The Coup, Day 2: Historical Research for Fiction

It’s Cait Reynolds again, and you know what that means…muahahahahahaha

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Historical romance is full of strong-jawed heroes in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wife…whether they know it or not.

In fact, if you add up all the fine, vast estates throughout England, you’d probably end up with a country the size of the North American continent. Actually, better add in Central America just to make sure we have enough acreage. (Thanks to my friend Britt for pointing this out to me all those years ago.)

For every Lord So-and-So, and Duke of Blah-Blah, there is a lovely, feisty young lady who much overcome a sad lack of fortune, sudden misfortune, or the tragedy of unfortunate connections in order to save the day, the estate, and the hero…who naturally obliges by falling in love with her.

Oh, wait. Sorry. Gone off the rails there.

We’re not talking puerile plotting today (and besides, that’s Lamb’s specialty). I’m here to talk about how to write about an ingratiatingly indignant and independence-loving heroine together with her seriously sensitive and sinfully seductive hero so that they are not walking, talking anachronisms that make readers want to tear their eyes out with the pickle fork.

Before we jump in, can I just ask…does it always have to be Regency England? Really? Historical writing is hard enough without thousands of experts ready to jump in and point out any inaccuracy or anachronism. I mean, I have seen virtual fisticuffs break out among the delicately natured about the precise method of shining Hessian boots as mentioned in a particular book.


We have to do the research. There is no silver bullet, no short-cut. We might not be doing the world-building of fantasy, but we are re-building a world that impacts every single thing our characters will do, say, think…and eat. Yes, certain emotions and reactions are consistent across time and fundamental to human nature. However, the way our characters understand the actions and circumstances that create those emotions and the way their reactions are expressed are absolutely rooted and shaded by their contemporary context.

Let’s take a look at a sample of the areas that we need to consider when tackling historical world re-building.

Dentistry, Dandruff & Deodorant

Perfume was invented for a reason. Back in ye olde, personal hygiene was far more…shall we say…individualistic? Perhaps optional would be a better word. I’m not saying people didn’t try to wash—somewhat. But, ‘somewhat’ had very different connotations and practices in the 12th century and the 19th century.

Even nobility had issues with the stink. I mean, think about it. You try walking around on a sunny, 70-degree day in several layers of silk and linen while having your internal organs constricted by whalebone. Oh, and don’t forget the wig (and attendant weevils and other creepy crawlies that would take up residence therein).

Bathing involved servants, buckets, lots of wood or coal, and a short soak in rapidly-cooling water. We should be considerate of Sally the under housemaid when deciding that your character is going to have a bath every day. She already has a lot of work to do around the house (including emptying your chamber pot), and helping to prepare a bath for you under the watchful eye of your abigail isn’t making her job any easier.

We don’t have to write that everyone stinks or about the housekeeper’s armpit hair. But, we need to think twice and do some research before glibly tossing out that Our Heroine shampooed her hair.

Watch Your Mouth

Seriously. If I read another manuscript where the author has used words like sure/okay/all right, I am going to reach for that pickle fork. But, it’s not just use of modern slang that can jar the reader out of the story, upsetting hoop skirts everywhere.

Even the way sentences in dialogue are constructed can indicate whether a character is speaking Tudorish, Regencyish, or Victorianish.

Image courtesy of Mental Floss

Even commoners would speak more formally than we do today—and the riff-raff, beggars, and laborers would also know just enough to speak with respect to their betters.

We should not make the mistake of thinking formal means ponderous or dull, though. It’s fun to play with that stereotype here and there, especially when writing the dialogue of a pompous, hidebound old windbag. But, formality and a more extensive vocabulary doesn’t mean we can’t have witty, chatty characters that are silly, sexy, and scintillating.

Help Wanted

Elizabeth Bennet did not repine the fact she could not go to university, or become a doctor or a soldier. She operated well-within the confines of acceptable social norms and expectations, and she did so because she naturally accepted that circumscribing and did not question it.

Why would she? It simply was how things were. Yes, she challenged the status quo about marrying for love, but she never challenged marriage or denied that there were only a handful of respectable options outside of marriage for a young lady.

This brings me to something that I see over and over again in stories: the feisty heroine who dreams of becoming X (insert impossibly modern career choice here). That’s not to say that we can’t write a good, convincing story about a heroine who dreams of becoming X, but we have to take a good, long, hard look at her starting place before we do.

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Seraphina is bored with embroidering all day and wants to join her brother and become a knight. She’s all about how girls can fight just as well as boys, and girls should get a chance, etc. She tosses her golden hair as she fights openly with her father about wanting to learn how to use a sword.

