Friday, April 5, 2013

When history won’t play ball

Today I welcome Daisy Banks, author of Your Heart My Soul, who's going to be in charge for a bit. Welcome, Daisy!

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Hi Nerine, it’s great to be here and thanks for the offer of a blog spot with you.

Today, the historical romance, one of my favorite genres, is driving me to share some ideas. Primarily, I’d like to talk about the problems I’ve found with a work in progress in the historical genre, and what I think can happen when ‘history won’t play ball’.

What I mean by ‘play ball’ is the problem when attitudes and activities from a certain period in time are at odds with modern perceptions of humanity, love and relationships. As a historian, I firmly believe I shouldn’t judge the past with my 21st century morality. However, as a romance author, should I sanitize history? Is it right for me to make the era I’ve chosen to set my story in the kind of world some readers believe they know from Hollywood epics? On the other hand, should I follow my instinct and let the ripe gutter fragrance rise a little from the page to tell its truth? I have struggled with this question.
I know Nerine has a passion for Egyptian history; I too am interested in that great civilization. I also find the divergence of different cultures in the Roman period in the UK, with its clash of attitudes to women and family, changes to religion and the introduction of city dwelling, all fascinating. My other main interest is the early Georgian era and the development of industrialization. I am fascinated by the machines invented in this era, and by the minds of those who designed them. One of my favorite places to visit to enjoy a sense of this era is Soho House in Birmingham, England. This link will take you to a page where you can see the home of Matthew Boulton, a very fascinating character who made a huge impact in this era.

One of my books published with Lyrical Press, A Matter of Some Scandal, is set in the Georgian era, a robust time full of change and discovery on many levels. My main concern with that story was the legal system in England in the 18th century and I used the records of proceedings at the Old Bailey in London to try to gain the depth and accuracy I felt the story needed. As I am so interested in the period the level of research necessary wasn’t too trying, and it gave me the added bonus of discovering the reality of the author’s voice. As the characters in the story spend much of their time alone together, the impact on them from the attitudes of society in the era only came at the end of the story. However, some historical stories like my work in progress are more problematic, and I think the element of realism could influence the reception a story might get from both a publisher and readers.

There are some key areas where I’ve found ‘history won’t play ball’ with modern sensibilities or the lists of acceptable content in a romance.

The age of the heroine is an issue. If I want to be factually accurate in a romance set in the past it is unlikely an aristocratic girl will fit within modern age constraints. Research into the lives of wealthy women in the past generally proves they married young, sometimes very young. Arranged marriages where land and finance counted as more important than the bride’s happiness were also a common feature and could lead to both emotional and physical abuse if a woman tried to refuse. For an example of this, investigate the Paston Letters, of the 15th century. Those letters are fascinating social history but the information they offer is not something that fits neatly with most publication guidelines for romance.

The next problem is to give my heroine an occupation in life. For many periods in the past, work opportunities for women appear to be very limited, or none existent for women in the upper classes. Therefore, to have a heroine who has an occupation I either need to massage history, or I must look among the working women of the lower classes.

These women, the alewives or fishwives, the servant or seamstress, laundress or midwife, governess or nursery maid, and those who worked with their family in all manner of activities give an insight into lives lived without a woman toiling over an embroidery frame. There is also an added bonus, these girls, if they married, they didn’t marry so young. From the late Medieval through to the early Georgian era, the typical age at marriage of women from the lower classes was approximately twenty-four, as a couple needed to save for their life together. The women I’ve discovered in records of these periods offer courage, skill, wisdom, and even the nebulous quality so often described as ‘feisty’. Fantastic!

However, back to my historical story and the next problem I need to solve. How to make the world my heroine lives and loves in palatable too?

My current historical work in progress has offered me many dilemmas. The tale is set in the Georgian era, and is based on research of real events. I want to make both hero and heroine realistic characters from their time and still have readers like them. The level of characterization of lead characters in a historical story has to be very strong. The author must persuade the reader to suspend belief, and in addition, to like the kind of person who might attend a public hanging and purchase a pie to eat during the event. Heartless? Not according to the descriptions from the time, it seems pie sellers did a roaring trade at executions; they are prominent figures in some sketches from the eighteenth century.

I love the genre of the historical, and I firmly hope it never dies out, but I also know from my work on historical stories, it is a very demanding and unforgiving genre. The search to find a heroine who is true to her time but loveable to modern readers is a challenge in an extreme form.

In checking through this, I chose to read it a friend, who said in response, “But you write fiction. So, your characters don’t have to follow the accepted behaviors of their era.”

I have to say I sighed in frustration.

