Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Writing the Historical Romance: Part 2

Inspiration for a historical story can be triggered by a multitude of sources. Be it a sentence in a book, a personal experience, a dream, a podcast–the list is endless for source material. Today’s writer of historical can tap into a wide variety of autobiographies and biographies, historical nonfiction, and print or online magazines. Period films, movies, and documentaries are another favorite source. You never know what nugget of information will become the trigger for a story.

If you enjoy history, inspiration never runs dry.

The idea for my first published book, Stealing Destiny (aka Tennessee Waltz) came from an item I ran across while reading about the Civil War. A Yankee officer had commandeered a horse from a woman in Virginia. After the war he wrote to her that the horse survived the war and was doing well. I thought the woman in Virginia, one of the most fought over states in the war, needed that horse more than he did. I decided to send my heroine after her horse.

With a time period, three characters (and yes, the horse was a central character), and motivation, I began my research. I prefer to go from the general to the specific. I like to get a general feel for the time period before zooming in on specific details. To obtain an overview, I like to read a general history that spans at least twenty years of my target time period. Ten or so years before the story begins as well as ten or more years after it ends. College textbooks are an excellent source because I can’t think of any historical period that some college professor hasn’t written about.

For example, my first two novels are set in post war 1866. I found Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863 to 1877 an excellent source for this time period. Written by the prize winning author Eric Foner, Ph.D., who specializes in writing books about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

General history books about different time periods are available in the history collections of most public libraries. Other sources for getting a general feel for a time period are the popular “everyday in the life of” type books. I used the Writer’s Digest Books, Everyday Life During the Civil War by Michael J. Varhola as well as Everyday Life in the 1800s by Mark McCutcheon to help flesh out the story. Keep in mind the bibliography at the back of every nonfiction history book is a valuable resource as you narrow your focus.

Don’t forget to check out the children’s section of the library. Books written for younger readers offer a good spring board into unfamiliar topics. I also love the Eyewitness Visual Dictionary series published by Kindersley Publishing. From Dinosaurs to Climate Change, these books offer easy to read but detailed coverage of over 100 topics. Ships and Sailing provided me with valuable information about steamboats for Stealing Destiny.

The Internet is a wonderful source for today’s historical researcher, but use it with caution. Its greatest drawback is the frequent lack of a bibliography which makes validating the information difficult. History buff turned web site manager doesn’t always equal historical accuracy. Plus, there’s always the problem of a site disappearing into cyberspace. Treat the Internet as yet another resource, not the only one.

This initial research helps anchor me in the time period and gives me fodder for bringing the story to life. It also triggers ideas for scenes in the story. To avoid being overwhelmed with scene possibilities and to keep my research organized, I like to use an outline or narrative synopsis.

Before you faint at the idea of writing an outline or narrative synopsis at this point (sloppy is fine because it’s for your eyes only), think of it as a tool to help focus your research. Rather than going off on unnecessary historical tangents, an outline helps you concentrate your research on the historical facts you need to write this particular story.

In the next blog, we’ll look at how to focus your research while balancing your story writing with research.

P.S. By the way, you might enjoy my August 2020 blog, Title Control: Coming up with a Title for Your Story in which I share how traditional publishers sometimes ignore story content and assign a title willy nilly. As happened to me when the publisher came up with the title for my first book Tennessee Waltz.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Writing the Historical Romance: Part 1

“Never write a historical novel as your first book.” I read this piece of writing advice in my first how-to-write fiction book. Youth and an undergraduate degree in history made me discard the advice. I spent the next two years writing a 900 page tome about Roman Britain set in 60 A. D.

Gladiator it was not. 

By the time, I wrote “The End,” the advice made sense. A novice historical romance writer is giving herself two difficult new skills to master: the craft of writing and the creation of a different time period. 

The beginning writer of a contemporary story worries only about learning the craft of writing, because she can draw upon a store of shared contemporary images when she creates her setting. For example, the word “McDonald’s” puts the reader in a fast-food restaurant replete with smells. 

