How I adapt history

Photo, Elizabeth Essex, Image provided by author
Elizabeth Essex, courtesy of author.

The first rule of romance is that the heroine always wins. The heroine’s happily-ever-after is a hallmark of the genre, and no matter which time period or sub-genre of romance, our readers come to our novels in the faithful expectation of the heroine’s eventual triumph. Yet, throughout history, such an empowered outcome was sadly rarely the case—women have most often been marginalized in both the historical record and in society as a whole.

So how, then, does a historical romance author tread the fine line between adherence to historical facts, while paying equal attention to the romance and the triumph of the female protagonist? For me, the answer lies in using the historical record as a springboard to jump back in time—to play “what if” with a historical event, such as the onset of hostilities between the British and revolutionary France, or the escape of Napoleon from Elba, or the Battle of Trafalgar, and try and tell a story about a particular imaginary character that is both universal and unique, by using both the historical record and what I call the “telling details” of everyday life to add breadth and depth to the character, and the world she inhabits.

Cover art, Almost a Scandal, 2012, Elizabeth Essex, St. Martin's Press

Elizabeth Essex, Almost a Scandal (cover), St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

For me, that attention to detail begins with a multi-disciplinary approach that immerses me in the time period and the place I want to write about, whether it is Georgian England or late Regency India. I begin by looking at visual and fine arts of the period, so I know what my heroine would have seen, or heard, or discussed—the heroine of my first published novel was inspired by a self-portrait by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun. I read the books, pamphlets and newspapers of her time so I know what information and current events my heroine might have had access to—my heroines have read such works as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, and pored over past issues of the Naval Chronicle. I listen to the music she would have heard or played, to give me a feel for her tastes—a heroine who grew up in a sea-faring family would have been more likely to know sea-shanties than sonatas.

So once I know all these telling details about my heroine, I can place her within the context of a historical event that fires my imagination. But the strength of a novel lies in illuminating the experience of a character participating in or creating history in a visceral, compelling and accessible way. That is why Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, or Joanna Bourne’s RITA®-winning book The Black Hawk can teach us more about the Terror of the French Revolution than most 11th-grade text books, because we experience the events alongside our heroes and heroines in a way that makes history come alive and feel personal.

For me, it is always important to remember that it is that emotional experience of a past event and not the event itself, that matters most to readers.

When I decided to write romance, I chose the period that most interested me—the Georgian/Revolutionary period and the Napoleonic Era—because this time period meshed best with my academic background in nautical archaeology. My knowledge of the period has allowed me to create accurate portrayals of heroes who are officers of the British Royal Navy and whose lives and experiences intermesh with actual events and people from the historic record. At least one actual individual, Admiral Sir Charles Middleton, a Royal Navy captain who rose to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty, has made an appearance as a secondary character in all of my books to date. Did Sir Charles really consort with the spies and officers who people my books? The historical record proves only that he was in a position to do so if the right opportunity came along. And that’s what historical romance does: it provides the right opportunity for me to play “what if” so my heroes, and more importantly, my heroines can always win. No matter what.

Elizabeth Essex

Elizabeth Essex graduated from Hollins College with a BA in Classics, and then earned her MA in Nautical Archaeology from Texas A&M University. While she loved the life of an underwater archaeologist, she has found her true calling writing lush, lyrical historical romance full of passion, daring, and adventure. Find out more about Elizabeth Essex.

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