Historical romance novels have been around for quite a while and continue to be bestsellers. In fact, it seems they never get old. How could elements of life that are universally human—the past and romance—ever be done too much? So how do you write a novel that feels fresh and contains all the elements of a bestselling historical romance? This guide will help you make sure you know the keys to success.

1. IDEA GENERATION: Where do stories come from?

Start with brainstorming

Of course, you have to start at the beginning: with a great premise. And most of you have probably heard to start with brainstorming ideas. But what is brainstorming, anyway? I think of it as the process of letting all judgments and preconceptions fall away and using your imagination alone to “see” things in your head. It could also be called free-thinking or free-association while not placing any value on anything that emerges at the time. In my opinion, however, even brainstorming needs some up-front decisions. It’s not just about clearing the mind leaving room for creativity to come calling. It’s also about narrowing your choices and honing in on an idea.

Ask “what if” questions

You may begin to brainstorm using “What if?” questions. I often do this in my head, but also take notes as I’m coming up with ideas. If you’re attracted to a particular time period and place, ask yourself “What if?” regarding the events of the day. Then go against the grain if possible. The idea for one of my novels, THE WHISKEY SEA, was born when I was reading about the men rumrunning along the East Coast during Prohibition, and I asked myself, “What if a rebellious woman became a rumrunner?”

Make it your own

While any story written by an individual on his or her own might feel inherently original, I’m often surprised by how many published books and unpublished manuscripts feel as though they are recycling stories that have already been written. In some cases, the author has used the same devices, basic plot, a like protagonist, a similar society, or a closely related climactic point and ending. Often all of these things are similar, but I don’t think authors are doing it purposefully.

It seems natural to write something that comes close to or duplicates in some way a book that you’ve read and loved. After the success of OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon and the television series it spawned, the market became flooded with other time travel historical romances. In fact, the market was so saturated that, within a few years, most publishing houses would not take on another time-travel love story, no matter how well executed it was. Therefore, while semi-duplication might be your first impulse, resist it.

Turn ideas on their heads

That said, your likes and preferences can still be helpful. So, you might take a story you loved, say historical fiction about the Highlands Guards such as THE CHIEF by Monica McCarty, and instead of British fighters you think of writing about a deserter or a pacifist, instead. Try to surprise readers by putting a different twist on age-old stories. Go with the unusual.

Focus on a group of people

You may also choose to focus on a specific group of people during a turbulent time. In FORBIDDEN, Beverly Jenkins tells a story based on the social injustices surrounding African Americans in the past. Think of telling a story of another group of people who’ve been suppressed, such as Native Americans or the Chinese workers brought into the western US to work in mines and on the railroad during the 19th century.

Focus on a time period

Another option is to explore the possibility of a story during a time period not often written about in historical romance. JUBILEE TRAIL by Gwen Bistrow brings the trail-blazing history of the Wild West alive and infuses it with romance. You could focus on Colonial America or early Spanish explorers. You could write about a stowaway on a wagon train. Let your imagination soar.

Write about fictional characters

Sometimes inspiration comes not from real people but from characters who live on the page. I call this sub-genre fiction about fiction. Jane Austen fans-turned-writers have written several novels that focus on the lesser-known characters from her novels, such as the Bennett sisters other than Lizzie and Jane in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Think of your favorite classical novel and consider taking one of the more obscure characters and building a steamy romance around him or her.

Focus on a special individual

You could also follow in Maya Banks’s footsteps by creating a unique and misunderstood protagonist. In NEVER SEDUCE A SCOT, the author tells the story of a woman who doesn’t speak and was thought to be simple. Perhaps instead you feature a female leading character who has permanently or temporarily been blinded and must navigate the world through her sense of touch.

Make it all up

This might be the most common way to come up with a novel premise. Imagine someone you’d like to know or someone you’re glad you’ve never met. And try to go against the grain. Maybe you create an early female politician who has no skeletons in her closet, so she creates a new and somewhat questionable past in order to make herself more interesting and get the attention of a young newspaperman she secretly adores. Maybe the strictest Victorian judge in the nation is plagued by an unrelenting passion for someone unattainable. So, what could you bring to a new audience in your own way? A servant of Marie Antoinette’s? The Scarlet Letter? A different take on Snow White? If you’re laughing now, I forgive you. I didn’t say my ideas were good—I’m simply hoping they give you a good idea.

2. SETTING: Where does it all take place?

Choose the setting first

Stringent rules regarding fiction are meant to be broken; in fact, many of the best novels come about when an author bends the rules. But in historical fiction, it’s best if the time period is not random—instead, it should be essential. If you’re a historical romance author, avoid coming up with a story and then deciding on the place and time period. Much of the criticism leveled at historical novels of all sorts comes when readers and reviewers feel as if the story could’ve happened anywhere, anytime. If you’re stumped for an idea, rather than deciding on a story first, try focusing on a historical setting that fascinates you and go in search of something that triggers your imagination.

