It happened to me one time where I was reading a historical and one of the characters made a reference to The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo and I paused and thought, ‘I don’t think that was published yet,’ ” says Martha Waters (see “The Debutante”). “So I dropped the book and googled pub dates for Alexandre Dumas. I was like, ‘Come on! It’s an easy google.’ ”
Every historical romance novelist is afraid of this. Every one of them has a story—the anachronism they caught, the one that slipped by.
“When I read novels and catch something that’s not historically accurate, I’m a snob,” says Anna Harrington, who has written more than a dozen Regencies. “That didn’t happen until 1815, and she’s talking about it in 1810! So you try to make it absolutely as accurate as possible. I remember having to do research to find out if I could have a stove in a scene. Were stoves even invented yet? Chimneys were a late invention; they weren’t around. Doorknobs were a late invention. Clothes hangers. These things that we take for granted that have been around forever, haven’t been.”
The embarrassment. The blooper blogs. Or, worse, the boredom.
“I have read historical novels about World War II and said to myself, ‘I know which two books this author used for research and that’s where she stopped,’ ” says Sarah Sundin, whose The Land Beneath Us (Baker, Feb. 2020) is the most recent of her Christian romance novels from the period. “When I was writing my first series, I was very nervous. My characters were B-17 bomber pilots. I was reading the training manuals.”
Sometime later, Sundin became aware that her female readers were putting her war books in the hands of older male relatives. “I’ve gotten emails from B-17 bomber pilots who said, ‘How did you know?’ ”
When a historical romance novelist does her research, it lends depth and authenticity to her story. Sometimes, it yields unexpected results. Here are a few examples of research gone right, and one where it goes... rather wrong.
An Elgin Solution
Waters’s forthcoming debut, To Have and to Hoax (Atria, Apr. 2020), was originally set in 1816, and then in 1818, before she settled on 1817 as the sweet spot. She discarded 1816, known as “the year without a summer” due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia; all the weather talk was a drag on the dialogue. She had to give up on 1818, too, because Princess Charlotte was in mourning and all of the clothes would have been dull.
But Waters says 1817 gave her something that her mischievously hypochondriac heroine needed. “At one point she’s laid up in bed, pretending to have consumption, as one does, and she’s bored out of her mind and trying to stay busy. I needed her to write a letter to the editor of a current journal, and I started googling what was happening in 1817, and that was the year the Elgin marbles were on display. It was perfect.”
The marbles, looted from Athens and taken to the British Museum, are still in London.
“When I was in Greece a few years ago, I was at the Acropolis, and they had some very passive-aggressive signage,” Waters says. “And I’m kind of with the Greeks on this one.”
Murderbot of the Century
Jayne Ann Krentz, who writes historicals as Amanda Quick (Close Up, Berkley, May 2020), is aiming to produce bestsellers, not textbooks. “They’re not reading your book for research,” she says of her fans, “but they do like to feel that they learned a little something along the way.”
Krentz’s newest series, set amid the glamor of 1930s Hollywood, includes a plot that was ripped from the headlines of the time. “There was so much going on that’s been kind of lost to history, like robots being a big deal in the ’30s and people having the same fears about them that we have now,” she says. Those fears became an international news story when an inventor put a gun in a robot’s hand, and the gun accidentally went off. That event inspired Tightrope (Berkley, 2019), in which an inventor is killed by his creation.
Krentz frequently peppers her historical romantic suspense novels with real incidents that made newspaper headlines at the time but may not have made it into the history books. Some of them were anything but romantic. The plot of The Other Lady Vanishes (Berkley, 2018), Krentz says, “hinged on the fact that it was horrifyingly easy to get a wife locked up in an insane asylum in the 1930s.”
Restoring Vanished Voices
Vanessa Riley’s website is a deep dive into forgotten, or sometimes buried, history. It began as a passion project but was a necessary one as she introduced black and West Indian heroines. “You’re still proving your existence, unfortunately,” she says. In a blog post that begins, “Yes, black people existed in the Regency,” she names several historical figures and cites sources including Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s Black London: Life Before Emancipation.
Fans of Riley’s novels can draw clear lines between her research and the stories it inspires, such as those in her Regency series Advertisements for Love (Entangled). “I was doing some research, and I came across ads women [at that time] were putting in the newspaper for husbands,” she says. “ ‘Woman of esteem in such-and-such a situation looking for a man of this caliber, object: matrimony.’ It shatters that passive dove image of women being reserved and waiting for men to find them.”
Like Heyer, Riley hunts for period-accurate details that embroider her characters’ world. “I’m very careful about what I bring in,” she says. “Chocolate is a good one. Chocolate was a thing, but chocolate confections? Not unless you can get to France, and they were at war.”
Betina Krahn has written romance novels set in Tudor England and turn-of-the-20th-century Cairo. Her current series, Sin and Sensibility, drops Wild West mining heiresses straight into Victorian London society. PW’s starred review called the forthcoming third installment, Anyone but a Duke (Zebra, Dec.), “enchanting.”
The heroines of the series are so-called dollar princesses—Americans, often of new money, who visited London in search of marriage to cash-poor nobles. (Notable historical examples include Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome.) “I ran across a couple of really interesting stories about the dollar princesses who came from the West,” says Krahn, who grew up in West Virginia and understands the snobbery that her heroines might have encountered. “Even in New York and on the East Coast, they were considered very uncultured and unlettered and not really acceptable no matter how much money they had.”
The inspiration for Amy Jarecki’s The Highland Rogue (Forever, Apr. 2020), seventh in the Lords of the Highland series, was clipped from the Highlander, a Scottish-American community magazine, a few years back. “In medieval times, they had banished an entire family to an island and left them to die because they had the plague,” she says. With The Highland Rogue, which moves from Jacobite Scotland to the Caribbean, “Divana, the heroine of this story, and her family had been banished to a small isle where eider ducks nest. The family had smallpox and had been left there to die, and she was the only one to survive.”
That leaves Divana in the perfect position to rescue Jarecki’s hero, who dives from his ship to avoid being captured and washes up on her island.
Romancing the Stones
Jo Goodman has a nephew in Colorado, where her forthcoming Stages of the Heart (Jove, May 2020) is set, but she generally avoids travel for research. “This idea of just traveling, I’m not there,” she says. “I get seasick, so I don’t get on boats. I don’t do a lot of firsthand kind of things. When I want to know how to saddle a horse, I look it up or ask a friend who rides.”
That usually works out fine. But when Goodman was researching 2000’s More Than You Know and she needed to figure out how various jewels were cut before the 19th century, she received an education she hadn’t bargained for. “This was dial-up days, so I got on the internet and was on something called AltaVista,” she says. She thought about search terms for a minute and settled on “precious gems.”
“Up pop sex toys—ruby dildo, sapphire butt plug,” Goodman says. “I shut that down so fast. I felt like the net police were going to come and get me. That was my first experience of trying to use the internet. I stuck to books for five more years.”