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Friday, September 10, 2010

Why I Don't Write Historicals . . .

Deborah Raney's books have won the RITA Award, HOLT Medallion, National Readers' Choice Award, Silver Angel, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. She and her husband, Ken Raney, have four children and enjoy small- town life in Kansas.

Last spring, when a friend invited me to post on her historical fiction blog, I was honored, but my first panicked thought was, "what on earth do I have to say about historical fiction?" While I love to read historical novels, I've only written one, a novella. (Had it been a full-length historical, I'd still be asking for extensions on my deadline!) The only thing that experience accomplished was to convince me I'd best stick to writing contemporary. Why? Oh, let me count the ways...

My first sentence of my first draft of "Circle of Blessings"––set in 1864 in the Dakota Territory––read something like this:

Heather Bradford grabbed her handbag from the credenza in the parlor and stepped out onto the back deck, panning the horizon.

My fingers paused on the keyboard. Was a purse actually called a "handbag" back then? Better check. Webster said the word "handbag" only came into popular use around 1862. My Heather lived in a rather remote area and was not especially fashion conscious. Not likely she'd have adopted such a newfangled term. Two hours of research later, I settled on "reticule" and hoped my editor would correct me if I was wrong.

Sadly, my research also unearthed the fact that Heather would have to wait at least sixteen years to call her sideboard/buffet a "credenza" since Webster dated that word at 1880. Okay, delete and replace. So now my first sentence read:

Heather Bradford grabbed her reticule from the sideboard in the parlor and stepped out onto the back deck, panning the horizon.

Hmmm...come to think of it, I doubt it was typical to build a deck onto homes back then. Or at least if they did, they'd call it something else. A porch? Or a veranda? Portico, maybe? Terrace? I highlighted the phrase "onto the back deck." My brother is an architect. He probably took some architectural history classes on his way to getting licensed. I could give him a call later.

I read my sentence again. Something still seemed "off." The word "panning" stood out somehow. I looked it up: pan [verb] –– to rotate (as a motion-picture camera) so as to keep an object in the picture or secure a panoramic effect. 1930. Shoot! It was a movie term. I couldn't use a movie term in a novel set in 1864! Delete delete delete. I was starting to hate this Webster guy.

Heather Bradford grabbed her reticule from the sideboard in the parlor and stepped out onto the porch[?], scanning the horizon.

Wait! Was "scanning" a printing term? You know: PSC. Printer/Scanner/Copier? Consult Webster. Nope, I was okay there. "Scan" was also a legitimate and ancient verb.

But my heroine's name didn't ring true. Sure it was one of the most common and popular names at the time I was writing that novella, but further research revealed that the name was almost nonexistent as a woman's name before 1940.

Okay, fine. I could change her name. My great-grandmother was born around 1880. It would probably be safe to use her name, Stella. Delete delete delete delete.

Stella Bradford grabbed her reticule from the sideboard in the parlor and stepped out onto the porch[?], scanning the horizon.

Three days and 578,642 dead brain cells later, I finally had an opening line for my novella, but by now I was second-guessing myself on every single word. Was the word "grabbed" in use back in 1864? Probably, but had the term made its way to the Dakota Territory by then? Was there even a horizon back in 1864? Sheesh!

I finally, finally finished "A Circle of Blessings" and it appeared in the lovely Christmas anthology, A Currier & Ives Christmas. This month, A Prairie Christmas Collection, a new anthology of historical Christmas romances, releases from Barbour Books and my name will be one of those on the cover. But don't let that fool you. My offering to that collection of wonderful stories is again "Circle of Blessings," the first, last––and only––historical piece Deborah Raney ever wrote.

And now you know why I write contemporary. And why I have such deep respect for the authors of the historical novels I love to read. My hat (or should that be chapeau?) is off to every one of them!


  1. LOL! I love historicals too, Deb, but went through the exact same thing.

  2. Wow. I had some thought of a World War II novel, but I'm wondering after reading this! LOL! At least it wouldn't be that far back in history.


  3. I'm convinced that those who write historicals must also have a passion for research.

  4. I love to READ historicals, too! I would be terrified to try and write one. I'll never say never, but OH MY. P.S. I love the line about the dead brain cells! So funny!

  5. Well, since I'm NOT a fan of historical novels, I'm thrilled that you stick to contemporaries, and that you are so gifted in your writing!

  6. Authors who write historicals are so talented! The best ones just have this talent for research. I am never surprised to hear about the hours these authors spend researching their novels, but I am in awe.

    Congratulations on Circle of Blessings. :-)

  7. I love reading historicals, but, time and time again I've stated to authors, editors, other writers, etc. that I will NEVER write one. My historical knowledge is simply awful! I'd be spending so much time researching every single little thing that the book would not get done! BTW, your post made me chuckle!

  8. LOL, Deb! Funny blog post. You're awesome.

  9. Glad I could make some of you smile. I'm smiling too––now that I don't write historicals. ;)

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Love this blog, Gina. Always something interesting and helpful! Keep up the great work!

  10. Love this post, Deb. I feel the same way.

  11. I love reading and WRITING historicals. To me the research is fun because I learn so much. When I see a tidbit of history, I want to know more about it. The history channel whets my appetite. I'm glad you wrote that one historical, Deb. I enjoyed it, but I'm so glad you write all that other good stuff. I've read them all but your newest one.

  12. Thanks, Julie. And thanks, Martha. I'm glad we're not all feet or eyes or ears. And really glad we're not all called to do historical research. ;)

  13. I had to smile at your great post, Deborah. I too discovered the hard way how much research is needed for those setting details when writing my four historical Heartsong Presents novels. I had the sun glinting off an iron roof in the early 1800s in western New South Wales but then had to try and find out if they even had iron roofs by then in the outback! After fruitless hours of research had to simply change that sentence, but it taught me a lot about some of those traps!


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