Cue pickle fork.

Seraphina was always closest to her brother Rolf. They supported and protected each other while growing up in a difficult family situation. When Rolf is called to go serve the king in a crusade, Seraphina panics.

She doesn’t want to be left alone to deal with the difficult family situation at home. She doesn’t think she could handle waiting months or even years for Rolf to come home—if he even makes it home.

She is backed into a corner, but because of her native courage, she makes a daring choice. She convinces Rolf to let her come along in disguise as part of his retinue. Along the way, she has to practice and sharpen up her fighting skills in order to pass for his squire. It’s a different world out there, when wooden swords are replaced with cold, hard steel.

Basically, people need to stop shoving heroines with 21st century values and beliefs into ye olde days. The only way to avoid making this mistake is to read and learn about the cultural values of the period and to immerse our brains into thinking in this way so our characters will behave naturally in harmony with the times.

Not Bread and Cheese Again!

Would people please stop having their characters eat nothing but bread and cheese? There is so much bread and cheese in poorly-researched historical novels that I feel nutritionally-imbalanced just reading about it.

There is no excuse for bread and cheese. If anything, historical food is one of the easiest areas to research! Just type ’18th century English food’ into Google, and BAM! You’ve got blogs, Google Books, PDFs of actual recipe books, and even photos of meals cooked from authentic recipes.

Image courtesy of Me.Me

Also, pay attention to what your characters are drinking. Well water (hello, giardia)? Beer or ale? Possibly. You could have combination of sherry, wine, and port or brandy with dinner. Be careful of tea, coffee, and hot chocolate before the 18th century. Yes, they were around, but not universally, depending on the decade and country. And, don’t let me catch you talking about hot chocolate like it’s some Swiss Miss crap. Hot chocolate was just that. Hot. Chocolate.

So, next time you want to write food into your scene, don’t settle for Wonder Bread and Kraft Singles. Let loose with Sack posset, quail in puff pastry, Chelsea buns, turnip soup, and Portugal Cakes…with a couple bottles of good Madeira to go along with it all!

Dressing the Part

Our dear Charity has managed to get away from her odious great aunt and is at the house of her friend Isabelle, getting ready for the ball. We the readers are treated to an extensive description of fabric, décolletage, sleeves, overskirts, hems, and lace. Let’s not forget the incredible jewelry, hairstyling, and make-up.

There’s a whole other sermon I could write about the sins of describing outfits. Today, I’ll confine myself to discussing historical accuracy. We need to dress our characters according to their social position, and we know what that means (hint: it involves research). A barmaid will not have a closet full of everyday dresses. If some malmsey-nosed sot spills beer on her, she can’t go home and change. Most likely, she would go rinse out the beer from her skirt because this would be her only summer skirt, and her other outfit would be for winter. Maybe, if she was lucky, she would have one good dress for weddings and funerals, and that dress would probably have been cut down from one of her mother’s in a style of twenty years earlier.

Yes. That is me. I own a steel-boned corset, and it is damn comfortable!

Yes, almost all women who could afford them wore corsets. But, before you have our dear Charity go complain about having to wear a corset, stop. Just. Stop. That would be like complaining about wearing a bra. Yes, we all do it sometimes, and we know it’s possible to go without one. Yet, it’s not really a big deal. It’s just part of what we wear every day.

This also goes for cravats for the gents, because someone, somewhere thought it would be a marvelous little joke to make men strangle themselves every day in the name of fashion.

Clothing wasn’t so much put on as assembled onto a person, with people who couldn’t afford maids helping each other. Both sexes wore stockings (at least up until the early 19th century) with garters to hold them up. There were petticoats and felt strips, chemisettes and buckles.

Just be careful of underwear. Drawers, pantaloons, panties, and small clothes weren’t really all that commonplace until the 19th century. This means if you want to go deep POV, you could mention the occasional strategic draft…

Pickle Forks and POV

The point of all this work is to show, but not show off. Out of everything you learn, only 10% should make it into your book. Wait. Stop. There will be no flipping of tables while reading this blog! Hear me out.

It’s all about understanding POV. What is normal for the character versus what is noteworthy. Think about contemporary fiction: ‘Taylor sat down at the table and helped himself to the potatoes.’ We can easily picture this in our minds. There’s a table, chairs, a dish, a bowl with potatoes and some kind of serving utensil. This sentence could work just as well in historical fiction just as it is (assuming we are working with a time period where potatoes were part of the European diet…and knowing that Taylor as a first name really wasn’t used back then but whatevs): ‘Sir Taylor sat down at the table and helped himself to the potato and gruyere galette.’