Make it vivid

I think we’ve all read a book in which the time and place are made to feel completely alive and present. How do authors accomplish this? There’s no simple answer, but most likely because the author described the setting in a palpable way. In Libbie Hawker’s TIDEWATER, the era of Pocahontas and the Jamestown Colony are described so well that the reader can immediately gain a sense of being there in the moment. The story could not have taken place during another time and in another place. The setting is dynamic; wilderness occupied by Native Americans is being transformed into an English colony.

In THE TILTED WORLD, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly used the setting to their advantage in many ways. The flood of 1926-7 provided an important and dramatic event. The history of the setting had to be that of a flood-prone locale. The rural riverfront setting and moonshining added culture and atmosphere. The authors were also able to use the social atmosphere to develop an unusual tone to the forbidden love story. They utilized the flood in metaphors and similes.

Don’t overdo it

When describing the setting, although there may be a great deal to work with, make sure what you choose to include is not overdone. Rather than describing the setting in one big chunk, give glimpses throughout the book. Today’s readers are impatient, and long descriptive paragraphs of description are not tolerated by readers the way they were in the past.

Utilize setting to enhance your writing

Keep your descriptions short but powerful, and be sure to utilize all the senses. Tell the reader not only how a place looks, but also how it smells, sounds, tastes, and feels. When a setting is well-written, it goes beyond visual images. Of course you will write your setting description so that it gives the reader a visual sense, but don’t forget to expand beyond that. Describe the atmosphere and tone of the place as well, and include the social, political, and/or morality of the day.

Use the setting in metaphors and similes, and try to put your setting in some kind of movement or transition, be it physical, societal, cultural, or emotional. A dynamic place is more interesting than a stagnant one. It moves and evolves, just like the well-developed characters in a novel.

3. DIALOGUE: Let’s give them something to talk about.

It has to be tense and change something

Writing dialogue is one of the most challenging things authors do. Some find it easy, and some find it difficult, but good dialogue is essential in today’s novels. Historical romance authors not only have to make sure the dialogue isn’t flat or trite, write it so that it reveals something about character and/or plot, and write dialogue that changes something, they also have to create dialogue dripping with sexual tension between the two lead characters. For an example of excellent dialogue, read INAMORATA by Megan Chance.

Make it clever

Much of the dialogue in historical romances is snappy, clever, suggestive banter between two people. And there must be conflict of some sort. As you write, you may begin to “hear” the dialogue in your head, or you might have to give it a lot of forethought and work. But take the time to make conversations meaningful and moving in one way or another. Once the dialogue is down, make sure you have included interruptions, periods of silence, changes of expression, gestures, laughter, smiles, frowns, etc. as these things will make it ring truer. Read your dialogue aloud to gauge how it sounds, and also make sure the communication is not just verbal. Inferences, omissions, and veiled glances are good things to include.

Include society and culture

Ideally the dialogue reflects social context, too. Be sure that in addition to knowing the history you’re writing about, you’re familiar with how people spoke, what the colloquialisms were, the accents, and curse words. Research the culture and norms of the time. Learn how people not only spoke, but also how they believed, lived, dressed, and worked. Learn about sayings, common expressions, and mannerisms, if possible, too. Avoid anachronisms at all costs. A wonderful example of a perfectly researched historical romance is THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK by Kim Michele Richardson.

4. SEXUAL TENSION: Everyone likes it hot.

I’ve already mentioned sexual tension in the segment about dialogue, but the tension, fire, chemistry, sizzle—whatever you want to call it—should be present not only in the way the two lead characters talk to each other, but it will be more powerful if you write it in everywhere—in looks and glances and stares, in movements such as the way people stand, sit, and walk, also in mannerisms, voices, facial expressions, and in the eyes. If the sexual tension pops up during unexpected moments and inappropriate moments, that often makes the book even more appealing.

5. FLAWED CHARACTERS: Perfect people are boring.

Character development

The most common problem I see in manuscripts is by far the lack of character development. A reader needs to connect with at least one of the characters early on, and most often this happens when the author quickly develops a multi-dimension character(s). Ideally all of your major players should be known and understood by the reader. They should not be caricatures or follow stereotypes. They can and should have weaknesses as well as strengths. They should also be a part of at least one additional relationship other than the one with the love interest so the reader sees how the character connects with the outside world. Read THE GERMAN MIDWIFE by Mandy Robotham as an example of strong character development in a historical romance.

Give characters a rich inner life

Often I read manuscripts in which not much has been revealed about the protagonist’s inner life—his or her history, hopes and dreams, basic nature, love life, past experiences, and education, etc. I often recommend what is called “fleshing out” of a character. Now I’m not advocating that you write long paragraphs telling the reader who your character is. Instead start strong and don’t let up, but do it in pieces. Show pivotal moments in characters’ lives instead of trying to describe their entire histories in a summary.

