Researching the British Historical



From the beginning of time, there have been men and women. From the beginning of time, there has been romance. What was love in the year 1272 is still love in 1997. So what, then, distinguishes an historical romance from a contemporary?

The setting.

Consider these paragraphs:

Example 1: The young woman mounted her horse and was off before he knew what happened.

Example 2: Lady Anne Herrington managed to jump into the side-saddle unaided. Prompting her Arabian mare with her riding crop, she was off, the veil of her high-crowned hat trailing her in the breeze. Lord Falkhurst stood staring after her as the whistle of a distant train howled in the background.

The same action has just occurred, yet with details, we get an idea of the setting. Note the underlined words. We are brought to England with the titles 'Lord' and 'Lady.' We imply wealth because of an Arabian mare. The side-saddle places the story in the past, but the train whistle brings us forward to Victorian times.

Historical writers need this detail to have readers identify with their story. That is not to say that contemporary works don't require detail. They do. But details in an historical focus on the time period or era the author is writing about.

Contemplate this situation: The heroine has had an exhausting morning of paying calls. She wants nothing more than to sit and rest her weary bones. She could use a settee, tete a tete seat, sofa, chesterfield, couch, divan, ottoman, confidante or day bed. Each serves the same purpose, yet each brings to mind a different era or setting.

The details make your story believable. But a word of caution to the writer--DON'T ASSUME! Look up everything. It's tedious but necessary. For example, pencils were first manufactured in 1584, yet they didn't have attached erasers until 1858. Toothbrushes were invented by the Chinese in 1498, although toothpaste was not available in a tube until 1892.

Here is a food fact, that woven into your story, would not only authenticate your credibility as a researcher, but would add that certain detail that would make the reader sit back and say, "Isn't that interesting?" Produce was sent in hampers from the country estates via railway to London during the Season to ensure fresh produce for the lord of the manor and his family. Imagine the cook anxiously awaiting the day's delivery when needing to prepare a dinner for fifty.

So, you ask, where do you start? Anywhere, really. As long as everything is thoroughly researched. The last thing you want is for a reader to write to you after the book is published, pointing out your errors. Don't be afraid to over-research. While you will not use every uncovered fact for this book, it may come in handy for the next.

Look at everything from architectural styles to desserts. Here is a list of subjects to get you started.




Monetary Units



Natural History






Political History



Social Hierarchy



Social History



Social Norms

Family Structure




 Remember, this is an incomplete list. You may want to expand your research efforts as you go. For example, has your hero spent ten years fighting in India for the Queen? What are the branches of service? What are the ranks? How does one gain promotion? What were they paid? What were the significant battles? What medals were awarded? Who were the generals? How were the branches divided? How did the soldiers live? While you won't use all of these details in the story, you, as the author, will decide which of these aspects will affect how your hero behaves in the story.

Of course, none of this will be pertinent for a hero who spent his entire life carousing on the continent. But it needs to be researched if that is your hero's background. Not only will you get the details you need, but you might also get plot ideas--the old 'what if?' question.

Use antique maps also. They will show you which roads existed in the past and the type of population in each neighborhood. Biographies of people from the era are good for contemporary views of the day, especially if they contain personal correspondence.

One important thing to remember while researching an era like the Victorian however, is that what was "Victorian" in England may not have been "Victorian" in America. Make certain your reference is geared toward the country you need.

Other good sources are magazines such as National Geographic, In Britain or British Heritage. Contemporary fiction of the time is one of my favorite resources, because not only am I researching, I'm enjoying a good book. I find novels by Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope are wonderful for nicknames of people and places and they give a good overview of what life was really like without laboring through a history book.

Contemporary manuals and handbooks of the time are valuable also. You can get authentic recipes from Mrs. Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine or her Book of Household Management. Another source (and another reason I love the Victorian period, it is almost comical in its serious nature) is the book Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits. This was not an uncommon title for the time.

Again, this is only the tip of the iceberg. My last suggestion? Keep a record of every book you've used, and cite the source for every note you take. Index cards or computer database, you may want to use that source again some time, or you may need to back up what you've written. Finally, when in doubt, leave it out. If you can't prove something, don't use it. You may be called on it.

Either way, good luck! And have fun going back to the future!


Note: See Researching the Romance for a detailed bibliography. And don't forget to visit our on-line bookstore where you will find many useful reference books to help you on your way.

Also see Writers' Resources for a comprehensive listing of On-Line resources



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Copyright 1997, M. Hoppe