Life isn’t as simple for the writer of historical novels. You don’t have this store of contemporary images and if your story is set before 1827, you can’t use the word restaurant. 

How do I know this? I  checked my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, an excellent source for when a word first entered our vocabulary. English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh is another useful addition to your library if you want to know if your 16th century hero can say “sandwich”. 

Still anxious to tackle your first historical romance? Of course, you are. If you weren’t passionate about writing and history, you wouldn’t be reading this essay. But before we delve into researching the historical romance, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind. 


Whether your story is about Viking warriors or Regency rogues, you must enter that world in order to bring your reader into it. The world you create must be historically accurate because your readers know their history. Make too many historical mistakes in your writing and you will lose readers. 

On the other hand, too much history can cost you readers, too. Romance may come second in the category description of historical romance, but the romance should always come first. Remember, your story is about the relationship between the hero and heroine. The history provides the context in which your hero and heroine develop their relationship.  

Another challenge for the historical romance writer is to keep characters true to their time while offering the reader a strong and independent heroine. Today’s writers of historical romance walk a fine line between historical accuracy and heroines that appeal 

to modern readers. This challenge can be turned into an asset if you use the social mores of the past as added conflict for the characters, especially the heroine. Good research will keep both your reader and heroine rooted in the time period no matter how sassy your heroine is. 

I feel very fortunate that Jo Beverly, one of Regency’s most famous authors, helped me figure out a key plot element for my Regency Butterfly Bride. Jo was famous for her attention to historical detail and I was ecstatic when she volunteered to help me figure out how my heroine could legally end her marriage. We worked through various scenarios until we hit upon one that stayed true to the historical period.

A good story plus good research is the key to a good historical romance, but where do you start?  


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Story of Flashbacks

Flashbacks are events that happened before your primary story began. You insert them in the scene in such a way as to flesh out the story, being careful not to slow the pace of the story, lose the reader’s interest, or create confusion. 

I recently read a novel set in World War II Paris. The book chronicles the lives of two women during the Nazi occupation of Paris. It is told almost completely in flashbacks. I guess they’re flashbacks since there’s no real timeline.

The story begins in 1943, but the subsequent chapters bounce between 1939 and 1945 (when the Allies free Paris from Nazi rule). Not only does the story bounce around in time, it bounces between the two heroines. 

Does this type of story telling slow the flow of the story? Does it lose reader’s interest? Does it create confusion.

Honestly, I’d have to say yes to all three. 

Still, many readers enjoyed the story and it has received good reviews. Some readers didn’t stick with it and voiced their dislike of the structure.

Here’s the real question. Did writing the story with a bouncing timeline make the story better? 

I don’t think so.

While each chapter heading set the date and location, there was always momentary confusion as I tried to orient myself to the year, the point of view character, and the setting. Once I accomplished that, I could usually fit the opening paragraphs into the context of the overall story. 

I realize some authors like to turn story telling on its head and try new gimmicks. And yes, I think a novel filled with flashbacks is a gimmick. The story lacked the basic structure of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Story telling is an ancient art form refined through countless centuries and countless stories. It originated eons before there was pen and paper. Early storytellers did exactly that, they told stories to their family, friends, and visitors. A good storyteller learns how to keep the audience interested. 

Through trial and error, storytellers unknowingly shaped stories around the way the human brain processes information. For example, one strong component of storytelling is its reliance on the participation of the audience, or in this case, the reader. Brain research has revealed that humans get quite caught up in stories. Most readers try and guess what comes next. And a good story uses twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Listening to or reading well-written stories also enhance our critical thinking skills.

The Paris occupation story isn’t told in the accepted story format and it makes it difficult for the reader to participate in the story. We know this isn’t an alternate history story and we know the Nazis will be defeated at the end. As written, we don’t get a chance to anticipate how the heroines will react to the various events or guess what might happen next because the next chapter might well be set two years earlier than the one you just read.

