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Sherry Thomas | What You Can Learn From Reading and Writing Historical Novels


My favorite way to learn history is to come across it via fiction. Of course, since my favorite kind of history is not the chronicle of kings and queens, but everyday history--what people ate, how they lived, what they did to get away from it all--it is these details and quirks of history that stay with me. For example, in Laura Kinsale’s FOR MY LADY’S HEART--for my money, one of the best medieval romances ever written--the hero is a knight, the heroine is far above him in worldly stature: she is a princess. On the run from danger, it is the two of them against the world. One scene in the book has her giving him an orange and a stick of violet-scented sugar that made up part of her meal. And this is a paragraph from that scene:

He sucked the fruit, allowing the rich bitter juice to run on his tongue. He’d had oranges in Aquitaine a few times, at feasts and Christmas--but to eat one every day as she did was something utterly beyond his experience. And the penidia: he’d never tasted white sugar but once, a score and more Christmas gone, a child at the high board with his father and mother.

For a thirty-year-old man from a good family to have had sugar but twice in his life--oney was the far commoner sweetener for the medieval age--paints a vivid picture not only of the rarity of sugar, but just how differently and extravagantly the aristocracy lived. I’m going to borrow from Laura Kinsale again--the lady is just so skillful at weaving historic details into her narrative, you never feel that she is info-dumping or lecturing, but she reconstructs her eras beautifully and completely. This time the book is THE SHADOW AND THE STAR, set in 1887, during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration. The heroine, who joins the hero’s household as his secretary, reads newspaper articles on the Jubilee to him and a gathering of servants.

While Leda had been reading, at the far end of the conservatory the kitchen staff had set a table with a festive array of light luncheon food, but everyone was still gathered around her with intent faces. She grew daring, and concluded her reading with a droll advertisement for the Patented Patriotic Bustle, which was guaranteed to play "God Save the Queen" whenever the wearer sat down. The scullery maids found that impossibly funny, especially after Sheppard solemnly pointed out what an exhausting device it must be, since every good Englishman must immediately stand up upon hearing the tune. Even the French chef laughed.

I laughed too, and always remembered it. And not only for the exoticness of the advertisement. Let’s face it, sure we don’t wear bustles anymore, and we don’t want our spanx to sing, but is the Patented Patriotic Bustle all that different from some of the wilder and wackier products of our time? This made me feel an unexpected connection to the Victorians. For all that we usually think of them as staid and rule-bound, they were living in a wild and wacky world too. In my own books, I try to incorporate historical tidbits that strike me as memorable, usually things that are markedly different from our current era. In researching for DELICIOUS, which features a heroine who is a cook, I loved learning about the servants’ ball. In the nineteenth century, a private establishment of any size often had some forty servants--the bigger aristocratic households had more than a hundred--and the servants too had their rituals and amusements, with the servants’ ball being the event in their annual calendar.

It can be quite an elaborate affair, with a big buffet laid out, and everyone in their Sunday best. The housekeeper and the butler lead the maids and the menservants, respectively, in a grand promenade to open the ball. And then the lord of the manor dances with the housekeeper, the lady of the house with the butler--probably the only time of the year when masters and servants mingle socially. During the writing of my new release, HIS AT NIGHT, while researching country houses, I was enthralled by the tremendous gardens that were part and parcel of these ancestral piles. The flower gardens were actually only a small part of the whole. Remember how many servants such a manor entailed? They all had to be fed three times a day. All the fruits and vegetables in their diet--and that of the family’s--came from the estate’s own gardens. But not only that, the Victorian gardeners on these great estates elevated horticulture to an art form. They produced strawberries at Christmas and pineapples in January. They had grape vines growing right at the dinner table, so that a guest at the table had but to reach out to pluck a ripe grape. Imagine that.

So of course I mentioned it in passing in HIS AT NIGHT, just because it is so darn interesting.

What fun and unexpected things have you learned from reading historical romances? Or romances in general? Please let me know. I will be giving away a copy of HIS AT NIGHT to a commenter.

Sherry Thomas’s new book, HIS AT NIGHT, is a Romantic Times Top Pick.

Love is hottest in the darkness before dawn...

Elissande Edgerton is a desperate woman, a virtual prisoner in the home of her tyrannical uncle. Only through marriage can she claim the freedom she craves. But how to catch the perfect man?

