Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Historical Detail: How Much is Too Much in a Romance?

by | September 21, 2012 | 16 comments

The authenticity of a historical romance novel depends largely upon the author’s knowledge and use of historical detail. Since it can’t be assumed that a reader is familiar with the time period in which a novel is set, the author must include enough detail to ground the reader in the setting, but not so much that it slows down the story and overshadows the romance.

Even those of us who love history have likely come across a book that had so much historical detail we put it down to take a nap. Conversely, we’ve likely also read a book that had so few historical details that we couldn’t picture how the hero and heroine’s world looked.

Most historical authors spend countless hours, days, even weeks or months researching a book. So how do we decide how much of that research to include in our book? While each author has her own personal style, I think a commercially successful book must provide a framework for the story while keeping it firmly focused on the romance between the hero and heroine.

Some readers become quite vexed when an author bends or simply ignores historical fact, while other readers are willing to make some allowances. Personally, I would stop reading a book that completely ignores a historical fact, like changing the date of a prominent event to suit the plot of a story. However, I am open to a little bending of the rules if it enhances the story. For example, in my most recent Regency romance, my heroine uses a dance card at a ball. Although I’ve read several Regency romances that include dance cards, I have not been able to find a source that confirms that dance cards were used in England during the Regency period. However, they were used in other countries at that time, and the ball my heroine attends is being held in honor of a Russian princess, so I decided that it was possible for them to have been used at that time within the context of my story.

I have also read several romances set early in the Regency period that have the hero and heroine waltzing, but my research indicates that the waltz was not introduced in England until 1816, and even then, was considered quite scandalous:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.” (Source: The Times of London, 16th July 1816)

So what do you think? How much historical detail is too much for you? How do you feel about authors “bending” history to fit the plot of a story?

Ally Broadfield writes historical romance set in Regency England and Imperial Russia. She would love to see you on her website or Facebook page


  1. Callie Hutton

    Hey Ally,

    Good article. I like my history to be accurate, but I’m not a stickler for the little details. For example, I had no idea the waltz wasn’t introduced until 1816, and in my Regency, set in 1812, they are doing the waltz. But I don’t think most people are aware of that. My biggest complaint is the use of modern terminology in historicals. Like the one I read recently that was riddled with ‘today’s’ terms (I’ll check that out??- in a regency?). I think that is jarring and annoying, and very sloppy on the author’s part.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Modern words bother me, too. And I also have my characters waltzing (in 1813). Thanks for stopping by!

  2. ChristineWarner

    Great post! I haven’t read a ton of historical romances but have a few on my list. I totally agree with what you mentioned. I wouldn’t want to read a story where an important or prominent date was changed,but I certainly wouldn’t mind the use of dance cards being mentioned when it’s not a known fact and I also wouldn’t have a problem with a dance being mentioned ahead of it’s time either. Smaller details like that wouldn’t bother me 🙂

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks for coming by (and so readily agreeing with me), Christine. LOL

  3. Jody Allen

    As one who does research and fact checking for authors it is a fine line between enough and too much. Though you suggest that the history is there to ground the reader in a period or location, I tend to think history in a historical romance ( not to be confused with historical fiction) is there to ground the characters. As a reader if the author is not adept at using details to ground their character often it comes off as filler and I just pass over that part of the book. I don’t want an author explaining the history to me… history dumps. Make sure the information is important for the reader to understand the character’s life and reason for their actions and reactions but a lot of detail has no real purpose and it takes away the pages that could be used to move the story forward.

    As to dates, people and events, I agree that I like things to be historically correct but having re-read some older hsitorical romances that I have loved, now with more knowledge of writing and my own historical knowledge I can find all kinds of historical errors, yet I love the books for the story. So for me in historical romance the history is like a secondary character to compliment the plot and as long as the author acknowledges the inaccuracies and why in an authors note I am fine with it. Now if it were hsitorical fiction, I just don’t think you can mess with the historical events, times or people in this genre, people read it for the history where historical romance one reads it for the romance.

    But a good story is a good story and if you love the romance one can over look a lot of mistakes as long as they don’t take you out of the story.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Very good points, Jody. I too, skip over detail that isn’t relevant to the story. And you’re right, a great story trumps everything!

  4. Angelyn

    Great comments on a great post. I’m not a stickler, either. But on the other hand, it’s super hard for me to get into a historical romance where the characters say and do things that remind me of the 90s. The 1990s.

    • Ally Broadfield

      I agree, Angelyn. I once read a Victorian set romance where the characters reminded me of 80s valley girls. I didn’t finish it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Ella Quinn

    I tend to be a stickler for historical fact. Nothing will throw me out of a story faster than incorrects facts or words that are not period. As for how much historical detail to put in the book, if it’s slowing the story down, it has to be cut back.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ella. I know there are many readers who feel the same way.

  6. Ceri Hebert

    I’m not a history buff so as long as there’s no glaring mistakes and there’s not page after page of details, I’m good. LOL Modern names do stick out like a sore thumb though.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Good point, Ceri. I notice them, too. Thanks for coming by!

  7. Lana Williams

    Great post, Ally! A discussion on Goodreads recently came to the same conclusion. The readers there felt the historical details were important, but minor things could be bent. One thing that seemed to annoy readers were references made to modern things/issues. Couldn’t agree more! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks for coming by, Lana. Modern issues and words bother me, too. Becoming more active on Goodreads is one of my goals for October. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. Blythe Gifford

    As a reader and a writer, I tend to be a stickler, but many of the details writers need are hard to track down or prove exactly. In one of my upcoming books, I put the galliard, a sprightly dance, in the 16th century Scottish court a few years earlier than it might have actually appeared. Mea culpa!

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks for stopping by, Blythe. Glad to know I’m in good company. I’m looking forward to the release of Return of the Border Warrior.


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