A Tiny Compass for Historical Romance Writers

If you want to write historical romance, then I’ve got some books for you.

Now, since historical romance is firmly in the romance category, you might be tempted to spend all your time focused on hitting certain beats like the meet cute or the dark night of the soul, allowing the setting to serve as a mere costume for the romance.

Personally, however, as a reader of the genre (especially when blended with historical fantasy, such as Mary Robinette Kowal’s work), I’m as intrigued by the unique identifiers of time in historical romance as I am by the adventure of love; when the historical side of the story is told too vaguely or inaccurately, I have a hard time respecting the rest of the writing.

So here are three resources to inspire your own historical romance writing. History varies depending on who recorded it, and there are more cultures and countries (with subcultures therein) than I can introduce, but I hope these resources serve as the tiniest of compasses to get you thinking about the ‘history’ part of historical romance.

Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves

You read that subtitle correctly. This book is a nonfiction tapestry of the real-life historical relationship (read: marriage) between two post-Revolutionary American women in Vermont and the legacy they left behind.

Writer and historian Rachel Hope Cleves uses various sources (which, combined, make a bibliography that would challenge an unladen swallow) to not only demonstrate that Charity and Sylvia were a couple, but to demonstrate the ways in which this relationship was understood and acknowledged by their community in Weybridge. I’m oversimplifying, but: largely through Charity’s leadership both professionally (as a highly skilled tailor) and religiously, the couple anchored their community and were respected and understood as the same sex couple they were.

All the little societal details that don’t necessarily have anything to do with Charity or Sylvia but rather with that specific time and place directly define the nuance in character relationships and conduct.

Letters had little privacy, as they weren’t stuffed into an envelope but rather folded for passage. Letter writers had to avoid gossip-inducing content lest the couriers saw some salacious words!

Same-sex friendships in this time and place were very romantic in nature. It was terribly distressing for many men and women if their friends didn’t effuse sufficiently.

Relationships with parents immediately after the revolutionary war were strained: the youth believed they lived in a country where anyone could be free to pursue their destiny, parents yet demanded filial piety and obedience, and when women, especially, expected freedom in this new era, they were even more harshly reigned in.

Politically, it was an uncertain climate full of drastically different expectations based on age and sex, and neither Charity nor Sylvia were untouched by those politics. Still, they fell in love and committed to each other in a time when such a commitment had little clear path forward.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Normally I prefer to recommend nonfiction in this column, but I can’t not recommend this book. It sounds like it would be smut from cover to cover and is therefore even less fitting to talk about in a column about historical romance.

But, first of all, it isn’t 100% smut (maybe 30%). And secondly, the real juiciness is rooted in the cultural tensions and in the mystery of the plot, whereby the main character teaches older Punjabi women how to write . . . better erotica. Meanwhile, they have to hide the erotic aspect of their writing classes from the community.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is set in the present, so you may not see the connection between it and historical romance. The connection is in the intersection of race, religion, culture, age, and location, which is so informative to the characters. You could do far worse than to study how Jaswal maps out love, sexuality, and cultural pressures.

It’s also worth noting Jaswal’s presentation of history itself: not as something stagnant and written in stone, but something alive and wriggling, redefined as we go through life and uncover more of its roots.

Writing the Other: A Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

For writers anywhere, any genre, this book is an absolute gem. Here’s the short of it, in my words: you will come to a crossroads in your writing where you either ignore (sometimes accidentally) entire groups of people because they’re unfamiliar to you or you try directly to write them, and, in so doing, face the challenge of writing that other group with justice in your representation.

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward include thought experiments and writing exercises in this book that help writers meet that crossroads with their strongest and most humane writing practices.

If you haven’t made the connection yet between this book and historical romance, tell me: how many of your main characters are disabled? How many are of a race outside your own? Whose love stories are you writing?

There’s no correct answer to these sorts of questions, but you should absolutely be thinking of them when you’re populating your historical romance and evaluating what challenges these dynamics pose to your characters.

For some, maybe that means you’d prefer it to be more of a historical fantasy where you get to rewrite a painful or restrictive part of history so that your characters can have a happier ending than they might have had under a more historically ‘realistic’ narrative.

While historical romance isn’t intended to host doctoral dissertations of relationship dynamics in the past, there’s a reason that first word, historical, is so important for readers and writers alike. I hope these three books help you craft stories in this genre with more immersive satisfaction.


About this Column: With occasional parentheticals a la Robin McKinley, If This, Then That connects the dots between niche interests for LSQ readers and the books that suit them.