Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Walk the Walk to Talk the Talk

by | April 13, 2012 | 14 comments

Walk the walk to talk the talk.

 I remember a comment a friend of mine made after reading a very inaccurate historical novel* (see below).   She said there ought to be a rule that you can’t write a historical novel unless you’ve been camping at least once.   I think she might have a point.

 I think one of the goals of the historical writer is to bring the past alive for those in the present.  You can do all the research in the world into the history, politics, customs, costumes, etc.  And an imagination is a great thing, but the more ‘hands on’ experience you’ve had the better I think your story will be.  Experience, even a little, can help you add the details that will make your scene come alive.

 So, my advice is, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to do so, live a little in the past.  The experience will do wonders for your imagination and help with the details that will make your historicals come alive.

 For example, your western heroine is cooking over an open campfire.  Think about how and what you would write in this scene.  What would she do, feel?  

 (pause for thinking – come on, really think about it for a moment)

 OK, now that you’ve thought about it, did you have her feel the heat on her face.  The breeze will blow smoke in her eyes no matter where she stands and she’ll have to watch out for her skirt tails as she squats.  And that night, her hair will smell of smoke when the hero hugs her.  Trust me, I’ve cooked many a meal over an open fire.  We did a lot of camping with the Scouts with our boys as my husband was the Scout Master.  I know what it’s like to heat water and then take a bath in a bucket.  (Makes you appreciate the shower, let me tell you).  And you know all those cowboys sitting around the campfire drinking coffee out of tin cups – you know how hot those cups can get when you pour hot coffee into them (ouch!).

 *My friend had just read where the heroine was going on a picnic with the hero and asked the cook to pack them a ‘side of beef’ (!).  That must have been one hungry guy.  One of my favorites is when the western heroine is on the run with the hero, and to fix supper she takes from his saddle bag, a skillet, a coffee pot, a pan, potatoes, bacon, bacon grease, onions, and several other things.  You know, if you have a slab of bacon, you don’t need to carry bacon grease to cook, and I kept wondering how it was packaged.  My other favorite is the western heroine who running away from home and packs in her saddle bag a piece of peach pie (I kept seeing one of those Styrofoam containers!).

 In one of my western ms. I have the hero teach the heroine (from back East) how to ride a horse.  Just to make sure I got a good feel for those scenes, and how long it might take to learn to ride as much as I needed her to know for later in the story, I took riding lessons.

 I can now brush, bridle and saddle a horse, and of course tell it to go where I want him to go, not just around and around the corral.  Lots of fun, and I figure if an old lady like me can learn to be fairly proficient, the my hero, who is not only great with horses, but a great teacher, can teach the heroine to ride well enough and soon enough to fit my ms.

 I’m always amazed at the way some historical heroines run up and down steps in long skirts.  I don’t know about you, but when I’ve worn long skirts/dresses, I have to pick up the hem to go up and down stairs.  And you haven’t lived until you try wearing a hoop skirt a la Scarlett O’Hara.  There is a real skill to maneuvering and sitting while wearing a hoop skirt.  I only did this once when I was very young, but I remember wearing the hoop skirt and sitting down without thinking first.  And so I sat on the back of the hoops – a mistake, as the front of the skirt came up and hit me in the face.  Fortunately this was not in public. 

 And I can imagine that those American colonial women, or any 18th Century lady with panniers had to turn sideways to get through a door way (think of Grace Kelly’s costume in the masked ball scene of To Catch A Thief).  Unfortunately, I’ve never danced at a Regency ball, but would if I was writing Regency.

 I know as a Campfire Girl in my youth, and going through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts with our sons, I’ve cooked over an open fire, made soap, made adobe bricks, dipped candles, made cornshuck dolls, churned butter, chopped wood, etc. 