Lord Vere is used to baiting irresistible traps. As a secret agent for the government, he’s tracked down some of the most devious criminals in London, all the while maintaining his cover as one of Society’s most harmless—and idiotic—bachelors. But nothing can prepare him for the scandal of being ensnared by Elissande.

Forced into a marriage of convenience, Elissande and Vere are each about to discover they’re not the only one with a hidden agenda. With seduction their only weapon against each other—and a dark secret from the past endangering both their lives—can they learn to trust each other even as they surrender to a passion that won’t be denied?

You can learn more about HIS AT NIGHT and Sherry’s other books at her website.




51 comments posted.

Re: Sherry Thomas | What You Can Learn From Reading and Writing Historical Novels

HI Sherry - congratulations on HAN
release day! I've loved your first three
and I'm sure this will be another

I agree, the little details woven
seamlessly into the story make a
historical period come alive. One
startling fact I learned from Eloisa
James's recent Duchess sextet was
that married Georgian noblewomen
often had male friends/admirers help
them get dressed in the morning. Not
a social ritual most husbands today
would be ok with!
(Theresa Romain 9:43am May 25, 2010)

I love the historical facts you pick while reading a romance. Sometimes I have even learnt something that I can pass onto my daughter when she is working on her ancient history!
(Barbara Hanson 10:05am May 25, 2010)

I think for me it's the history of England, I think I know the Kings and Queens as well as the American Presidents.
(Theresa Norris 11:58am May 25, 2010)

Love the cover of your new book.
(Sherry Russell 12:00pm May 25, 2010)

Reading historical romances has shown the passions of people that I had never read about in books dealing with history. Also, I've learned about clothing and houses.
(Leni Kaye 12:45pm May 25, 2010)

Fantastic! I love it here at Fresh Fiction and I wish you the best in all you do!
(Veronica Jarvis 1:15pm May 25, 2010)

Historicals... love the bits of history that you learn along with the story, but I find all of the rules of etiquette quite interesting too!
(Colleen Conklin 1:45pm May 25, 2010)

Hi, Sherry - Congratulations on the new release!

Sometimes romance novels can supplement information that I've already learned from history books, such as Guy Fawkes Day and Maypole dancing. In Eloisa James's, When the Duke Returns, she had some interesting information on who exactly cleaned the plugged water closets in the 19th Century. That was not a very appealing job.
(Kim C 1:55pm May 25, 2010)

I enjoy reading historical romances, and it is surprising how much you can actually learn about historical events and social customs. I am fascinated by details of everyday life and how people lived without the modern conveniences that we have. The varying rules of etiquette are fun to learn about, too.

Sherry, I have read all of your books, and I am so looking forward to this new one!
(Cheryl Castings 2:06pm May 25, 2010)

i like both history and geography in fiction. Then, if I am really interested, I Google!
(Karin Tillotson 2:26pm May 25, 2010)

Thank you for your post, Sherry. Here are a few of many interesting tidbits of history I learned through reading historical romances.

In Jeanne Lancour's "The
Storm and the Sword", set in medieval France, there's an assault on a castle in which the characters under attack refer to a siege tower by a term customary to this time and place: a "mal voisin". That's right, a bad neighbor.

Also, in one episode of Susannah Kells' "A Crowning Mercy", set during the English Civil Wars, the protagonist is condemned to be burnt at the stake. Someone smuggles into her prison cell a small bag of gunpowder. To help her escape? Not exactly. She's supposed to tuck it into her bodice. That way, when she's tied to the stake and the flames reach her dress, the gunpowder will ignite and explode, killing her instantly. She won't undergo the agony of being roasted alive. This being a work of escapist fiction, she gets rescued anyhow. But there must have been cases in which this sort of mercy-killing took place.

