Making History Relevant

All the meetings of my local chapter of Romance Writers of America have been super valuable. I hope I can encourage you to find a chapter and join. Even an on-line chapter is valuable to a writer. We were fortunate enough to have Callie Hutton, USA Today best-selling author of Regency Romances, Western Historical Romances, and the occasional Contemporary Romance, come talk to us. She is delightful.

Her topic, How to Write Historical Characters that Appeal to Modern Audiences, covered a lot of details on what type of heroes and heroines sell today. And that’s one thing to remember when choosing how to spend your time for learning to write. Some members chose to skip this meeting because they don’t write historical. So what? Writing craft is writing craft. You can get good information from many sources.


For instance, Callie advised that we stay tuned to industry trends. Know what’s selling and what editors are looking for. Know which house bought out which publisher. Know which author sold movie rights to which studio. That’s very basic advice and a good starting place.

Callie collected input from blogs, other writers, readers, and articles. She provided a handout with great links and acknowledgments to the authors who contributed. I bet if you contacted her, she might be willing to send the handout to you!

Dos and don’ts are the basics for setting out your characters and plot. Know your market. Write the book of your heart after your books make money. The Pioneer Hearts group on Facebook is a western romance readers and authors group. They can often answer questions about historical events and availability of certain items.


I won a copy of this book!


Box sets work well with new readers because they can get a bunch of authors and find news ones as well as read things from current favorites. Through Pioneer Hearts, Callie joined other others to create a Continuity series like mail order brides. These brides all from had to come from the same place. They had 50 books in the series and all used the same cover artist. Look for Julia, Bride of New York by Callie Hutton. The heat levels were varied according to the authors.


Do not use unauthentic language. Contractions are a sketchy area. They were considered low class in Regency era. (A fan asked her, Why’s she do it that way? Callie answered, Sorry, write your own book.) I mentioned that I use Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well as an example of contractions in use. Still, that type of language was not ton. I got a free book for participating.

A spunky heroine has to fit in to the time period but can’t be stupid. Physical violence was all too common and acceptable in the past, but a big no-no in today’s books. Possible solutions are different cultures, such as Callie’s heroine who grew up in America and published scientific papers in botany under a man’s name. An interested in sciences or farming or many subjects that are not considered feminine could be useful.

Don’t have orchids brought into England in medieval times. They would not have made the trip well. Common knowledge is usually wrong.


Historically, there are definite differences between men’s roles and women’s roles. If you want to change them around, make it part of the plot. Clothes are important. Your MCs are not in costumes, they should know how to deal with the layers and fasteners and what nots. Otherwise, they play as not really a product of their times. Your story could take place in any time.

Yes, you want to do the research, but don’t include too much research and information in the story. Readers want a romance, not a history book.


No physical violence against woman. In spite of Diana Gabaldon’s insistence that Jamie beating his wife when she put his men in danger is totally historically real and accurate, would you have missed that scene if it had been left out?

Also, there’s no reason to get too realistic with details, like chamber pots. Mention it but not in detail.

Alpha males appeal, especially dukes in Regency romance. They correlate to Billionaires, law enforcement, and SEALS in Contemporary, Cattle Barons and Town Sheriffs in Westerns. He will be handsome unless scarred. Then the scar will make him even more attractive.

Women could be scared of childbearing and raising. Infant mortality rates were high. Princess Charlotte’s death in childbirth, in 1871, turned the field of obstetrics around.

Perhaps your MC is a Caregiver who gives up their own happiness. Women are caregivers. That hasn’t changed and is a significant part of modern woman’s life.


American readers love British royalty and the ton. Ella Quinn researched human trafficking for one of her novels. Men went to war, wives were kidnapped and children sold into kid ken (the kind of place Fagin ran in Oliver Twist). Human nature doesn’t really change. The heroine might be strong but the hero has something she wants.

Diversity is difficult to accomplish in historic romances. Callie is researching Bass Reeves, the original “Lone Ranger”, and ex-slave. (Look him up, fascinating!) Readers want to see things not written about in the history books. Dig a little deeper.

Bullying is a hot topic. Also, Social prejudice is a fact of life beyond about 50 years in the past. One heroine had been raised by gypsies, and even though she was of elevated blood, the taint of the Scottish “travelers” made her unacceptable to marry a high-born lord. The fun is in how the lord made it happen.


Not appealing: Submissive women. In the days of Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, the heroine might eventually fall in love with her rapist, but really? Don’t go there. The days of the bodice rippers are over. Also, avoid racism presented as if approved by the author. Same with discrimination, sexual abuse, and degradation. Callie recommended the movie, “Beer for My Horses”

Callie asked the group, What negatives have you heard about historicals? When the MCs have feelings but don’t know if the way is clear. Just talk to each other! (Of course, women and men rarely could just talk about things together.) Witty banter is good. Don’t cut those chatty corners. There were only 8 Dukes during Regency and they were ugly old losers. Very few handsome, rich, single peers. The Hero doesn’t care about the woman’s chances of getting pregnant in times of no birth control. (Georgie Lee clarified that, as she is teaching a wonderful class on the subject) When Research takes over the writer’s brain and makes the story an info dump. A woman can’t just get a job, they were totally dependent on male relatives. Poverty was so crushing you could die if you lost an investment, a husband, a son. Widowed women had no say over their children’s futures; a male guardian would enter the picture. The working girls used a sponge soaked in vinegar to prevent pregnancy.


Perhaps your heroine learns about birth control from a whore with a heart of gold. The balance between history and fiction is part of the fun of writing historical romances.

What is considered historical? Pre-World War II. Condoms were readily available as of the 1850s but kept and sold under the counter for many years.

Remember to track today’s historical market. Some publishers will monitor it for you if you are traditionally published. Romantic historicals are getting hotter, with more sex and more accurate terms for body parts. Goodbye, “man meat” and “lady channel”.

Writing about older heroines? You’ll find fans with lots of love. Print is still most popular with historic readers. 55% still buy hard copies. One member said she likes the covers. How do you stay up to date? Whatever your obstacles, you need to leverage networking. Fight the image of historicals as being for old people.


Some things fans like are that the rules for society make more sense than in modern times. You don’t have to keep up with technical changes like you would in Contemporary Romances. Waifs and orphans were everywhere, tugging at heart strings for your readers. Alternate life styles seem to be better represented by men than women. But two women could easily live together without raising eyebrows back then. Men had to be much more careful, as the penalty for discovery was hanging. Research Molly houses and LBGTQ.

As stated above, lots of situations arose to take people out of this life. A child perhaps loses mom, dad remarries, he dies, step mom remarries. The child grows up living with adults who are not his actual parents.

By the way, Jane Austen used contractions.

.Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Sunday.


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