We do not need to elaborate just to show off that you verified the status of potatoes or know how dishes were served in the 19th century. There is no real reason we should ever write: ‘Sir Taylor entered the formal dining room where even on ordinary, daily occasions, the family gathered to eat. He settled himself in an ornately carved chair and reached for the porcelain platter with the Potato and Gruyere Galette.’

Image (and RECIPE) from

Some people would snort and point out that there is nothing wrong with that sentence, that it is lovely and descriptive. Yes, it is descriptive, but would Sir Taylor really think about how interesting it was that the family used the formal dining room every day, or how ornately carved his chair was? Do we notice with mild surprise where our dining table is every time you sit down to eat? No? Then, why would Sir Taylor?

Stay focused on the character, the plot, and the action. All I had to do to evoke a fancy, historical feel to the food was to change it from potatoes to an actual recipe (one which George Sand was rather fond of). If I’ve done my job right earlier in the book/chapter/scene, I’ve already given you a feel for the manor house, its size, décor, etc., but all done in the context of dialogue and POV.

So, now that I’ve beat sloppy historical fiction about the head and ears, I’m going to tell you about an opportunity to learn how to do sufficient and efficient research to be credible, interesting, and subtle. I’m offering an online class on Saturday, July 8, from 2:00-4:00 p.m. EST on W.A.N.A.! Information and sign up links are below.

The Class

So, you want to write historical romance. Awesome. Now, you just need to learn everything about that time period. Yay! Yay? Oh…crap.

While we don’t need a PhD in history to write historical fiction, we do need to do your research so that we can avoid the pitfalls of anachronistic language, modern Mary Sues, and the unforgivable sin of having our characters pay morning calls before one o’clock in the afternoon.

But, how do we start researching? And, when do we end? How do we know we know enough to start plotting–let alone writing? How do we keep track of everything we need to remember?

This class answers all those questions and more.

  • Get a template that guides you through all the steps of research
  • Discover the tricks of effectively and efficiently using Google and Pinterest
  • Learn how to use historical context in character development (i.e. no more Mary Sues)
  • Find out when and how to take research shortcuts…and when you have to buckle down and just slog through it all
  • Learn how to build a research reference library of your own
  • Discover how to find non-fiction books that are NOT boring
  • Develop an understanding of what kind of historical details to put into your story, and more importantly, what to leave out

Research for Historical Romance Writing – Or, How NOT to Lose Six Hours on Pinterest July 8th $35 for Basic/ $75 for GOLD / $125 for PLATINUM

Historical GOLD
You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus one hour of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story.

Historical PLATINUM
You get the class (recording included in price) with Cait plus two hours of personalized one-on-one consulting regarding YOUR story and bonus worksheets. These worksheets will efficiently guide you through in-depth world-building and research, providing you with consistency for your writing and an excellent reference/style sheet for your editor and proofreader.

****Just FYI, in an effort to combat spammers your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Talk to me! And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).


Obviously, I have my areas of expertise, but I’ve wanted for a long time to fill in some gaps on classes I could offer.

Cait Reynolds was my answer.

She is an unbelievable editor, mentor and teacher and a serious expert in these areas. She consults numerous very successful USA Today and NYTBS authors and I highly, highly recommend her classes.

OMG, Like How to Write Fleek YA July 7th $40 with Cait Reynolds

How to Dominate Your Sex Scenes (No Safe Words Here) July 14th $40 w/ Cait Reynolds

Gaskets and Gaiters: How to Create a Compelling Steampunk World July 21st $35 w/ Cait Reynolds 

Lasers & Dragons & Swords, Oh MY! World Building for Fantasy & Science Fiction 

July 28th w/ Cait Reynolds $35/ GOLD $75/ PLATINUM $125

Classes with MOI!

Plotting for Dummies July 13th $35 ($250 for GOLD)

Blogging for Authors July 20th $50 ($150 for GOLD)

Branding for Authors  July 27th $35

OTHER Classes with Cait Reynolds

Shift Your Shifter Romance into High Gear July 15th $35 Basic/ $75 GOLD/ $125 PLATINUM

Classes with Lisa Hall-Wilson

Growing An Organic Platform On Facebook July 22nd $40




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  1. On the other hand (re impossible career choices) there are endless surviving songs about the handsome cabin boy who was inevitably a girl. Although since the men peed over the side, I have no idea what the mechanics of preserving her identity would have been.

