Saturday, July 10, 2010

Writing Historic Romance

Guest blog by G.G. Royale

I love writing historic romance, and part of that comes from the fact that I never want to stop learning. Writing historical gives me an excuse to read more, to buy more books, to spend hours surfing WPA archives and backlogs of newspapers online. The most fun thing for me in writing historic fiction is when I get to use one of those wonderful nuggets of information I gleaned in a meaningful way in my story.

I have a master of fine arts in fiction from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, so I have studied writing. A lot of writing. But I never sat down to learn how to write historic fiction specifically. If there is a “method” others use, I don’t know about it. In talking today about the way I do it, I will reference The Flapper and the Fellow, a mild BDSM novella set in 1925, available from Loose Id. This is by no means my only historic work -- I’ve written erotic romances set in the Middle Ages, samurai-era Japan, and plantation-era Louisiana to name a few -- but it is the one for which I did the most research.

When starting any story, the first thing I do is create my concept, my basic plot, and my main characters. I do this sort of devoid of time or setting. That can come later. Character should drive plot, so really the people matter most. I do tend to write to a lot of calls for submissions -- found either at Duotrope or the Erotica Readers and Writers Association page -- so most of the time I start with the theme or prompt. In the case of The Flapper, the theme was “trading places”; two characters had to house swap or something like that. I knew most people would play with the idea that the two people who swapped would be the two love interests, so I decided to go with the idea of who got left behind. From that, the story of Dot, the housekeeper, and Winnie, the professor taking Dot’s sister’s job, came about. My next thinking was “When would be a fun time for this to happen?” and of course the 1920s popped into my head: the hedonism of the Jazz Age tempered by Prohibition, suffrage… This time period offers a plethora of cultural conflict and richness from which to draw, particularly when set in New Orleans.

Once I’ve settled on my characters, plot, and setting, I start my research. My primary source for The Flapper was Mary Lou Widmer’s New Orleans in the Twenties. I like to use at least one book that can sit next to me while I’m writing because going back and forth between my word processing program and Web sites can sometimes feel frustrating. This book is full of great anecdotes and pictures, organized into chapters about the major elements of life and society at the time. It makes for very easy referencing. I prefer that sort of book to more thorough sociological, academic treatises, though those have more in-depth treatments. All I need is a few touch points that will ring true to readers, such as the names of newspapers, sports teams, restaurants…those sorts of things. I think most major cities have books like that.

In general, I try to write in such a way as to avoid anachronism by glossing over some details, leaving other things out completely, and totally playing up what I know was there. This works better in erotic romance because the romance is central, not some plot necessarily derived from the era in which it is set. Adding the erotic element makes it even better, since I can always distract the reader with sex! If I can’t find out for a fact whether or not an invention existed in the period of my story, I’ll leave it out completely. Following that, a few firm things I know fit into the time period added to the story give a sense of reality. For instance, Dot’s car starts by literally cranking over the engine. Every scene involving the car includes that at some point, even in the pouring rain. Fashion is also great to play with because the old fashion plates from magazines make for very clear description and up-to-the-moment accuracy.

I tend to focus on one or two elements of the era that I think are the most important in relation to the plot and throw in a heavier dose of detail there. In The Flapper, those elements were jazz and Prohibition. I referenced Louis Armstrong and what his career was doing in 1925, and I talked about the radio stations that were just sprouting up. These things were important to Dot’s character, since she wants to play trumpet in a band. I also researched plenty of articles on how easy it was to get a drink in New Orleans in the 1920s; it was really easy. Most of the famous granddame restaurants here had secret rooms, code to order special drinks, or waiters who openly carried flasks in their apron pockets to spike any drink for their grateful customers. The bayous and inlets south of the city made for great rum-running too, so the restaurants were never in short supply. Winnie’s father was an abusive drunk and his mother a teetotaler, so the availability of booze is somewhat shocking to him, though he slowly learns to appreciate the New Orleans cocktail spirit.

Once the story is finished, I read it through looking specifically for anachronisms, and I have a proofer do the same. As a reader, I can’t stand it when I know for a fact something shouldn’t be in a story, and I do try quite hard to avoid having my own readers feel the same way. This is completely separate from any other edits or proofing that I do. That’s about it. After a final polish, I sent the manuscript off with my fingers crossed that it will find a publisher.

Bio: G.G. Royale began writing erotica in the English student lounge at a small California university in the 1990s. After taking a few years to perfect her craft and earn her MFA in creative writing, she began submitting short stories. Her work appears on Web pages, in anthologies, and as eBooks. She lives in New Orleans, raises chickens, and edits for erotic romance publisher Loose Id.

More information can be found at her site, and at her blog.

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