When the managing editor for Smitten Historical (a Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas imprint) asked me to join in a collection of historical romances, I got excited. I’ve always wanted to write a historical. I’ve even delved into it a time or two with Slider, published in The Saturday Evening Post’s collection of short stories and an unpublished short story called Masquerade.
The as yet untitled story I’m working on now fits in with my series of contemporary western romances, except it’s a historical western romance. Things aren’t that different—cows, cowboys, and the girls they give their hearts to—but they’re different enough that I need to research. I was flipping through MSB’s Time Life collection called “The Old West,” and found reference to the Harvey Girls. Immediately I had my story idea involving a cowboy and a Harvey Girl. I’ve never heard of the Harvey Girls, so of course I jumped on the internet and did a quick search until I found a great article about them plus a vimeo of an interview with a latter-day Harvey Girl.
Along with these resources, I found one more. Not long ago, PBS did a series called “Texas Ranch House,” in which 21st Century Californians came to run a 19th Century ranch in Texas. Several folks from all over the US came to join the experience. Everything for this ranch was supposed to be authentic to 1867, after the Civil War, when cattle roamed the ranges free of ownership. But Fred Harvey didn’t start his Harvey House hotels and restaurants until the 1880s, so I have to make time adjustments. Still, the PBS series is vital because it shows life on the 19th Century ranch, and as I said, very little has changed. They still needed pens and chutes, range and water, and the men necessary to work it all in 1887 as they did in 1867.
So there’s my research start: books, internet, videos. From these I can learn setting details; character descriptions; clothing, kitchen items, and everyday articles of use; attitudes of the time; hazards of the time—lands, with these three resources, I can learn everything I need to know to write a romance novella set in the 1880s.
Using the resources I have at hand, I study and observe, noticing everything I can in the pictures and videos and looking up terms I’m unfamiliar with. I went so far as to figure out what an 1880 barbershop looked like and what all a barber did, because one scene takes place in a barber shop.
The trick with research is not using in your book everything you learned. Doesn’t that sound odd? But it’s true—as you study your era, setting, and culture, the temptation is to show off your new knowledge for your reader. This kind of info dump (or research dump, as I call it) bogs down the novel and bores the reader. So use of the information is the same as in any novel: you reveal what you’ve learned through the character’s daily activities.
I learned some fun things about the 19th Century barber shop, but instead of describing them to the reader, I let my character, Cal Hardy, do it:
Walter Neville swept up what looked like a half pound of hair and sent a stream of tobacco juice toward the spittoon. “’Afternoon, Cal. Be right with ya.”
“Ain’t in no hurry.” Cal rubbed his jaw and studied the handwritten sign over Walt’s new National cash register. Walt had gone up two bits on both hair cut and shave—three bits on a bath. And heaven help anyone who needed a tooth pulled.
So, on the off chance someone didn’t know that the barbers also served as dentists, now they do. They can also see the progress of technology through the cash register. NCR was founded in 1884, and one of the earliest Harvey Houses was built in Ladonia, Texas, in 1887, and Ladonia is close to Fort Worth, one of the cattle capitals of Texas, complete with stockyards which were built in 1887. Now we know the era of my setting.
I can know all this about when the stockyards were built, when NCR released its cash registers, etc., but it’s not necessary that my reader does. I want my reader to feel immersed in the time and culture, not educated about it. If she learns while she’s being entertained, so much the better. And if I can convince hardcore Texas history buffs that I did my research, so much the better still! But I’m a novelist, not the author of a history textbook, so my goal is to entertain and enlighten through the stories I tell. Research dumps have no place in Historical Romances.