    But on a more important note, I’ve never heard of pickle forks. Are they a real thing?

    1. Yes! They are absolutely real! I even own one.

  2. Wonderful post! I know of pickle forks, even have a few (how many pickle forks does one need?), and eye-poking would be really painful.

    I love historical fiction and am recently snuffling through historical romance — what great fun!

    Your advice on authenticity is something I mention to any of my author clients (as editor), even if they aren’t writing historical novels. Our personal perceptions color what we write, unless we expand our mindset while writing.
    Is Kristen plotting a counter-revolution?
    Thanks for sharing – oyes, my pink Kindle already has some of your titles on it, in the *My Favs* folder.

  3. Thanks for this post- and for the cautions! One of the biggest struggles I’ve had is NOT turning my story into a history lecture, because apparently not everyone is as interested in different types of tanks as I am, or what recipes can use carrot as a substitute with rationing in place 😉 Instead, I just tell EVERY fun fact that I can’t include to my husband- lucky guy.
    Your class sounds great- this July is no good, but do you offer it periodically?

    • Suzanne Lucero on June 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm
    • Reply

    That was fun to read, Cait. Do your novels have that voice, too, or would that be considered anachronistic? lol

    Here’s a cute story for you. It was told in a well-researched nonfiction book that points out the oral hygiene problems in Tudor England.

    There was a new ambassador to the court of Elizabeth I. (I’m not positive but it may have been the Spanish ambassador. If it was, then Elizabeth’s reaction is understandable on a couple of levels.) Anyway, after presenting himself to the queen at court, he was going into a fine, flowery speech about how honored he was to represent his country at the court of so great a ruler, etc., when Elizabeth cut him off, saying (I’m paraphrasing here)”How can I listen to this man and his sweet words when the stench of his breath sickens me? Begone, sir!”

    Having had extensive dental work done over the years, I can’t help but wonder if I would have survived this long had I lived back then. If I did, it would have been as a toothless old lady because all of my teeth would have had to be pulled–which might have killed me anyway.

  4. That’s a lot of work! Sir Taylor needs to get a grip.

  5. Loved this blog.

    I belong to a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism where we dress in character for a particular part of the Middle Ages. You would laugh yourself silly at the number of women who think that wearing a corset and skirt is all you need to look “period.” Women didn’t show their corsets – it is an undergarment and not a “top” to wear openly with a skirt. So if they were writing a book depicting this it would be entirely inappropriate and in the real past era the woman would be assumed to be a prostitute.

    I don’t write historical fiction (but I might!) and adding the odd corset just doesn’t do it. The hardest thing is to imagine how people in another time would think, never mind what they would say! (I’m a psychologist by training so this part really interests me).

  6. Hi, Cait
    I write 19th century American historical romance and your workshop sounds perfect for me.
    My questions is: does the basic fee include a recording?
    Happy writing,

  7. I’m always on the hunt for non-Regency historical romance and was lucky to attend a panel at RT Con this May about this very subject. I just read two books by Joanna Shupe set in the Gilded Age NYC (late 1800s) and prior to that Alyssa Cole’s fabulous An Extraordinary Union which takes place during the Civil War with a black Union spy posing as a housemaid. So good!

  8. A fascinating, and highly amusing piece, Cait. I’m so glad I don’t write historical fiction. I have enough researching to do to get my contemporary (or very recent) details correct. I too am a firm believer in getting the facts right so they believe the fiction. (As those I’ve edited will know only too well.)

    Apart from checking details of the old cars one of my regular bad guys is obsessed with (can’t have him turning the key to start a car with a pull knob starter, can I?), the only historical writing I’ve done was a flashback to a character’s wartime service as an SOE agent in WW2 occupied France. (‘Coincidences’ – ) It was to show the kind of person this old lady was, and both how, and why, she could do what she later does in the novel.

    Even so, it required research into German army uniforms and ranks, the different underground groups who fought the occupiers in which regions, and into the equipment issued to these brave men and women who worked under cover with ‘La Résistance’, knowing that being caught meant certain torture and probably death. Much of what I learned only served to give me a feel for what I was writing about. The details weren’t all used in the book itself.

    I had to play around with dates, and even alter her age in the previous book she appeared in as a ‘bit part’ character (just prior to that book’s publication… my publisher was really pleased.). My heroine had to be old enough to be there, and still not be too old and infirm to carry out her part in the modern day plot. As it was, I had her lie about her age to volunteer for service with the SOE, and placed her escapades in France towards the end of the war at the time just before D-Day. This then required checks on the weather conditions at the time too. I also made sure that her remarkable fitness for a woman of her age was referenced by making her a particularly active pensioner.

