Research for historical romances

This week Scribe Brian O’Conor let us know that he’d have to leave us. I’m bummed because I’ll miss his posts, and wish him the very best in the future! This post first appeared Monday on Dale Cameron Lowry’s blog…though I might have tweaked a word or two, since I’m never ever done editing….

This last couple weeks, I’ve been busy celebrating the release of my 1950s m/m romance Aqua Follies. Since the past is on my mind, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned about research for a historical romance.

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There are probably as many ways to do handle research as there are writers out there doing it. My two most recent releases were set in the middle of the 20th century, long enough ago to qualify as ‘historical’, but not so distant from contemporary times. With both these projects, I approached the research as a series of layers, and I did my best to balance information and story.

First, I tried to place my stories as specifically as possible in time, to figure out where they fit in the big picture. For example, Aqua Follies takes place in late July until October of 1955. With those dates in mind, I framed the story with current events. WWII had ended ten years before, but the Korean War ended in July ‘53 so it made sense for the characters’ life experiences to be influenced by those conflicts.

In the mid-50’s Senator McCarthy was in power, and there were several incidents of gay men being rounded up and arrested or sent to asylums. At the same time the Mattachine Society – an early gay rights group – was spreading, and same-sex establishments were in operation in Seattle, their patrons’ safety reliant on a system of police corruption. Those were the kinds of real events that became the framework I crafted the story around.

Once I get the dates plotted out – the top layer – I look for information about what life was like in the time-period. Google is a gold mine for this kind of research. Pretty much the only limit for what you can find is your tolerance for digging. For Aqua Follies, I was able to find everything from essays on cultural attitudes towards homosexuals to the daily weather report, all of which helped me create the world where the story takes place.

It’s the details that will make the world ring true. My final layer of research is seeking out first person accounts that describe aspects of the story. One of the huge benefits of writing a story set in the ‘50s is that I could talk to people who been alive then.

My friend’s father-in-law, Overton Berry, played jazz in Seattle from the early ‘50s, and he was a huge help in filling in the good bits. Overton talked about how professional musicians operated, what the standard repertoire might include, and he also gave me a feel for what society’s attitude toward musicians might be. If I was working on an earlier piece, I’d look for diaries, old catalogues, and magazines to help with the fine detail. I will never truly know what it was like to live in 1950s Seattle, but I learned as much as I could to make readers believe I was there.

And what happens with all this research? Like ol’ Ben Franklin says, “Do everything in moderation, including moderation.”

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A good story will incorporate historically accurate facts without beating the reader over the head with them. This example might be kind of a cliché, but you don’t need a paragraph on how the Colt 45 was manufactured in the middle of a fight scene, and you don’t want a dissertation on a Victorian woman’s undergarments in the middle of sexytimes. Research should inform the story, not become the story.

In my work, I find the process has a real give and take; I write until I hit a detail I need to research, then dig around enough to feel comfortable writing more. In addition, research has helped me solve story problems. For Aqua Follies, I needed something dramatic that would keep my two heroes from coming together. A small story in the Seattle Times digital archives described how one of the real Aqua Follies synchronized swimmers mistimed a dive and nearly drowned. That two-paragraph article became a key event in the novel, and was definitely not something I would have come up with on my own.

Even with the best intentions, though, it’s possible to throw in an anachronistic detail. Despite something like eight beta readers and two content editors, it was the proofreader who recognized that Buddy Holly was still in high school in 1955, so couldn’t have had a song on Skip’s car radio. If there are other little slip-ups and a reader calls me on them, my best bet is to smile, apologize, and add them to my notes so I won’t screw up the sequel.

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I recently read a historical romance that I described as “the Glee version of a Regency”. The author had most of the details down, but there were enough little bumps either in characters’ attitudes or the language they used that I didn’t quite believe that version of the time period. The book sold very well, so clearly not every reader is going to throw their Kindle at the wall if a subordinate forgets to address a duke as Your Grace. Good storytelling is worth the effort, though, and I love the process of excavating the layers of history and finding a balanced way of bringing them to life.

If you’d like more information on writing historical romance, check out these articles by Elizabeth Crook, Chuck Sambuchino for Writer’s Digest, Anne M. Marble for Writing World, and KJ Charles. Thanks very much!

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The 1950s. Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.

Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because sometimes good things can come of it. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?

 

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Aqua Follies! $0.99 Preorder till 6/15/17

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This has definitely been a process, but Aqua Follies will soon be making its way out into the world. What started as a fun idea turned into a project I’m quite passionate about, and I hope readers will enjoy it, too. This post is short (because I’m blogging E-V-E-R-Y W-H-E-R-E this week and next) but I do hope you’ll check out the blurb and excerpt, and maybe grab a copy while it’s still only $0.99. Thanks!!

AquaFollies_Digital_Web

AF_blogtags_blurb

The 1950s.

Postwar exuberance. Conformity. Rock and roll.

Homophobia.

Russell tells himself he’ll marry Susie because it’s the right thing to do. His summer job coaching her water ballet team will give him plenty of opportunity to give her a ring. But on the team’s trip to the annual Aqua Follies, the joyful glide of a trumpet player’s solo hits Russell like a torpedo, blowing apart his carefully constructed plans.

