Today historian, author and #DashItAlls member Mimi Matthews is talking abut how she uses her knowledge of nineteenth century history in her romance novels and her writing projects...
How I Use Victorian History to Enhance My Historical Romance Novels
I spend a great deal of my time researching and writing on nineteenth century history for my non-fiction books and articles. However, research into nineteenth century history plays an important part in my novel writing as well. No Victorian romance would be complete without references to the clothing, furnishings, and décor. Neither would it feel authentic to the period if the story lacked information on what was going on in the greater world around the characters.
In my new Victorian romance novel The Lost Letter, I mention several factual events which took place around the time of the story. Set in 1860, The Lost Letter is the tale of an impoverished Victorian beauty who is unexpectedly reunited with the now beastly earl who jilted her three years before. The hero is a former soldier and what makes him beastly—aside from his gruff and generally unpleasant attitude—are the severe scars he suffered while fighting to suppress the Indian Uprising of 1857.
The Indian Uprising is not the only true historical event which merits a mention in my novel. I also reference a catastrophic train derailment which occurred at Tottenham Station in 1860. In both cases, I thoroughly researched these events using soldier’s journals, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings. And, in both cases, much of my research did not make it into my novel. Nor should it have.
I’m not saying it isn’t tempting. When you have pages and pages of notes from your research, of course you want to use them. But in a romance novel, I find that it is very easy to go overboard with historical details. And then, instead of a historically authentic love story, you have a book which feels more like a dry recitation of historical facts or—even worse—a historical research info dump.
How much is too much historical info in a romance novel? I wish there was an easy answer, but, in truth, this is something which I still struggle with myself. For example, I have written many articles on Victorian fashion, as well as having a book on Victorian fashion history coming out next summer (A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, Pen & Sword Books). Naturally, when writing a romance, I want to tell my readers what the heroine is wearing. It’s practically mandatory. But for my stories, it never really works to describe a dress in minute detail. It is far more effective to leave it at a few descriptive words about the cut, the fabric, or the trimming.
In general, I want to provide just enough historical detail to make the story feel authentic. This often means that I can’t share everything I want to about a dress, a bonnet, or a pair of button boots. And I can share even less of what I know about a Victorian era war or a political crisis or a burgeoning feminist issue. Too much and it bogs down the love story.
So, what do I do with all of the excess information I’ve gathered during my research? It definitely doesn’t go to waste. What I learn informs the way my characters act and speak and live their fictional lives, even if they never mention a particular current event or describe a particular style of evening gown. And, of course, the research itself always finds its way into articles or posts on my website. I’ve already written articles on the Indian Rebellion, the Tottenham Station Railway disaster, the etiquette of the Victorian handshake, and the popularity of violet perfume—all subjects I researched for my novel. As for Victorian fashion, my research figures in to countless articles and guides both on my website and elsewhere.
I know that some readers will prefer more historical detail, even if each detail encompasses pages and pages of text (think An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer). For me, however, using only a fraction of the research I generate seems to work perfectly for my stories. I hope those who read The Lost Letter will agree!
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Pen & Sword Books, November 2017) and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen & Sword Books, July 2018).
Her articles on nineteenth century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture, and are also syndicated weekly at BUST Magazine.
When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper Victorian romance novels with dark, brooding heroes and intelligent, pragmatic heroines. Her debut Victorian romance The Lost Letter was released on September 19, 2017.
How do you like your historical detail? In depth or integrated? Share your thoughts with Mimi in the comments!