6. GREAT INTIMATE SCENES: Something’s afire.

Go for it

Most likely you’ve already imagined this part. Romances of all sub-genres often include some sexual scenes, but they can range from the mildly sizzling to the extremely erotic. You get to make that choice, and so do readers, whose preferences often influence what they choose to buy and read. Study the sexual scenes in other historical and even contemporary novels, and make sure you’ve got at least one or two special somethings to include. Of course there’s only so much human beings can do, but it’s the way you describe it that either enthralls the reader or leaves him or her flat. Write the scene using your take on something different that will make the sexual scenes stand out from others.

Use the setting

A benefit for authors of historical romance is that they can use the setting to create unusual sexual scenes. In the 19th century, for example, encounters may occur in the back of wagons, in carriage houses, in tunnels, and can involve things such as corsets. Each time period comes with its own set of accoutrements you can use to your advantage. Sometimes the place where the sexual scenes happen is equal to or more important than the actions.

Don’t forget the emotion

During sexual scenes, the lead characters are lost in their bodies, but don’t leave out the feelings and thoughts that characters are going through. Feelings can range from joy to rage. It’s always fun when the thoughts and feelings are at odds with what’s going on physically. For example, a character can be deep in the throes of passion and still be struck by a feeling of, Why am I doing this? I don’t even like him!

7. HIGH DRAMA TWISTS AND TURNS: No way. Did that really happen?

Raise the stakes

Many of my editing clients believe they’ve succeeded in writing a book with a riveting plot, and sometimes they have. More often, however, I see that the skeleton of the story is there, but the plot needs to include higher stakes, more action and drama, and more twists and turns. I find that many plot elements need to be ramped up, and there aren’t enough complications to give the sense of increasing tension. Other times I see the need for additional threads and developments, and I make suggestions to authors that are either taken as they are or they can spark even better ideas of the author’s own.

Many authors will benefit from asking themselves, “How can I make this worse? How can I make it feel almost like life and death? How can I elevate the ramifications and results? Does the story progress and change throughout the book? Does it build in momentum and “hook” the reader?

Surprise, surprise

All authors want to surprise the reader; in fact, one of the worst things said of a novel is that it’s predictable. And surprises can come in many forms, even the setting of the book. So, for example, let’s say you like the idea of the prim and proper-looking American suburbs during the 1950s, but instead of finding a safe and value-driven environment, a single mother who moves there enters a secretive, passionate affair. You would be providing an alternate look and feel of a place, one that isn’t expected. A surprise in a novel can materialize in many forms, even when it comes from social context, past history, and atmosphere.

8. INCREDIBLE CLIMACTIC SCENE: I didn’t see that coming.

Make it memorable

And finally, most successful commercial novels today contain climactic scenes that are emotionally charged, perhaps physically demanding, feature the highest stakes possible, and often contain a surprise element. The climax should not feel like the result of a slow march toward the inevitable. If in your novel, for example, the story builds toward a final confrontation between the two characters, and when the day comes, it unfolds in no special or unexpected way, then the reader might feel disappointed. Climactic scenes must make the reader feel that all the conflicts in the novel have built in height and intensity until now it has come together in a monumental way and everything will either fall apart or come together or something else.

Switch things up

As an editor, I’ve read climactic scenes that are too short, too long, not as dramatic as they should be, and some that are okay but unfold just about the way the reader thinks they will. Take a look at your climactic scene and ask yourself how you could add to it, ramp it up, or twist it. Try to come up with a fresh element. And read Graham Greene’s THE END OF THE AFFAIR, for an example of good conflict throughout that builds into a climactic scene that made me feel as if the ride had been so wild, just about anything could happen. That’s the kind of climax that will stay in readers’ minds long after they’ve finished reading.

9. HAPPY ENDING: Ah, yes, it had to end this way.

One of the basics about romance novels is that they usually have happy endings. Readers of the genre expect that the two lead characters will get past their differences and end up together. That said, the way the happy ending is written is up to you to get right, and again, as with everything about the novel, try to come up with something different. Instead of a happy couple sailing away into the sunset, for example, have them plunge into battle side-by-side. Instead of a marriage proposal, make the book end with a couple deciding that at least for now they have to be in a long-distance relationship.

10. SOCIAL MEDIA AND PR. It’s never too early.

I add this at the end, because even if you’re going for traditional publishing, it’s best to begin connecting with readers and developing interest in you and your work as soon as possible. Develop a website, a newsletter, collect email addresses, and utilize sites like BookBub once you have a book out. Consider journaling throughout the entire writing process and blogging about it. Anything you do before publication will help you immensely when you have a book to talk about. Start setting it all up now.
Most of all, enjoy yourself! Writing is hard work, but especially with historical romance, it can also be fun.

Ann Howard Creel
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