Ever since I began reading (which was not long after I got out of diapers), I've loved historical fiction. As a child, I couldn't get enough of ancient Egypt or imperial Rome. Give me a tale set in medieval France or colonial America, Moorish Spain or Druidic Britain, and I would disappear into that other world for hours or even days. My mother would despair of getting me to do my chores or persuading me to go outside and play. The historical realms that I visited seemed far more real than my family's three bedroom ranch house or our grassy back yard.
I still enjoy a well-crafted tale centered in another time and place. In fact, I think I appreciate historical fiction more deeply now that I understand how difficult it is to write it well. A successful historical novel should transport you back to the past. You should see the sights, smell the smells, experience the sensual delights and the painful incoveniences of the time in which it occurs. (See, for example, Brynn Paulin's Hot Spot recent post on the Middle Ages!)
Of course, you've also got to get the details right. However obscure the period that you've chosen, there's bound to be some reader who will be an expert on that time, that dreaded critic who will throw the book at you (literally!) when your characters in twelth century England drink tea, or your Aztec prince wears robes of silk. I remember long rants on one list I belong to, because a well-known romance author mentioned a spinning wheel in a period before they'd been invented. (The ranter was an individual with extensive knowledge about textiles.)
Immersive description and obsessive accuracy are not enough, though. To write convincingly about another historical period, you need to have a sense of how people thought, what they believed, how they behaved - the unspoken rules and assumptions of their society. I've read some erotic romance set in eighteenth century Europe in which the characters acted, and interacted, in ways that were far too modern to be believable (particularly in the area of sexual expression). These books were entertaining, but they didn't really deliver on the promise of a genuine historical experience.
The best historicals that I've read also capture the cadences and vocabulary of speech in the period. The most engaging historical romance that I've read in a very long time is Erastes' homoerotic Regency novel, Standish. I could almost believe that the story really had been penned by an author of the period, rather than a modern writer. Another writer who excels at capturing the tone of a historical period is Louisa Burton. The stories in her Tales of the Hidden Grotto series range freely through history, from pre-Roman times to the modern day. Each segment does an exceptional job anchoring the reader in a particular time and place.
Most of my own work thus far is contemporary, though I have taken a few stabs at history -- with great trepidation! Incognito has a subplot, revealed in a secret journal, that takes place in Victorian Boston. I had a wonderful time doing research for this, particularly in the area of costume. (I had actually lived in the historic district of Beacon Hill for a year, so it was easy to bring the setting to life.) "Monsoon Fever", my contribution to Brit Party, is set on a tea plantation in British India just a few years after the first World War. This was much more difficult to pull off, even though the time period is more recent. I've never visited Assam and even if I could discover what was going on in Europe or America during the 'teens, extrapolating to a remote colonial outpost required considerable imagination to fill in the factual gaps.
I've been doing research for more than a year for a planned paranormal novel set in what is now Cambodia, during the period of Angkor Wat (about 1100 AD). Despite having visited the site and read a number of books, I'm still having trouble getting a sense of what life was like for the Angkor-era Khmers. Viewing majestic monuments of stone don't seem to help me to understand the people who built them. I know that until I reach this level of understanding, I won't be able to write the book.
I just learned, though, that my story "Shortest Night" will be included in the upcoming historical anthology from TEB, Brits in Time. "Shortest Night" is set in Elizabethan London - during William Shakespeare's time. In fact, the Bard himself is a bit character in the story. I thought I'd finish by giving you a little preview from this bawdy romp.
Hugh banged his tankard on the plank table. “A toast! To the newest Lord Chamberlain’s man, Ben Hastings! Long may he tread the boards!” The dozen or so members of the Company present cheered and drank deep.
Ben just blushed. He knew that the opening had gone well. He’d mastered his revulsion and done a credible job as the benighted Titania. He remembered the thrill of the applause, the shouts and the whistles, as he curtseyed, hand in hand with Oberon. He could still feel Hugh’s fingers entwined with his own; the vivid recollection made him a bit breathless and queasy. He wasn’t used to this much excitement.
“Speech, speech!” Hugh called. “Give us more of your dulcet tones! Wench! Another round of ale, and be quick about it.” The slender blonde serving girl pushed a few wayward curls back under her cap and headed for the hogsheads.
Ben stood, a bit unsteady on his feet. He’d lost track of how long they’d been here, how much ale he’d consumed. He folded one hand over the other, as if he was back in grammar school, and tried to decide what to say. Hugh caught his eye. Unlike Ben, the dashing leading man seemed none the worse for drink. His dark eyes sparkled. Black curls tumbled over his forehead, a dramatic contrast to his pale Irish complexion. In the sweltering tavern, he’d opened his doublet almost to the waist. Ben noticed matching jet ringlets on his chest, matted with sweat. The actor was smiling encouragement, but the puckered scar at the left corner of his mouth gave all Hugh’s smiles a slight sardonic cast. Still, Ben read kindness in Hugh’s face, and something else, an eagerness that Ben didn’t fully understand.
“I thank you for your congratulations, gentlemen, and also for your forbearance in overlooking my many mistakes over the last weeks. I hope that I can continue to do the Company proud.”
The barmaid returned with a loaded tray. Someone stuck a full pot into his hand. “Drink up, boy! Build your strength for tomorrow’s performance.” Ben took a sip of the viscous, bitter liquid. He swayed back and forth, seeking his balance as he tried to continue. “I especially want to thank—hic—Master Hugh, who’s given so much of his time to showing me the ropes…”
“Nonsense, boy. I’ve enjoyed it.” Hugh stood beside him, an arm around Ben’s shoulder. Ben leaned against him, grateful for the enhanced stability. “I’m looking forward to working with you more closely.” Ben lurched forward, spilling some of his ale on the earthen floor. “Umm–I—you…”
Hugh pried Ben’s fingers from the tankard and set it on the table. “I think that you’ve had enough for tonight, Ben.” He signaled to the tavern maid. “Girl! Have you a room where my friend can lie down?”
Ben was conscious enough to note the odd expression on the wench’s face. Sympathy for him, he thought, but a steely resentment aimed at the man supporting him. Can’t you see, he wanted to protest, that he’s my truest friend here? Lips pressed together into a thin line, she gestured impatiently to Hugh.
“Upstairs. No one’s using the front room tonight. It’s four pence, in advance.” Hugh dropped a few coins into her palm. She turned and led the way through a dingy corridor to the narrow stairway. “Turn right at the landing. I don’t suppose that you’ll be wanting a fire, with the night so warm.”
“No, we’ll be fine, child.” Hugh beamed at her. Ben could see that he was trying to win her over with charm. “But do send up two gills of your best sack, will you?”
“Very well, sir. I’ll be up in a moment.”
Ben heard Harold Warwick’s gruff voice , and then the roar of laughter coming from the taproom. For a moment, he wished that he were back with the remainder of the company. Hugh held him tight around the waist, but somehow he didn’t feel stable or safe. A hand slipped down the back of his hose, a callused palm brushing over his bare buttocks. He stumbled on the uneven treads.
“There now, Ben. Just relax. Lean on me. I’ll get you upstairs, where we can be all nice and cosy and private.” The hand stroked his naked flesh, sending prickles of electricity up his spine, shocking but oddly pleasant. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll take good care of you.”