This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, July 02, 2012

Guestpost: "Why I Don't Write Historicals" by Deborah Raney

Please welcome Author Deborah Raney. Her books have won the RITA Award, HOLT Medallion, National Readers' Choice Award, Silver Angel, and a Christy Award finalist twice. Her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. She and her husband, Ken Raney, have four children and enjoy small-town life in Kansas.

Last spring, when a friend invited me to post on her historical fiction blog, I was honored, but my first panicked thought was, "what on earth do I have to say about historical fiction?" While I love to read historical novels, I've only written one, a novella. (Had it been a full-length historical, I'd still be asking for extensions on my deadline!) The only thing that experience accomplished was to convince me I'd best stick to writing contemporary. Why? Oh, let me count the ways...

My first sentence of my first draft of "Circle of Blessings"––set in 1864 in the Dakota Territory––read something like this:

Heather Bradford grabbed her handbag from the credenza in the parlor and stepped out onto the back deck, panning the horizon.

My fingers paused on the keyboard. Was a purse actually called a "handbag" back then? Better check. Webster said the word "handbag" only came into popular use around 1862. My Heather lived in a rather remote area and was not especially fashion conscious. Not likely she'd have adopted such a newfangled term. Two hours of research later, I settled on "reticule" and hoped my editor would correct me if I was wrong.

Sadly, my research also unearthed the fact that Heather would have to wait at least sixteen years to call her sideboard/buffet a "credenza" since Webster dated that word at 1880. Okay, delete and replace. So now my first sentence read:

Heather Bradford grabbed her reticule from the sideboard in the parlor and stepped out onto the back deck, panning the horizon.

Hmmm...come to think of it, I doubt it was typical to build a deck onto homes back then. Or at least if they did, they'd call it something else. A porch? Or a veranda? Portico, maybe? Terrace? I highlighted the phrase "onto the back deck." My brother is an architect. He probably took some architectural history classes on his way to getting licensed. I could give him a call later.

I read my sentence again. Something still seemed "off." The word "panning" stood out somehow. I looked it up: pan [verb] –– to rotate (as a motion-picture camera) so as to keep an object in the picture or secure a panoramic effect. 1930. Shoot! It was a movie term. I couldn't use a movie term in a novel set in 1864! Delete delete delete. I was starting to hate this Webster guy.

Heather Bradford grabbed her reticule from the sideboard in the parlor and stepped out onto the porch[?], scanning the horizon.

Wait! Was "scanning" a printing term? You know: PSC. Printer/Scanner/Copier? Consult Webster. Nope, I was okay there. "Scan" was also a legitimate and ancient verb.

But my heroine's name didn't ring true. Sure it was one of the most common and popular names at the time I was writing that novella, but further research revealed that the name was almost nonexistent as a woman's name before 1940.

Okay, fine. I could change her name. My great-grandmother was born around 1880. It would probably be safe to use her name, Stella. Delete delete delete delete.

Stella Bradford grabbed her reticule from the sideboard in the parlor and stepped out onto the porch[?], scanning the horizon.

Three days and 578,642 dead brain cells later, I finally had an opening line for my novella, but by now I was second-guessing myself on every single word. Was the word "grabbed" in use back in 1864? Probably, but had the term made its way to the Dakota Territory by then? Was there even a horizon back in 1864? Sheesh!

I finally, finally finished "A Circle of Blessings" and it appeared in the lovely Christmas anthology, A Currier & Ives Christmas. This month, A Prairie Christmas Collection, a new anthology of historical Christmas romances, releases from Barbour Books and my name will be one of those on the cover. But don't let that fool you. My offering to that collection of wonderful stories is again "Circle of Blessings," the first, last––and only––historical piece Deborah Raney ever wrote.

And now you know why I write contemporary. And why I have such deep respect for the authors of the historical novels I love to read. My hat (or should that be chapeau?) is off to every one of them!


Hi Deborah, Fun post! I totally get what you're saying about modern language in a historical. The mistakes are both subtle and jarring. At the same time, a story has to be accessible to the reader.

One of the things I loved about the movie "True Grit" was the dialogue. The characters spoke without contractions--no "can't" or "don't". Using "cannot and "do not" changed the cadence of the whole movie, but if we wrote dialogue like that in a book, it would seem peculiar.

I thoroughly enjoy your books :)

Hmmm, interesting points here. How about writing a time-travel-historical? That would allow for our two worlds to collide in ways only the author can imagine ;)

LOL Diana! Now I'll have to write a blog post on "why I don't write fantasy/sci-fi" : )

I'm just a real-life gal, I guess. Though I do love to READ historical novels and fantasy, too.

You make an excellent point, Victoria. I know that historical writers walk a fine line between complete accuracy and writing for the readers' sensibilities. Again, I SO admire writers who can do that!

Oh, Deb, what a hoot!

Sez Myra as she pounds the keyboard on the second historical in a contracted series. I really avoided them, too, for all the reasons you mentioned, until an idea gripped me and wouldn't let go.

But just think, Deb, if you wrote fantasy/sci-fi, you could be making up your own culture, language, everything! That's gotta be easier than wading through all this research!

Good point, Myra, but somehow I have a feeling some editor would insist that the science of my sci-fi actually WORK. Or, worse, the math! Oy! I think I'll stick to women's fiction and write-what-I-know. ; )