Confessions of a Historical Author … Who Hates Research!

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by Julie Lessman

“But I don’t write “historicals,” I said stupidly to my agent. “I write romance.”

Uh, wrong. And, yes, I really was that green, a writer who didn’t consider the historical aspect of my story as important as the emotional tug-of-war between hero and heroine. I mean, come on now, everybody knows the most important thing is WHAT happens in the story, not WHEN it happens, right?

Wrong again-a lesson I learned the hard way, which is my usual mode of study, apparently. My eyes still glaze when I think about the 24 pages of feedback my critique partner gave me on my debut novel A Passion Most Pure. Simple little things-nit-picky to me, but deadly to the historical accuracy of my story.

• “Julie, the chocolate chip cookies Mrs. Gerson serves in chapter seven sound good, but this is 1916, and chocolate chips weren’t invented until 1939.”

• “Julie, the word “sync” in the sentence, “A twig with a heart-shaped leaf plummeted to the ground, in sync with her mood” is too modern for 1916.”

• “Julie, sorry, but the O’Connors drinking orange juice in the winter is not realistic given fresh fruit was not readily available.”

And WORST of all? A HUGE blunder that sailed past me, my CPs, and my editor, caught, ironically, by my editor’s husband who happened to be-what are the odds?-an Irish historian! He innocently pointed out the O’Connors traveling via ship to Ireland during WWI was not feasible since passenger ships were commandeered for war and German U-boats made it too dangerous to travel. Sigh.

So, how does somebody who despises research make sure the setting, speech, hairstyles, clothing, mannerisms, appliances, music, movies, etc. are authentic to the era?

Very carefully! I bookmark “favorite” research links or paste them in a “Notes” document I create for each book. Here are some of my favorites:

1.) LIBRARIAN JUDY GANN’S SEEKERVILLE POST: Shhh … Library Secrets You Really Need to Know.
2.) PATTY SMITH HALL’S SEEKERVILLE POST: Mining Through History to Find a Gem of a Story …
3.) SEEKERVILLE: A blog of 15 ACFW authors who share experience and advice on writing/contests/the journey to publication and beyond. This is a specific link to hook you up with 15 GREAT articles on research.
4.) HISTORICAL TIMELINE: Fun website!!
5.) ONLINE ETYMOLOGY DICTIONARY: THIS is one of the sites I use more than other! As a historical writer, I have to ensure the words and slang my characters use typify or qualify the era for which I’m writing.

So when my CP nailed me again recently, I sighed. “Julie, when Katie is typing, she can’t “push the return key with a focused glint in her eye” because it wouldn’t be a key, it would be a lever, right?”

“Key,” “lever”-who really cares? Well, when you’re talking historicals, the reader does, apparently … and now, so do I!

ACFW’s 2009 Debut Author of the Year, Julie Lessman was voted #1 Romance Author in Family Fiction magazine’s 2011 and 2012 Readers Choice Awards, plus #1 Historical Fiction Author, #3 Author, #4 Novel, #3 Series, as well as Booklist’s 2010 Top 10 Inspirational Fiction and 14 RWA awards.

Comments 0

  1. Loved your post, especially the examples you listed. It’s amazing the little things that can trip us up. In one of my manuscripts, my critique partner, a retired nurse, advised me that my character’s IV bag couldn’t be a bag (in the mid-1940s), but a glass bottle.

    I love research and do way too much. πŸ™‚

  2. I loved this post! My time period (Viking times, around 1000 AD) is not so well-documented, so it can be trying to follow-up on the facts. You’re right, having crit partners who are well-versed in our time period of choice helps so much! I also frequently (and I mean ALL THE TIME!) refer to the Old Norse dictionary, to get a feel for what adjectives/nouns even existed for them. It’s so important to nail that authenticity for our readers!

  3. What a fantastic post Thanks for the links! This is exactly why I haven’t written the historical novel that keeps haunting my mind. The research frightens me stiff!

    You are an encouragement to me Julie!

  4. Oh, JOHNNIE, don’t you just LOVE those nit-picky critique partners??? What would we do without them? Well, I’d have chocolate chips in my cookies, for one thing, and you would have nurses all over the planet writing to correct you!!

    I’m jealous that you love research because I definitely do NOT!! Mmmm … maybe you and I can make a deal … πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for coming by!


  5. Oh, HEATHER, you are a WAY better woman than me, let me tell you! The VIKING ERA??? That gives me cold chills just thinking researching it, so more power to you, girlfriend.

    One thing’s for sure, I’d love to read it because nothing says male hero like a Viking!! πŸ™‚


  6. AMY, you are MORE than welcome, girl, and I totally relate!! I’m a bottom-liner that likes the meat and gold in an article, so Readers Digest it for me, you know??

    Hope the links come in handy and happy research!


