Historical Romance, Is the Emphasis on the History or the Romance?

Until recently, I never gave this much thought. When someone asks about my favorite genre, my answer is “romance” more specifically “historical romance, with a medieval setting.” I love the escapism afforded by historical romances. What is an historical romance? For me, it is primarily a romance that is not set in the present.

Clearly, by my definition, I have already placed the emphasis on “romance” and in the eyes of some bloggers and readers, I have already sinned. The fact is I want my books to tell an exciting, fictional, romantic story within a setting that is as historically accurate as I can make it. I purposely avoid major historical events because I prefer novels where the history is the setting and not the primary focus. In one of my novels, it is unlikely that you will ever find yourself with Duke William as he leads the Norman invasion or with the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden. Some people refer to novels like this, somewhat condescendingly as “wallpaper historical romances.” So be it. If my wallpaper looks about right, I am happy.

So how do I define “historical accuracy?” I learn as much as I can about the life style of the era. I try to ensure that social norms, manners of dress, religious practices, medical knowledge and details of daily life are generally accurate. For an excellent example, shall we consider the kilt? Although the very handsome man on the cover of Highland Solution is draped in a tartan; kilts, tartans and “clan colors” are never mentioned in the book. It is unlikely that kilts existed much before the 16th century and the concept of clan specific tartan patterns is even more recent. I do refer to “plaids” and “arisaids.” The simple fact is that the word “plaid” (and the earliest meaning of the word “arisaid”) referred to a blanket or cloak-like garment worn around the shoulders as opposed to the specific weave of the fabric. The earliest “plaids” may have been a single color, or perhaps woven in stripes. The tartan patterns that we refer to today as “plaid” probably didn’t exist in the 14th century.

Do I fault other romance writers for dressing their medieval Highland heroes in kilts? No. There is something undeniably romantic about a kilted warrior, draping his “colors” around his new wife. However, as sweet as it is, it is an image I avoid. In fact, I don’t spend a lot of words describing clothing at all. If readers want to imagine the “plaid” my hero wears as a tartan kilt they can. There is only one article of clothing that I put any emphasis on and that is the brèid or kertch worn over a woman’s hair. Very little else is known about what medieval Highland women wore, but the pure white linen triangle, symbolizing the Holy Trinity was worn by all married women starting the morning after they wed. So, after my heroines are married, they wear a kertch in public.

Another thing that I have heard criticized is the language style that authors use. Some author’s choose to write in a dialect that sounds period or location appropriate. For the most part I don’t. I am telling a story to a modern audience, I don’t want them struggling with syntax. I use just a hint of dialect to help establish the setting. For example I use the word “ye” instead of “you.” I use the commonly recognized words, aye, nay, lad, and lass. I also use the word “wheesht” (meaning “hush”) and “bairn” (meaning “baby”). Other than that, I try to keep the dialogue simple. However, I do try to avoid anachronisms. Although a modern audience would understand my meaning if a character were heading down the hill “full bore,” that particular idiom was first used in the 20th century, so I would avoid it. The origin of the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is much older and could be reasonably used and understood in the 14th century, so I use it.

I’ll save other language issues, medical treatments, religious practices and castle construction for another day. I will close by saying that Highland Solution is a romance, the purpose of which is to warm your heart and entertain. It is set in the medieval Highlands and in my opinion is historically accurate enough to feel real although it is fiction. Are there errors? Probably but I hope they don’t interfere with a reader’s ability to enjoy the story. Someday maybe I will take a page out of George RR Martin’s book and create a medieval-like world that doesn’t really exist in which I can create my own reality with impunity. Until then I hope you feel welcome at Duncurra.

About cecigiltenan

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