This thought, is, I think, why so many portrayals of historical stories especially in film and on television are so unbelievable to anyone with some knowledge of history. Our female ancestors weren’t all proud beauties taught to sword-fight by kind brothers or indulgent fathers, that doesn’t make them less brave or interesting than they were. Many women fought day-to-day battles against poverty, ignorance, brutality and fear. To me their stories are far more interesting than some events shown on screen, and I’d like to incorporate those real stories, at least in part, into the ones I write. To do that I have to allow truth to speak out from the era I chose to write in.

My recently published story Your Heart My Soul with Liquid Silver Books is a combination of the paranormal, historical and contemporary. In this tale of a love to last the ages, I tried to offer readers a brief look at the early19th using the characters of the ghosts of Will and Sally. Here is a link if you wish to find out more and I’ve included a small excerpt below to tempt you. I hope you enjoy it.

Many thanks again, Nerine, for time on your blog.

Best wishes to you and the readers.
Daisy Banks

Excerpt from Your Heart My Soul by Daisy Banks, published by Liquid Silver Books.

A prickle rose on the back of his neck, the fine hairs stood like a hound’s ruff to warn of storms to come and his certainty grew. T’was said only those who’d made it ’round the horn got the sense of predicting stormy winds. Well, he’d made it ’round the horn and home twice—and tonight, in the twilight shadows, proof of it raced icy down his back.

The fat blue-and-white painted vase. It had moved!

The thing always stood on the starboard side of the counter, had been there for so long he couldn’t recall.
He shook his head.

Tonight, the thick-bottomed vase sat on the frayed rush mat. Unknown hands had moved the vase from its usual spot and left it on the floor, where any bad-tempered little brat in hobnailed boots might kick it.

The pawnshop didn’t change. Why, it was only yesterday evening he’d been here and things had been the same as they’d been for—well, he couldn’t give a number on the days. Wherever else he wandered along the wharf each starlit night, he always began his evening journey here, in the shop, hoping. Before dawn he returned, dragging the tatters of his dreams, for one last glimpse before the bright light came. The first streaks of dawn and he’d leave with the prayer the next night would bring a different outcome. The sun on the water, always he saw the light sparkling on the waves, until it dimmed and the next night and his hopes came again.
He stifled the confusion in his thoughts, the ache and longing inside, rose from the chaise and picked his way through the jumble of objects in the corner. Once beyond the brass umbrella stand and the dark wood whatnot with the broken shelf, he eased by the table and made sure he didn’t brush against the cluster of china flat-back ornaments on the long open bookcase.

Surprise stilled his steps. Unblinking, like when he watched a shooting star, he stared as if he’d frozen in the bitter cold of the deepest southern ocean. He gawped in wonder at the arch of a smear mark traced by three slim fingertips scraped along the mahogany counter.

Not his darlin’ Sal’s sweet touch, though. He knew it immediately, for she’d truly tiny fingers—slender like little petals, and how he wished…

One day she’d weave her small, pale fingertips through his hair again, or she might even whack him on the chin and giggle. Didn’t he know her for a lovin’ saucy wench?

By his heart and soul, she was a beauty. On three continents, he’d never met her like. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes to recall the perfection of her violet-scented mouth, coral-tinted lips made for kisses, her cheeky, inviting little smile, and the sparkle in brilliant green eyes that could smolder in passion like oriental gems or blaze like a wildfire lived inside them. And her laugh.

Ah, when his darlin’ laughed, the sound danced about a room, skipped like dawn light on the waves, glimmered like ice crystals in a winter night.


Everything about his sweet, dainty Sal was beautiful, and he only lingered here awaiting the chance to haul fast beside her once again. This time when he did, he’d take her in his arms, caress her until she made those soft, welcoming little sighs and, God help him, he’d know then he’d come home.

He clenched his hand. “Christ alive, my wench, where in the wide world are ye? My girl, ye gave me yer heart, took mine in return, and ye promised we’d wed. Yer swore we would.”


  1. Great content, very thought provoking.Research,research, research - sigh!
    Virginnia De Parte

  2. Love the emphasis on research. Great post, Daisy

  3. Wow! So great to see two of my favorite authors, Nerine and Daisy. And a wonderful post. I totally understand your dilemma with writing historicals, Daisy, and applaud your determination to stick to the truth and facts while making the H and H appealing to modern readers. That's so hard, and as a lover of your stories, I know you do it so well. Sticking to the history pays off in the end, especially when you might come up against an anal retentive line editor who lives for research. (I wonder who that could possibly be? :-0)Accuracy is so important, and readers are intelligent. They appreciate the effort to make stories believable, I think.

  4. Hi Daisy,
    Fantastic blog and so true about research! Your dedication to the historical genre is awesome and inspiring. Keep writing your lovely stories!

  5. I enjoy historical fiction and I always appreciate it when a writer takes the time to do their research - nothing will throw me out of a story quicker than anachronisms. Plus part of the fun of writing it is the research!