the promised discussion question: research!

I mentioned in my Five Things post that I had a discussion question this week.

Did I mention that I’ve decided to write a Regency? Just, like, to do it? I wrote the first 10,000 words without having done much research at all, so over the weekend I decided to rectify that. I’m the sort of obsessive nerd who will now hoard information on England and the Regency like I’m a squirrel hoarding acorns for the winter, and I’m taking this as my incentive to finally finish reading that book on homosexuality in 19th Century Europe.

Because I am extremely fortunate, I’ve been able to talk to a number of prominent historical romance authors about this, and when you ask the, “How much research do I need to do?” question, you get a pretty wide range of answers. One author told me she checks the origin of nearly every word she uses in the Oxford English Dictionary to make sure her language is correct for the time. A few authors I’ve talked to just like to research because it’s fun or have degrees in related fields. Other authors have said that modern readers mostly just want things that feel historical, so if you’ve read enough historical romances, you probably will get what you need.

That last thing may be true, but for my own writing, I disagree. For example, I recently read a Regency in which something happened or a character said something that I knew (because I’ve been researching) to be demonstrably false. I guess it’s easy enough to read a Regency as taking place in a sort of magical fantasy land, which was how I got through and ultimately enjoyed the book, but when the first stirrings of that plot arc got going, it pulled me right out of the story.

What I personally think is interesting about the Regency era is that this was one of those eras when glitz and glamor and the pomp of the upper classes were actually masking some serious societal problems—horrifying poverty in London, for example. It’s a lot like the Gilded Age or the Jazz Age in America. Or now, even; the peerage in a Regency novel is basically the 1%, right? The seedier elements of society are so often glossed over in traditional Regencies because readers want the fantasy of dancing with a duke at a ball.

I had a really interesting discussion at a reading I went to on Wednesday about why there aren’t more American historical romances given that the largest audience for these books is American. She said she was working on a book that took place in the antebellum American South, and the road block she kept running up against was how to deal with race.

I don’t know why, but this had never really occurred to me before. Probably because it would never occur to me to write a historical novel set in the American South. But this woman I talked to was absolutely right—you can’t ignore or directly address the issues of race in the 19th century without pissing off some contingent of readers.

This got me thinking about how, in some ways, gay romance writers can push the boundaries more. I’ve read gay historicals that explore prostitution and opium addiction and excessive drinking and other less glamorous parts of 19th century life in England. I’ve read at least one m/m romance in which a white man had a relationship with a slave. I’m guessing this is because gay romance is already pushing the boundaries, so why not just keep pushing?

Anyway, I’m just curious. I’m not asking if research is important, but more for y’all to discuss the tension between historical accuracy and the fantasy world of a romance novel. This could be anything from ignoring the economics of an era to having characters who bathe regularly. Discuss!