You may wonder why I finished this book. I admit, I wasn’t sure I was going to read all of it. What kept me going was the author’s historical research. She did a fine job of putting the reader in occupied Paris. As a history buff I enjoyed that aspect of her novel. So, I guess I connected with her story via the setting. On the other hand, the lack of story structure makes me wary of reading any other book by her.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Print Dictionary: A Useful Addition to a Writer’s Library

Sometimes, we don’t know the exact word we want so we look it up online. While online dictionaries are a great resource, I’ve noticed they sometimes offer the briefest of definitions. Not so long ago, I was reading a book that used the word recognizance when the writer meant reconnaissance. I’m not sure if the writer didn’t know the meaning of the two words, or if an editor changed it and the author didn’t notice the change, or if they were both unaware. 

Recognizance and reconnaissance both stem from a French word “reconoissance" which means recognition, but they have completely different meanings. Recognizance has to do with the court system. When someone is arrested, a judge may are may not set a bond. If no bond is set, the person is released on his or her own recognizance. Basically, the judge has decided you are trustworthy and will appear in court when called. There will be a penalty if you don't keep your word and appear in court, but the judge believes you will. This word dates back to the 14th century so it's been around a long time.

The word reconnaissance, on the other hand, doesn't show up in the English vocabulary until 1810. This is the time frame of the Napoleonic wars which makes sense because
reconnaissance originally referred to a military survey to gain information about the enemy. It can also mean gathering information.

Reign in or Rein in?

I’ve frequently seen “reign in” used to when the writer meant “rein in.” The verb “reign” means to hold royal office, be a monarch, or maybe hold as much power as a monarch. A character cannot “reign in his emotions.” You would in essence be saying, “George held royal office in his emotions.”

The correct word phrase is “rein in” his temper because a rein is one of the leather straps attached to a horse’s bridle and used by the rider to control the horse. To stop a horse, the rider pulls on the reins, thus “reining in” the horse. If you want your character to hide or control his emotions, you would write, “George reined in his emotions.”

Why a Print Dictionary?

It never hurts to research the meaning of a word in a reliable print dictionary, especially if you're unsure of the correct usage. A reliable dictionary will give you extensive background on a word, when it entered the English language, examples of how it is used, and all the various meanings of a word. The English language is highly adaptable and there are words used every day that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Or they had a completely different meaning.

The only cure I know for expanding your vocabulary is to read, read, read! Need I say, all kinds of stories? Just be sure they are well-written. Embrace the English language, or whatever language you use when writing your stories. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Characters and Situational Awareness

I was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) one day when a man began recounting an incident in his life that led to a group of teens beating him up. I didn’t listen to the complete story because I couldn’t get past the beginning.

Here’s how he set it up:

  • It was midnight. 
  • It was Brooklyn, NY 
  • He was walking home alone. 
  • He was talking on the phone with his friend. 
  • He was wearing earbuds. 
  • He was in a deserted industrial area.

There were so many things wrong with this story. Rather than think, poor guy, he got beat up. I thought what were you thinking? Of course, you got beat up.

Let’s step back from his story for a moment.

I worked on ten Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handbooks–writing, editing, and proofreading chapters. One topic the FAA hit again and again was situational awareness. What is situational awareness, you ask? Pretty much what you think it is: being aware of the situation around you.

Being aware of what is happening around you deals with whether anyone or anything is a threat to your health and safety. In the big scheme of life, women are often more aware than men of threats to their safety. If your heroine is a nurse who works a night shift, she is going to be very aware of threats to her safety when she leaves the confines of the medical facility and walks to her car. The 6’ 2” male nurse who works the same shift may not be as uneasy or as situationally aware during the walk from the building to his car.

