’t know which setting was my favorite.

Thus, with the thought that I’d jump around to figure that out (and thus create a time-travel series in which heroes and heroines are flung through the centuries willy-nilly), I decided to start in the Scottish Highlands. And when it came to a specific time period, I chose to write about characters who had survived the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century. Then, for my second historical, I knew I wanted to play around in late eighteenth-century London, and I did a bit of reading to figure out which contemporary events or trends would make for an interesting backdrop.

To get a taste of the kind of research I collected, take a gander at the bibliographies for both Stay With Me and Escape With Me. Neither is exhaustive—I pulled way more books off library shelves than what you see listed—but you’ll get the idea.

So without further ado, let me take you through some of the most interesting (or frustrating) bits of history I dug up during my research. We’ll start with 1351 Scotland (the Highlands, specifically).

When outlining Stay With Me, I was determined to send my heroine through time wearing an especially inconvenient outfit. Rather than a nightgown, a blouse and ankle-length skirt, or any other garment that a fourteenth-century native would look at and explain away using mundane reasoning (e.g. “Why, she’s in her underclothes!” or “Outlanders dress so strangely.”), I decided that Emma would be unlucky enough to slip through time wearing a fairy costume—wings and all.

Of course, plenty of people in fourteenth-century Scotland wouldn’t look at her and immediately jump to the conclusion that she was one of the “Good People” (some sort of fae or folk creature), and in fact, the hero of the book is skeptical from the start, but Emma’s appearance would fool enough people into thinking she was actually some version of the glaistig: a ghost or spirit whose motivations and appearances vary throughout legend. Some versions depict her as malevolent (luring men in order to drink their blood), some as benign or benevolent (protecting cattle or herders). Some versions give her animal characteristics (the legs of a goat, sometimes hidden beneath the skirt of her green dress) and other versions depict her as a blonde woman who is “fae-touched” and turned immortal.

The wide variety of manifestations made the glaistig a good choice for what sort of creature the medieval native would assume Emma to be. And the reactions of superstitious characters to her appearance were one of my favorite things to write into the story.

However, it was only after I’d gotten myself excited to write the book that I found out that kilts (including clan tartans) weren’t really a thing until a couple centuries later. In fact, except for the wealthy, most fourteenth-century Highlanders wore rather drab, simple clothing. I did find a strangely helpful book (its most useful contents were reproduced in a Wikipedia article) about which clothing dyes would be available in medieval Scotland, but determining the sort of garments worn by commoners turned out to be more difficult than I’d imagined. Worse, some online sources confused the terms used to describe certain layers of clothing—one site erroneously insisted that the outermost garment worn by a woman was actually a undergarment. Thankfully, a trip to the library was far more helpful than an internet search, but figuring out how to make a big, strapping crofter sound sexy in a baggy, brown tunic was something no librarian could help me with. (Don’t worry, Iain’s often not wearing anything at all.)

When plotting my second time-travel historical, I learned that sex work in London and the smuggling of goods from the Continent to England were both at their height at right around the same time. How interesting! This tidbit led me to research the sex trade in late-eighteenth-century London as well as the many tricks used by “free traders” to get European goods into England without paying tariffs on them.

One of my favorite stories from an excellent resource on smuggling at the time was how one free trader decided to deal with a so-called “revenue officer” patrolling the shore. He lay down on the beach and pretended to be drunk—or dead, didn’t matter. The revenue officer spotted him and went through the smuggler’s clothes looking for identification, at which point the smuggler jumped up, accused the revenue officer of trying to steal from him, and beat the poor guy senseless. Another fun fact is that the idiom “the coast is clear” gets it modern, more nefarious connotation from the smuggling trade and indicated whether it was safe to bring in contraband without getting caught.

What really made me choose 1783 specifically, though, was learning about something that happened far from London, and yet affected all of Europe. That summer, a volcanic fissure named Lakagígar in southern Iceland erupted. It spewed sulfuric aerosols for eight months and greatly affected global climate. (And you thought the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 was bad.) So much of Iceland’s livestock died that the resultant famine killed 25% of its human population.

The weird part of this tragedy is that outside of Iceland, practically no one knew the reason for the foul-smelling haze that covered all of Europe for the entire summer, and which made the sun look particularly lurid at sunrise and sunset. Those who had to work outside didn’t realize the danger of inhaling sulfur dioxide, and over twenty thousand people died in Great Britain alone. The weather was extreme that summer and also that winter, resulting in even more deaths. An excerpt from a 1784 lecture from Benjamin Franklin indicates that contemporaries eventually narrowed in what happened, but only after many had perished.

Of course, in both of my time-travel historicals, I did take artistic license with a few things. For example, even though Iain’s home in Stay With Me would’ve likely included enclosures for animals, I decided that he had a large enough flock of sheep and cattle to warrant a separate barn—which is good, because living with and sleeping next to animals is unhealthy. And in Escape With Me, the pleasure garden the characters visit wasn’t known as “Vauxhall Gardens” until a couple years later (it was known at the time as “New Spring Gardens”), but I liked the name Vauxhall so much that I decided to use it instead.

Curious to see how I used all this research in my time-travel historicals? Why don’t you grab yourself a copy and find out! Stay With Me and Escape With Me are available in both e-Book and trade paperback.