Keep up the good work!
(Mary Anne Landers 2:38pm May 25, 2010)

I relate to history so much better when I read about times past in a novel.
(Marjorie Carmony 2:52pm May 25, 2010)

Thank you this was a great interview. Your book sounds good can't wait to read it. Added it to my must read list.i love to read historical romance. It takes you to places you can only visit in a book.
(Heidi Shafer-Wilson 3:15pm May 25, 2010)

History goes down so much easier when it's the background for a romance.
(Alyson Widen 4:03pm May 25, 2010)

Happy Release Day, Sherry. One of the first things I learned from reading historical romances were the rankings of the aristocracy.
(Jane Cheung 4:04pm May 25, 2010)

History and fiction are a great combination.
(Mary Preston 4:10pm May 25, 2010)

Historicals give us a glimpse of the past and I sometimes wonder what happened, how did things change so much? It's nice to go back in time and enjoy the best of that time and still come back to the present with our technology:-)
(Gail Siuba 4:20pm May 25, 2010)

this sounds like one 4 me!
(Debbi Shaw 4:26pm May 25, 2010)

Congratulations on your new release. Can't wait to read it.
(Pam Alderson 5:00pm May 25, 2010)

My favorite historical book is the Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean M Auel. It is prehistoric man & I believe the term is neanderthal man. It tells you sooo much about the people who hunted mammoth for example and it throse in romance with it. It may not be romance as we are used to reading because it isn't centered around romance but everyday life of prehistoric man.
(Brandy Blake 5:36pm May 25, 2010)

My very first historical fiction was
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It got me
hooked on the genre. I love learning
about history now - as long as it timed
before WWII. :D
(Molly Wilsbacher 6:33pm May 25, 2010)

Tha hard times that people had.
(Deb Pelletier 6:45pm May 25, 2010)

I love Historical fiction and read it often and have learned alot of things and I respect the work that wrighters put into their books so we can learn something new while we enjoy the story. Keep the books coming I enjoy your style of wrighting.
(Vickie Hightower 7:04pm May 25, 2010)

I love historical fiction and enjoy anything with a southern touch.Congratulations on the new book!
(Teresa Ward 7:19pm May 25, 2010)

Maybe it's a shame....but I feel I've learned more from historical romance novels than I ever did in my history classes in school. Oh....but what a fun way to learn. Congrats on your new release and I can't wait to read it!!!
(Mitzi Hinkey 7:50pm May 25, 2010)

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Regency Period by reading Georgette Heyer. She vividly described the social scene of that time and made me enjoy myself.
(Rosemary Krejsa 8:05pm May 25, 2010)

Sounds like a great book! Count me in on the contest please.
(Brenda Rupp 8:37pm May 25, 2010)

Thanks, Sherry, for a great interview. Congrats on His at Night.

I love reading about all periods of history. You learn about etiquette, arranged marriages, how they dressed, how they lived, and holidays like their maypole dancing.
(Cathy Phillips 9:13pm May 25, 2010)

Your Book Sounds Awesomely Hot. I Love Historical Romance Novels. I Have Loved Historical Romances Since I Was Like 14 And I Still Love It.
(Raquel Vega-Grieder 9:22pm May 25, 2010)

hello well i am going to tell you somthing i am going back to school after 36 year and the first class is history and i can tell you i loved histroy 36 year ago and still love it the book sound great
(Desiree Reilly 9:28pm May 25, 2010)

You have hit the reason I read and love
historicals. My favorite authors are
those who include the very little
details you mentioned. I want to know
the little details of everyday life for all
levels of society. Ken Follett's PILLARS
END cover two time periods. They
deal with everyday life, politics, the
church, medicine, commerce, the
plague, apprenticeship, building
bridges and churches, the list goes
on. It is well researched and full of
details. Both were wonderful books
and a treat for someone who loves
those little details.
I'll be checking out your books.
Thanks for the interesting information
in this post.
(Patricia Barraclough 10:04pm May 25, 2010)

Have loved history all my life & when I discovered Historical Romance it was a perfect match. I first read .. I can't exactly tell you what I first read! I've read so many & learned so much..Julie Garwood, Diana Gabaldon, Jo Beverly, Katherine Woodiwiss, Heather Graham, Jane Feather, Eloisa James, on & on..& now Sherry Thomas! In one of the books I read about Manchet bread, the bread that was used as bowls for the lord & ladies to eat from. I could imagine the bugs, rocks, etc. to be found in the flour. I looked up a receipe for it & our family ate like "kings"! One of Gabaldon's books touched on (actually in great depth) how many so called doctors didn't wash their hands or their instruments & how whiskey was used as a germ killer (antiseptic) for hands, instruments,& wounds. I gave thanks many times after reading some of these tidbits. Also, it sent me to history books & good old Google! Yes, we learn a lot as well as enjoy our Historical Romances!!
(Jean Merriott 11:04pm May 25, 2010)