 I’ve been lucky enough to come from a large mid-western family with a great oral tradition, so as a child I heard stories of my ancestors.  In Kentucky Green, when the heroine churns butter, I have her say the rhyme that my grandmother said when she was a little girl and had the job of churning the family butter.

 Experience can make facts you find in research books come alive for you.  I’ve known that spiral stairways in medieval castles spiral up counter-clockwise.  This is so the person going up (an attacker) has his right/sword arm against the wall, and the person going down (the defender) will have his sword arm unencumbered by the spiral.

 My husband and I had the wonderful experience of touring several English castles one summer, and I had just finished explaining this right hand/left hand business to him as we started up a staircase in Bodiam Castle.  Now just knowing why the stairs are as they are is totally different from us going up one of those staircases —  and meeting another tourist coming down swinging an imaginary sword as he’s explaining to his wife why the stairs are that way!

 That spiral really makes a difference when confronting someone on those steep, narrow staircases.  And those medieval people must have had better knees than I do.  I can only recall one medieval where someone complains about all the up and down and up and down steps all day long.

 I notice a lot of medieval heroines are experts with herbs/healing.  But how often do we actually see/feel/smell them digging in the dirt tending to the herbs?  I admit I do very little gardening, but the earthy, moist smell of the garden, the texture of the soil, the dirt on your hands and knees, the smell of a garden after a rain or the smell of a garden on a hot, dry afternoon — all this should be in the text if you have a scene where the heroine’s in the garden.

 I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel through most of the US, either going to visit grandparents as a child, or following my military husband from duty station to duty station.  My story for Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold came from the setting, as I was always struck by the clean, high mountain beauty of Durango each time we went through there.  And my visit to the Molly Brown house in Denver gave me not only the feel of  house of the period, but useful information for this story.

 We may be able to walk up castle staircases or plant some flowers.  And if you have the chance to do any of the everyday tasks we expect our historic heroines to do, then I strongly urge you to do so.

 Living in the past can be a lot of fun (especially when after a few days you can come home and have a nice hot shower), and it can only help you bring your historical novel alive for the reader. 

 A short list of some of the places I’ve been that will take you back in time.

 http://www.logcabinvillage.org/ Log Cabin Village in Ft. Worth, TX

 http://www.nps.gov/york/planyourvisit/hours.htm Yorktown Battlefield, VA

 http://www.historyisfun.org/Jamestown-Settlement.htm Jamestown Settlement, VA

 http://www.julianca.com/historic_sites/index.htm Julian, CA a gold rush town

 http://www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com/history.html Old Town San Diego, CA

 http://www.okhistory.org/mwp/index.htm Museum of the Western Prairies, Altus, OK

 http://www.williamsburg.com/ Colonial Williamsburg, VA

 http://www.mountvernon.org/ Mount Vernon, VA

 http://www.nps.gov/mima/ Minuteman National Park, Lexington & Concord, MA

 http://www.chicagohs.org/ Chicago Historical Society, IL

 http://www.nps.gov/casaCastillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, FL

 http://www.mollybrown.org/ Molly Brown House, Denver, CO


  1. Rue Allyn

    Terrific post Terry. My one historical opens with the heroine standing beside a peat fire. The area near castles, even in the Middle Ages, often lacked wood for burning because the nearby forests had been felled. What wood was available, usally went to the lord to heat his hall and fire his kitchen hearths. If you didn’t live in the castle, you made do with peat.

    • Terry Irene Blain

      Rue Allyn,
      Thanks for the reminder about peat. What does it smell like when it burns? Different from a wood fire? Share the knowledge. Thanks for your imput.

  2. Judy Duarte

    Great blog, Terry. I took riding lessons when I was writing my first western historical. I also visited Julian. I’m planning a trip to the Yuma Territorial Prison soon. 🙂

    • Terry Irene Blain

      Hi Judy,
      Yes, the riding lessons were fun. I’d like to go to a dude ranch for a vacation some day.