From the orchestra pit, Skip watches Poseidon’s younger brother stalk along the pool deck. It never hurts to smile at a man, because good things might happen. Once the last note has been played, Skip gives it a shot.

The tenuous connection forged by a simple smile leads to events that dismantle both their lives. Has the damage been done, or can they pick up the pieces together?

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$0.99 PREORDER PRICE

FROM 6/8/17 – 6/15/17

Amazon  –   Barnes and Noble   –   Kobo   –   iBooks   
More Stores

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When Skip had crossed the line into blatant flirting, Russell blushed like a girl. Skip liked the charge that came with pushing the pedal down, and—despite Lou’s opinions—he had enough self-preservation to know when to cut the gas.

Skip followed Russell to a shadowy area in the back of the parking lot, and once they were out of sight of anyone in the club, Russell brought out the flask and handed it over. Skip took a hit, the whiskey’s smoky burn warming his chest on the way down. “I got another question for you.”

Russell took the flask and raised an eyebrow.

“How come you don’t dance?” Skip was mainly curious, but the words carried more heat than he’d intended.

Russell snorted, crossing his arms over his chest in a way that made his biceps bulge. “I just don’t.”

“Maybe you need someone to teach you.” Lou would sure scold him for this one. “Maybe you just need the right person.”

Russell’s fists clenched, and for half a second, Skip thought he might haul off and punch him. Heck, he probably deserved it. Then Russell choked out a laugh. “The right person. Sure.”

“I mean…” Since he hadn’t been served a knuckle sandwich, Skip struck a pose, hip cocked, hands in the air like they were on a partner’s shoulders. “I can do the cha-cha.” He swung his hips, fighting a laugh at Russell’s perplexed expression. “Or the swing.” He mimed a four-step pattern, then swung his hips again for good measure. Russell appeared transfixed by the motion.

A shout of laughter distracted them. A group of people spilled out the nightclub’s door, a woman’s voice rising over the hubbub. “Where are we going again?”

Russell shifted in their direction, hands on his hips. “Annette?” he said softly.

“Wait. I want to go back in and hear the band.” To Skip’s ear, the woman wasn’t laughing nearly as hard as the bunch of guys she was with.

“Come on, sugar. It’s just out here,” one of the men said. Skip didn’t like the way he laughed.

“No.”

This time there was no mistaking the distress in her voice. Russell took off running, with Skip right behind. He detoured to the door of the club, where he ran into Ryker and Susie. They were laughing, his arm around her shoulder.

“Come on, you guys,” Skip said. “It sounds like your friend Annette’s in some trouble.”

By the time they got to the other end of the parking lot, Russell was chest to chest with a drunken college boy, the kind with pale skin, a buzz cut, and a mean attitude. Skip looked around for anything he could use as a weapon if it came to a fight. There were two other fellows backing the one in front of Russell, and Annette huddled against a car, tears streaking her cheeks.

“So you’re going to take on all three of us? All by your lonesome?” The boy stuck his finger in Russell’s chest. Russell grabbed his wrist and leaned into him. The college boy was taller, but Russell was broader and bulkier.

“If I have to.”

Under different circumstances, the rock-solid certainty in Russell’s tone would have given Skip a hard-on. Saving that thought for later, he grabbed a thick branch lying between the cars.

“One against three.” Another of the college boys snickered.

Skip stepped forward, holding the branch loosely. “Looks like three against three to me.” Ryker followed his lead.

One of the arrogant fools came right up to Ryker. “Two and a half against three, I’d say.”

With a click, Ryker opened a switchblade. “Funny how this extends my reach.”

Swinging the branch, Skip took a step forward. The college boys all shifted back, even the one facing off with Russell. Skip might be slender and a little light in his boots, but anyone who grew up in Pioneer Square knew how to fight. He and Ryker moved into position on either side of Russell, and the college boys backed off.

“We were just playing anyway.” One of them laughed like it was all a joke.

“Didn’t sound like that to me,” Russell said. “I think you should apologize to my cousin.”

“Your cousin’s a slut.”

Skip wasn’t sure which one said it, but before anyone could respond, Russell took three big steps forward and put his fist into the middle guy’s belly. The boy dropped to his knees, and Russell stood over him. “Anyone else?”

The other two beat feet, which didn’t surprise Skip. These candy-ass college boys were all show and no go. Susie ran up to Annette, with Russell right behind her. “I’m going to get the car,” Skip said to Ryker. “We gotta cut out.”

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Sixteen performers and tunes mentioned in Aqua Follies…

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I write romance: m/f, m/m, and v/h, where the h is for human and the v is for vampire … or sometimes demon … I lean more towards funny than angst. When I’m not writing I take care of tiny premature babies or teenagers, depending on whether I’m at home or at work. My husband is a soul of patience, my dog’s cuteness is legendary, and we share the homestead with three ferrets. Who steal things. Because they’re brats.

I can be found on-line at all hours of the day and night at my website (www.livrancourt.com) & blog (www.liv-rancourt.blogspot.com), on Facebook (www.facebook.com/liv.rancourt), or on Twitter (www.twitter.com/LivRancourt). For sneak peeks and previews and other assorted freebies, go HERE to sign up for my mailing list.

Come find me. We’ll have fun!