Between an early job with the U.S. Army Aircraft Accident Board and research I did while working on the FAA handbooks, I’ve read a lot of aircraft accident reports. While there may be contributing factors for accidents involving small airplanes, investigators often point to pilot error as the cause of the accident.

Today’s airplanes come equipped with computer assisted

instruments and often the airplane knows more than a newly-minted pilot. Which is why the FAA stresses the need to pay attention, to be situationally aware. It is not wise for a pilot to text friends or play a computer game because the sky looks clear and empty. Distractions mean the pilot is no long situationally aware. Weather conditions, for example, can deteriorate rapidly and disorient even the most experienced pilot, leading to an accident.

What does this have to do with the man who was attacked late at night in a lonely part of Brooklyn while talking on a phone? He set himself up to be attacked. He wasn’t situationally aware. He failed to look out for his own safety by remaining aware of his surroundings and the potential hazards he faced.

What does situational awareness have to do with writing stories?

It adds another layer of interest to your story and characters. Different characters will have differing degrees of situational awareness. For example, a Navy SEAL will be trained in situational awareness and practice it without conscious thought. His life may hinge on being able to prevent bad things. It’s an important part of his worldview. On the other hand, a yeoman, who is an administrative clerk in the Navy, won’t need or practice the same level of situational awareness. Sure, when driving to work it’s important, but his or her work involves computers, not bad guys with guns.

Situational awareness is only as accurate as personal perception or reading of the situation. In other words, what we think is happening may not accurately reflect reality. How a person reads a situation can be influenced by many things such as personal experience, correct or incorrect information, family or work pressures, and other distractions. A person can become so absorbed in their own thoughts or problems that he or she fails to even realize they face a serious threat to their safety until it is too late.

Like our guy who was interviewed on NPR. He’s walking alone through a deserted part of a big city late at night while he chats on the phone with his buddy. To ensure he gets mugged, he plugs his ears with earbuds. Talk about lack of situational awareness…

A writer can fill pages of back story on a character like this.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Pantser or Plotter: Do Writers Have to Choose One Over the Other?

In the writing world you’re either a “pantser” or a “plotter.” Pantser derives from the well-known idiom “to fly by the seat of your pants.” It dates from the early days of aviation when pilots had little to guide them during a flight. Aviation was a new frontier, pilots didn’t have any instruments or even good weather reports to rely on when they flew.

Plotters are as the name implies. Writers who figure out the plot in advance of writing the story. Plotters favor spreadsheets, story grids, and  in depth character charts.

Pop psychology says we have two hemispheres in our brain. The left hemisphere is the rational or logical side, while the right hemisphere is the creative or offbeat side. Plotter side versus Pantser side. The writers who outline and plot every scene in their novel (left hemisphere writers) and those who go blindly forth and just write, molding a story as they go (right hemisphere writers).

Plotter, Pantser, or Hybrid

Obviously, the fact that I have steps I like to follow consigns me to the plotter category. Oddly, I don’t think of myself as a diehard plotter. I like to think of myself as a hybrid–someone who pulls from both styles of writing. While I like to know where I’m headed, I don’t mind taking side roads to get there.

For me, the writing process often involves writing my thoughts in longhand, i.e. cursive. If you’re tied to the keyboard, you might be interested to learn there is a connection between writing and thinking. The act of manually writing down your ideas gives your brain time for reflection which is helpful when crafting a story.

It’s easy to outline and list plot points and then utilize free writing to flesh out the ideas. In free writing mode, grammar doesn’t matter, spelling doesn’t matter, punctuation doesn’t matter. What matters is getting your ideas on paper. Again, this is a rough draft. Obviously, if you’re not paying any attention to all those grammar rules English teachers pounded into your head, you won’t want to share this draft with anyone, especially an English teacher.

The Plus of Being a Hybrid Writer

I think relying on both styles of writing helps to keep the story fresh while reducing the time lost in rewriting. Over the years, I’ve often read articles by pantsers who bemoan the fact their story sprawls all over the place. They basically spew it out and then spend a lot of time in edit and revision modes to obtain a story that makes sense.