  7. JODI!!!! Move over, girl … I’m right there with you. πŸ™‚ But really, once you get started writing and do the piece-meal research as you go along, it’s really not too bad. Some authors will tell you they research for months before they write, so if that’s not your style, don’t do it. Just write, and when you need to research something, do it on the spot. Works for me … πŸ˜‰


  8. Great post, Julie:) The more I research the more I’m finding out how little I know historically. I always ask the Lord to cover me… He’s pretty good at giving me resources just when I need them – I’m always a bit amazed by that! The links are great – thanks so much for being here:)

  9. Thanks for this, Julie! These links are sooo helpful and yes, I have discovered the joy of digging in deep. My latest character chews gum but the only chewing gum available in 1883 was Black Jack and it was one of the only options (except for homemade gum made from spruce sap)…ah, the things I do to write! lol

  10. Hahaha! I can just see you now, realizing you had all that research to do. Key, lever? I wouldn’t have thought about it either. But people like my dad, love those little details accurate, because TRUST ME, they point them out. πŸ˜‰

  11. Great post, Julie!
    Thanks for those links! Biblical fiction is some tricky research, too, and I praise God for those nit-picky CP’s! I think I have the opposite problem, however. I LOVE RESEARCH!!! And I could get stuck in the why’s and wherefore’s and never actually write if it weren’t for those awful deadlines! πŸ˜‰

    Blessings on ya!

  12. I am so obsessive over historical details it is a little bit crazy. I want to be a history teacher so I find research fun. I know so many random bits of historical detail it is not even funny. But ask me to write a to write a slight romance in and I get so scared. I do think reading novels of the time period gives you a good idea of not only what your characters read but how they talked. For instance it is far more likely that your heroine secretly reads Elinor Glyn than Thomas Hardy. ( Personally you must be the Elinor Glyn of Christian Fiction. I am not saying that your morals are like hers but the shock value.)I actually haven’t read her but she was the sister of the infamous Lady Duff Gordon of Titanic fame.

  13. Hi Julie,

    How funny is this! I’ve been pulling my hair out all afternoon and evening doing research!

    Will have to check out some of your sites!

    I think I’ve made the orange juice mistake too!



  14. Oh, LAURA!!! The one person who’s more phenomenal at research than ANYBODY I know, showing up on my “I hate research” blog!! I sooo love all the wonderful details you include in your novels, but soooo hate to have to dig them up out of books. The only person I’ve read lately who is as wonderful as you at research is a sweet gal named Jocelyn Green, a debut writer for Moody who I had the privilege of endorsing recently. She wrote a fabulous Civil War romance called Wedded to War that boggled my mind with all the research she had to do — outstanding book! Authors like you and her BLOW ME OUT OF THE WATER on research, and I’m not too proud to say so. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for coming by, my friend!


  15. Oh, TARA, how fun!! I LOVED Black Jack (does that give you a clue how old I am????). I will agree that it’s fun details like that that make writing so much more rewarding. Like I was SO thrilled that Snickers candy bar was around in 1932 so I could have Sean O’Connor hoard them in A Heart Revealed!! And when I found out that Foster Grant invented sunglasses in 1929, naturally I had to put them in Dennehy’s Department Store in A Hope Undaunted!!

    Thanks for coming by, girl!


  16. CASE!!! So your dad is one of THOSE guys, huh?? I live in fear of those types of readers because I just KNOW they’re gonna catch me on something … 😐


  17. Oh, MESU, I have SUCH a HUGE respect for you in writing Biblical fiction, truly! I cannot imagine how hard that would be and how much research you would need to do for EVERYTHING!! The reason I chose 1916 for my first book was because I wanted an era that was close enough to modern times that I could have dialogue really natural like I like to speak, which you can’t really do easily with a Biblical novel.

    I have Love’s Sacred Song on my e-reader and cannot WAIT to get to it after I finish the entries I’m judging for the Carol Award. I hear it’s fabulous!!


  18. SUE!!! LOL … yep, we’ve ALL made the orange juice mistake, I think, but it sure makes a fun story, right?

    Hope you have some hair left after all that research … πŸ˜‰


  19. Love historical tidbits and research hence founding the Colonial American Christian Writers group with the help of Laurie Frantz, fellow history nerd who also commented, lol! My problem early on was to stop reading all those nonfiction history books and get back to story world! Julie, if you seriously got into history and added even more of that to your stories, um, would your books be what 600 pages, lol? Do not call me a brat. Please!

  20. This post is perfectly YOU, Julie! Congratulations on the many awards and recognitions! THOSE show you’ve got your details straight, and you surely put the fun and romance in historical fiction!

  21. CARRIE … you little brat, you!! YES, I don’t think there is ANY doubt that if I got in to more research, no publisher would touch me. πŸ™‚

    Actually, I DO love history, always have, which is why I love your Colonial blog so much … well, that and it has some of my favorite authors and people on the planet in it …

    You can be a brat ANY old time, my friend. You have a pass because I love you so much!


  22. On the flip side . . . and I do research as I go . . . I had a crit partner tell me . . . “They drink way too much buttermilk in this story — maybe switch them to iced tea or lemonade occasionally . . . ”

    Uh – – – this was summer in Kansas, in 1880. I don’t think so!!