  3. Loni Lynne

    What a geat article! I think some of what you said is why I love history so much. I’ve been blessed to have lived in various parts of the country in my youth and had parents who took us to various sites and museums . . . including the Museum of the Western Prairies in Altus, OK when we lived out in western Oklahoma, Williamsburg/Jamestown, VA, St. Louis Arch/Jefferson Expansion Memorial (still love the Westward Expansion)with Louis and Clark.

    It’s great to read/write about places you’ve been and get a real feel for the time and place. Being a Girl Scout–I hear you about the camping experience–the smell of firesmoke, the taste of food cooked over an open flame, the simplicity of cooking with limited resources . . . we take it for granted in our writing. Sensory in telling a story is crutial to put your reader in the moment in my opinion.

    All the best,
    Loni Lynne

    • Terry Irene Blain

      Loni Lynne,
      What were you doing in Altus? My husband was stationed there for shore duty as a Navy recruiter — in a Air Force town!!

      Little museums are can be great for local information. Sounds like we have been a lot of the same places.

      • Loni Lynne

        Actually lived near there during the oil boom of the early 80’s a town called Elk City. Traveled around the area leanring things while I was there for nearly seven years.

  4. Ally Broadfield

    Lovely post, Terry. I too have been lucky in my experiences (perhaps I was destined to write historicals!). I’ve done quite a bit of primitive camping, and I even rented a house without central heating just after I graduated for college (the important thing was that accomodations for my horses were great). It was a much bigger job than I anticipated to have to keep wood chopped, get the stove going, bank the coals to leave, etc.

    I agree that many authors miss the opportunity to provide sensory details, but I do think perhaps the lack of complaint from characters about their hardships is legitimate since unlike us, they never knew an easier way to do things.

    • Terry Irene Blain


      You’ve mentioned a point I forgot — they don’t complain as that was the life they knew. Lucky for those of us how do some ‘living in the past’, the thought of a hot shower in our future is a lot of comfort.

      In church we’re often asked to give thanks for what we have, and I I always thnk of hot water on tap. You really appericate it after cooking, cleaning and bathing when you have to heat every drop.

  5. Paisley Kirkpatrick

    How fun to read your post. Luckily for me we live where my stories are set. My stories are set in the California gold rush era and we live where it all happened. It is so cool to enter a gold mine and travel deep under ground, walk through the tunnels under the town, see the old Victorian houses and tour through them and then there is the old hotel which I use as the center piece of my first story I have just sold. It even comes with two resident ghosts.

    I was a Camp Fire Girl, too, and also a leader for thirteen years. I definitely remember all those meals we cooked over the camp fire. Most of them fun experiences. 🙂 It is fun to put parts of my life into the stories and give them humor as that is the only way I got through some of them.

    • Terry Irene Blain

      Yeah Camp Fire Girls. I loved going to camp in the summer and being a councilor was my first job. Our boys were Cub/Boy Scouts, and they also ended up working a councilors at camp.

  6. Susan Macatee

    I hear you, Terry! My husband and I spent years camping in tents when our boys were young, then spent 10 years as Civil War reenactors. So, I do know about getting around in long gowns and hoopskirts. How you and your clothing always smelled of smoke and how good it felt to go home and jump in the shower. Since I set my historicals during and around the years of the American Civil War, those expierences find their ways into all of my stories. Except the shower, of course. lol

  7. Terry Irene Blain

    I’ve always thougt it would be fun to be a reenactor. My sons dabbled in the Society for Creative Anachronism and I made them some costums (by machine, I wasn’t going to hand sew until they got serious, which they didn’t).

  8. Ella Quinn

    Sorry I’m late to the party. I agree. A firm understanding of the era in which you’re writing is a must. For years I kept one room that was only lit by candles and, when possible heated by a fire. I’ve worn many long dresses and am in awe of anyone who can ride sidesaddle. Fortunately, I write Regency, so I don’t have to bother with hoops and corsets.



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