Hello Sherry, Please enter me in your fantastic contest and please let me know when I am a winner too!
God Bless you and everyone,
(Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez 11:28pm May 25, 2010)

I can't recall anything
particularly fun that I've
learned. Historical romances
have taught me a lot about the
cultures and times in which
they're set. I read a lot of
Regencies and, since I've
always had a fascination with
European aristocracy, I have a
lot of fun picking up the
tidbits in them.
(Jacqueline Cook 11:38pm May 25, 2010)

I'm also a fan of Laura Kinsale, but I
didn't realize that what appears to be
a simple scene required research for
accuracy which I admit I've been
known to take for granted. Great post
Sherry and great insight on your end
for spotting the historic details.
(Sue Ahn 12:24pm May 26, 2010)

I love historical novels becuase they give me the opportunity for true escapism. Also, as a reader I have to the chance to do a bit of fact checking and see just how serious my author is about the genre. Though an author can use imagination and literary license to manipulate the facts, it has to be a daunting job to change history and still make it believable. I love the change in language, setting, and general tone of historicals.
(Brandi Evans 12:57pm May 26, 2010)

I've visited American & European historical areas since I was five years old but always had difficulties connecting the European sites. Your books made the sites come alive for me.
(Susan Lathen 1:51am May 26, 2010)

Hi! I looked into the
differences between the Anglos
and the Saxons after reading
some historicals. I was
fairly ignorant about that
part of British history
(S Tieh 2:48am May 26, 2010)

Its true i learn lots of things its to bad that i can't remember eny of them really my memory is that bad.but it makes it nice for reading books over again its almost like the book is new for me.
(Stacey Smith 2:56am May 26, 2010)

Looking forward to your NEW book.... Sherry!
(Gary Watts 3:30am May 26, 2010)

I entered your contest on fresh fiction and thanks for doing the contest.good luck with your writing
(Gloria Vigil 3:58am May 26, 2010)

I entered your contest and happy to hear of your new release. I hope you much success with your book. susan L.
(Susan Leech 8:31am May 26, 2010)

Congrats on your new book! Sounds
(MaryAnne Banks 9:14am May 26, 2010)

For some reason it doesn't feel
like learning when gleaming
historical facts from fiction.
And they do tend to stick in my
mind longer.
(Lisa Richards 10:29am May 26, 2010)

I would have to say that after reading Historical and Romance novels the most fun or unexpected thing I've learned, depending on your perspective, is that when you take all of the frills away from the main characters, the love they have is simple and pure, regardless of their standing in their community. All of the pomp is just window-dressing. That part makes the story interesting as well, but the purity of the love between them is sweet and relates to true love of today.
(Peggy Roberson 10:46am May 26, 2010)

I love this article...and history, though I may be one of the few who also enjoys the "political" part of it. I can't remember any particular pearls of wisdom I gained from novels--they may be somewhat mixed up with visits to historical sites in Europe or North America anyway--but I know I was often amazed at how older generations were so inventive at dealing with problems for which we need our need our beloved technology.
(Sigrun Schulz 5:30pm May 26, 2010)

Looking forward to your new book!
(Amy Milne 5:44pm May 26, 2010)

Thanks for the awesome contest Sherry!!! :o)
(Veronica Jarvis 6:14pm May 26, 2010)

Hello Sherry, Please enter me in your fantastic contest and I pray that I win some great contests soon! God Bless YOU with success always, Cecilia
(Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez 9:36pm May 26, 2010)

The singing bustle is too funny. I've only lately discovered Laura Kinsale, and her 'Lessons in French' was equally as funny, so I really must read more from her.

I had no idea about the servant's balls. One historical that stayed with me due to amazingly well-worked-in detail was Betina Krahn's 'Marriage Test', a medieval with a heroine cook, that talked a lot about the role of spices at that time.

I'm looking forward to HAN after hearing it has some parallels to PA, which, so far was my favorite of your excellent titles.
(Maya Missani 11:15pm May 26, 2010)

Thank you, everybody! It's great to read your comments and see what you've leared. Or just plain love!
(Sherry Thomas 9:41am May 27, 2010)

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