Then again, plotters often bemoan the loss of spontaneity, because they think they’ve lost their creativity in the planning process. Some types of writing demand detailed plotting. For the mystery novelist, a well-plotted story is essential. How else can she plant red herrings at the right time? How else can he sprinkle the clues that lead to the villain–something the mystery novelist knows from the beginning, but tries to hide from the reader?

Whatever your approach to writing, it’s important to keep in mind that each of us have a natural mindset that influences the way we write. It behooves you as a writer to experiment until you find your own path. The best way to achieve that goal is to write!


Thursday, August 13, 2020

Title Control: Coming up with a Title for Your Story

I hope you enjoyed my Story Steps series. I’ve decided to wander back into writing more randomly about writing. If that makes sense? The idea behind the Story Steps was to help you get started with a project. Now I’m going to return to random topics that I hope you will find helpful.

As usual, I had a little more to say about my experience with story titles than in my Story Step 6 blog. Disclaimer: I’m not the world’s best title maker upper. Although I am proud of several of my titles, they are usually hard fought battles as I try to find the one that best reflects the story I’m telling.

In Story Step 6, I wrote about choosing a title for your work in progress. My advice being that if you’re struggling with a title, don’t let that sidetrack you from writing the story. It’s not uncommon for traditional publishers, as I also mentioned, to change the title of a contracted book if they don’t like your title.

My thoughts wandered back this way because the rights to a short story reverted to me last month. The editors had retitled it when they published it. I didn’t care for the title and it even got pinged in a review, justifiably so. Most readers, and I guess many reviewers because they are readers, don’t realize an author doesn’t have control over elements such as title or cover with traditional publishers. Especially with early books.

When I was writing Ransom’s Bride, a Victorian era novel, I titled it Champion’s Bride. Then one of my valuable beta readers told me it sounded like a horse’s name. Oh dear! I dropkicked that title out the door, choosing to use the hero’s first name instead of his last. It was a good move because the editor who bought the manuscript kept the title.

That isn’t always the case.

If you’re new to the crazy world of writing, keep in mind that traditional publishers aren’t always on the mark with titles. It broke my heart when the editor, without any input from me, retitled my first book Tennessee Waltz.

I felt like Tom Hanks’s character in a League of Their Own and wanted to say “There’s no waltzing in this book!” The title seemed downright cruel because the heroine was lamed by a fall from a horse when she was a young girl. There was no dancing in her life.

I called the editor and told her why I thought that wasn’t a good title choice. Especially since Kensington already had a book by that name in their catalog! She told me to come up with other titles and she’d see if it could be changed.

I brain stormed with my agent, we sent a list, but no, it was too late. The covers were already made. To avoid confusion, they removed the other author’s book from their catalog. I always felt guilty about spurring them to take that action, but the book was about 6 years old and probably out-of-print. (The Good Ole Days!)

Way back when I began writing the story, I titled it Destiny’s Revenge. As the story took shape, I realized the word revenge probably didn’t belong in a romance. I retitled the story Destiny’s Angel, but then decided I liked D’Angelo’s Destiny better. I think it was a good title because under that guise, the manuscript won the Historical Romance Category as well as Best in Show in Authorlink’s New Author’s Competition. I was treated to a cash award and a free conference at the Harriette Austin Writers’ Conference at the University of Georgia.

When I got the rights back to this book and decided to Indie publish it, the first thing I did was change the title.The book revolves around different people stealing a horse named Destiny and finally the perfect title popped into my head: Stealing Destiny.

This title feels right. It fits the story better than the title of a country song about a woman losing her honeybun to another. Just remember, you wrote the story, you know it better than anyone else. It may take awhile, but if you follow Goldilocks’ lead and try different titles out, you’ll eventually find the title that’s “just right.