    It’s much easier researching modern firearms and explosives, and other aspects of the contemporary criminal and terrorist underworld. I take my hat off to those authors who create believable historical fiction.

  9. Read several romance novels . Some romance books were OK but not my genre of appreciation. . I know I will get my head chopped off but this genre is for 14 year old girls that like history class
    . As a history teacher I had nothing but disdain for the historical novel. That was until I read all of Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicals series and such things as AZTEC by Gary Jennings. These authors must have had time machines to travel back in history to see things as it actually was.I mean beyond the mere history. Daily routines such as eating, clothing, making implements, fears, beliefs, humor , medical things, constructing things – they really get into the mindsets of people like you are reading primary source material. Presently reading Jack Whyte’s STANDARD OF HONOR ( a Knights Templar novel). Over 750 pages – it might be real drudgery for some to get through it and I admit it is challenging and story could have been delivered in half that many pages but for me it is rapture seeing people , places and things from ancient times. Even though the dialogue is fiction, the authors are so insightful it leaves me believing, well that is probably what transpired and how things were spoken.

  10. This is a thoroughly enjoyable blog post. Stylish and very well written. Although the subject is not my subject (SciFi is mine), I read historical fiction from time to time. I certainly find myself gritting my teeth, when contemporary social attitudes (not to mention the matching language idiom) appear and persist. I may not reach for a pickle fork, but I will dismiss the book, and eternally banish it from my reader.
    Anyway, thank you for a good blog read.

    1. Thank you so much! I am a chronic did-not-finish reader the moment I encounter an anachronism. Research doesn’t just show attention to detail and dedication to professionalism, it shows respect for the reader in honoring the gift of their time with the best possible work you can give them.

  11. Thank you! Nice to see some of my pet peeves are shared 🙂 A particular pickleforking for those whose hero/ine has 21st century ethics on various matters (slavery, the place of women, sexual mores, etc etc) without any reason given as to why they think differently to everyone else in their world.
    Doesn’t matter what culture or era you are in, the vast majority of us don’t ‘see’ our own culture at all, and therefore don’t question it – unless, of course, something happens to make us question it, or we see someone else questioning it, or…

    1. Exactly. Ambition is fine. Morals are fine. But they must both have the correct context. It’s possible to get our characters to that “Amazing Grace” revelation moment that brings their values more in line with our 21st century ones, but there has to be a real reason to do so. And so glad to know I’m not alone in my pet peeves! VIVA PICKLEFORKING (I am now going to use that in my daily language).

  12. Terrific blog, Cait. I too would like to know if the basic price includes the recording. Would this class help me with research for my World War Two novel?

    1. Yes all classes include the recording FREE automatically.

  13. I have subscribed to your blog for years now. I just love your quirky take on the world and every aspect of the writing slog. You make me smile when I’m tearing my hair out writing my own historical nonsense – which is my genre. Not nonsense I hope, but good solid fiction at last – thanks to the help and guidance from guys and gals like you. Not sure if this is acceptable to you but here are the links to my 2 new kindle titles. One is free this week only. I’ve learnt so much from you on writing and marketing and now am starting to put this into practice. Thank you always.
    Paws in Alaska: FREE this week. 7000 word short.
    Spirit of the Jaguar: Time shift historical novel set in 1930s Europe/America and 16th Century Inca Empire. Not a Regency skirt in sight!!

  14. Cait, fabulous post! Can’t wait for the class and remind me not to hand you the butter knife.

    1. Butter knives are not a problem. Salt cellars, however, make me twitchy.

    • Cat Dubie on June 25, 2017 at 12:08 am
    • Reply

    This is a great post and should be read by every writer of historical fiction. I, too, grit my teeth when reading a story and come upon a modern word [modern spellings of modern names are the worst], wrong place/wrong time situation, food, clothing, everything that you mentioned. It smacks of lazy writing – the author didn’t care enough about the story, or the readers, to ensure accuracy.

    There’s also the other side of the coin. Writers may have thoroughly researched the time period and to prove how well versed they are in the subject they include every line of information, whether salient to the story or not.

    Best advice I ever got was to steep yourself in the time period you want to write about. Read the histories, what they ate, what they wore, who they were… And include biographies and autobiographies of people who lived at the time.

    And if you’re not sure about word usage, please check the online etymology dictionaries.

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