Amongst my novels in progress is my nearly-twenty-year-old manuscript called The Hidden Duchess. It’s set in the time leading up to the French Revolution (1788-1789) and follows the fortunes of a Duchess who is wrongly accused of murdering her husband, and who is forced into hiding amongst the peasant classes far away from her beloved Paris.
I still have the original MS, typed up on my trusty electric typewriter, and with my maiden name emblazoned on the front page – pretty sure I wrote it a few years before I got married, and I’ve had my married name for about 17 years (even though I’m divorced, I kept my married name because I’m far too lazy to go through all the rigmarole to have bank accounts, passports and licences changed over.)
Why did I decide to set it at that time? I have absolutely no idea. I suspect that when I started writing, I didn’t even consider the timeline, just that it was at the time of the “French Revolution” – a steady diet of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Georgette Heyer made that era seem horribly romantic, ideal for its tales of struggle and bravery.
But I later realised my Duchess couldn’t be in danger from ‘the Republic’. That would have too much impact on everything else. So I decided to set the story at the beginning of the revolutionary times, so she could be touched by the plight of the peasants and the lower classes, but not enough for her to step down from her lofty place at the heights of French aristocracy to do anything about it. She would have to undergo her own baptism of fire (ie: having to live and work amongst the peasants) to understand them and eventually, learn some compassion for them.
Of course, along the way, she had to fall in love as well.
I created an area where she goes to live with her peasant cousins, developed an entire network of neighbours for them (all in differing strains of poverty), I researched farming techniques, travel routes, the particular part of France where she ends up, the general feel of the crowds in that place at the time, how the feudal system worked, how the tax system worked, and I thought I had a really good grasp on the subject.
It was only with Nanowrimo in 2015 that I actually finished the novel. I put it away, have had some little bits and pieces of critique on the first couple of chapters by a few people, but by and large, it has been left to simmer.
Recently, I pulled the story out and set about post-draft plotting it. And then, the other day, I made the mistake of diving back into research on the pre-French-Revolution period.
Now I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to re-write most of the novel.
I’ve come up with problems with my duchess’ travel, hotel and living arrangements, and I’ve come to a much better understanding of how the posting inn system worked at that time. I have new information about the area where she ends up, about how the administration worked at that time, and the different vendors that would be present in a small village.
I thought to myself, “Surely in an historical romance, the history isn’t THAT important? I mean, I read heaps of HR’s, and while the history bits are great to have in there, I have exactly zero idea if they are accurate. Other readers are just as clueless as me, right? Right?”
So, I put it out to a couple of my Facebook groups – When writing historical romance, how important is the historical accuracy? Will it be forgiven or overlooked?
The short answer is No.
The long answer is also No.
Basically, you will be hauled over the coals for historical inaccuracies.
So try not to make them.
OK, so what I’ve learned from this is:
(1) There is such a thing as too much research.
(2) If you know something, and it’s critical, put it in.
(3) If you know something, and it would add flavour, consider putting it in.
(4) When YOU are happy with the novel, STOP RESEARCHING!!! Because you absolutely will come up with more detail. And then you won’t be happy with the novel.
(5) Expect historians and history buffs to pick up any historical inaccuracies, then thank them nicely for their input.
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