    But . . . I do get a bit paranoid at times.

    Thanks for the post, and the links.

  23. Good post, Julie. My problem with research is that once I confirm a fact, I sometimes forget it and the next time I’m reading through I have to recheck it.

    I liked the idea of bookmarking sites and am going to put in footnotes or site links to confirm so that in my copy of the ms I can easily verify a fact.

    Thanks for posting.

  24. Hey, Julie! What a fun post. I actually enjoy research. But there always come a moment when I’m tired of research and I just want to WRITE THE STORY already! But I still stop in the middle of writing to go research something sometimes. And I make myself markers in the story so I can find the answer to my question after I’ve finished the rough draft. Research is a big part of being a writer, whether we like it or not, I guess. Keep writing those great stories, Julie!

  25. Great post, Julie! (Waving to Melanie above) Though history was never my favorite subject, to my delight I found I love researching! You had some great tips – I especially love the timeline!It’s the best and most complete I’ve seen! Thank you! Love all your books, Julie!

  26. I’m with Melanie – but I love history. And I am one of those nerds who stops to fact-check in the middle of a story out of curiosity more than anything else. And why I don’t write it as much because I don’t want to mess anything up.

  27. The rabbit trails of research are fun…but distracting. I’m so glad God puts people in our life to help us with the things we don’t enjoy so much.

  28. You’re welcome, MARY, and gosh, your memory sounds like mine, you poor thing!! πŸ™‚

    Bookmarking really does help, as does my notes sheet with links I like and those I pull from so I can verify to my editor if I need to. And trust me — I do!!


  29. Hey, MEL, yeah, there’s no getting around research if you’re a historical author. Sigh. But it does work for me to stop in the middle of the story for a quick verification/search for some tidbit, so that’s what I do when I need to. BUT … on an as-needed basis ONLY!!


  30. Hey, BECKY, thanks, my friend!! And I’m glad you like research, girl, because now that you’ve got that 3-book deal with Revell, you are going to be doing it LOTS, I’m sure … πŸ˜‰


  31. Boy, LISA, you’re not alone in being afraid to mess historical facts up — it seems like quite a few of us feel that way! As far as stopping in the middle of a story to check some fact — I do that too, and actually because I’m curious as well. Let’s face it — we historical types ARE curious by nature, wanting to know more about an era different than our own. Thank God our readers are too, eh?


  32. Loved reading this. I remember reading a book set in the 1950’s or so recently and the character had just delivered a baby. She came home from the hospital and walked up the stairs to the bedroom and I gasped — back then you weren’t allowed to do ANYTHING like that. I remember my mom talking about my dad carrying her up the stairs to their apartment after my siblings were born. In fact, not only could women not drive after childbirth, they couldn’t even ride in the car for six weeks (once they got home from the hospital).

  33. LOL, LINDA … obviously a book written by a woman who either never had a baby OR was a baby during the 50s or not even born … πŸ™‚

    We’ve come a long way from those days, thank God!!


  34. JULIE LESSMAN!! πŸ™‚
    Just thought I’d pop in and say HELLO to one my favorite people in the world. Unfortunately, I’m not a writer..yet and you bet I REALLY want to be one later on, so tumbs up for this post! //smiling here// and Julie, you’re too funny for your own good.. haha!!

  35. ELIZABETH … FORGIVE ME!!! Somehow I overlooked you, which makes me feel SO bad — sorry!!

    You said: “I know so many random bits of historical detail it is not even funny. But ask me to write a to write a slight romance in and I get so scared.”

    LOL … I’ll tell you what, girl, quick solution here — YOU do my research, and I’ll write YOUR romance!!! πŸ™‚

    Seriously, I did an ACFW workshop last year called “A Kiss is Not Just a Kiss,” which shows how Ruth Axtell Morren and I ramp up the romantic tension in our novels, so if you would like a hand-out from that session, just e-mail me through my website, okay?

    You also said: “For instance it is far more likely that your heroine secretly reads Elinor Glyn than Thomas Hardy. ( Personally you must be the Elinor Glyn of Christian Fiction. I am not saying that your morals are like hers but the shock value.)I actually haven’t read her but she was the sister of the infamous Lady Duff Gordon of Titanic fame.”

    OH MY, I didn’t even know who Elinor Glyn was until I just looked her up. YIKES!! But yes, I suppose I do sometimes FEEL like her in the Christian market because of some of the scathing 1-star reviews I have received (i.e. “scum reading” or “you can slap God’s name on it and use the word prayer, but the bottom line is, smut is still smut”), which is so funny because in the secular market I would be considered WAY too spiritual and WAY too “sweet” for the Elinor Glyn types. Not sure if you have ever read one of my novels, but , I assure you they are “Song of Solomon” type romance with God front and center, along with His precepts. To me, romance is not romantic unless God is in the center — PERIOD!!

    Thanks for coming by to comment, Elizabeth!


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