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Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Golden Heart Historical Categories

I finaled in the Golden Heart twice, 2001 and 2003, with the same historical manuscript, the one that became The Mysterious Miss M. (See that story here and my bio here). I love writing historicals and I wish everyone of you who also write them to have the special joy of finalling in the Golden Heart.

Your first task in entering the Golden Heart is to make certain your manuscript is entered in the correct category. The categories are fairly clear this year: Regency Historical Romance (“Romance novels in which the majority of the story is set against the Regency period of the British Empire”) and Historical Romance (Romance novels set in any time period prior to 1945, and taking place in any location).

Don't overthink this. If you believe you wrote a Regency Historical, enter it in the Regency Historical Romance category. If you believe you wrote a Historical-that-is-not-a-Regency, enter it in the Historical Romance category.

You do have some other possible choices, however. Would your entry fare better in Romantic Suspense? Perhaps it would if you have a very strong suspense plot that obviously overtakes the historical aspects. Does your entry have strong paranormal elements? It might fare better in the Paranormal category, especially if it is a time travel, which is sorta a historical hybrid. If you have written a historical inspirational, you definitely will fare better in the Inspirational category, because it usually has fewer entries and less competition. If you have written a historical that is not a romance, but has romantic elements, it could belong in the Strong Romantic Elements category.

Most times you are safest with the Historical categories, but we can discuss any gray areas.

The elements of a good Historical Golden Heart Entry are nearly the same as a good Historical manuscript and are often a balance between “too much” and “too little.”

1. Make your time period and setting clear.

This is extremely easy to do. Put the date (month optional) and the location under (or above) “Chapter One” and at the left margin. For Miss M, it was “London, September, 1812.” It was important to my story to include the month. I wanted it clear they were in London, but I could have put “England” instead. I could have put “A Gaming Hell in London, September, 1812,” but I didn’t want to give that much information away.

You may or may not decide to use this “Place, Date” format in your finished manuscript, but for the purposes of the contest, it immediately eliminates any judge being confused about where or when the story takes place.

2. Use specific sensory detail that evokes the time period.

Here again, it is a balance. You want the reader to “feel” she is transported to the time period right away. The sights, sounds, smells, and tactile details you include are the vehicles that take the reader on that journey. But you do not want to use so much description that the reader is distracted from the characters. Don’t make a simple crossing of the street seem like a travelogue.

3. Make your characters accurate to the time period.

Paint a historically accurate picture of them with your historical detail, but, again, do not overdo it. “He adjusted his neckcloth” may be enough and “He adjusted his white muslin neckcloth, brushed lint off the coat of black superfine tailored for him by Weston, and kicked a stone away with his Hessian boots made by Hoby” is probably too much detail, unless you have a clear reason for using it.

4. Use words that are true to the time period.

I’m not advocating going back to Middle English if your book is set in 1400 (Chaucer, anyone?), but try to keep modern words out of the manuscript, even in your narrative. Make the language another tool to evoke a different time, a different place. For example, use the terms for parts of a castle: palisade, turret, porticullis, making certain the reader will understand them in context. (You don’t want the judge-or a future reader-to have interrupt her reading to look in a dictionary) On the other hand, don’t use words that are too inaccessible to the present day reader. For example, it may be better to just say “beer money” than to use the term “byrban.”

Don’t use words that are historically accurate but mean something else in today’s use of language. For example, don’t say, “He emerged from the camera;” say “He emerged from the workshop.”

Avoid anachronisms. No “ego trips” for anyone whose story is set before 1969. Or more subtle, no one should be “mesmerized” before 1829. To check a word’s origin use the etymological dictionary online. If it says the word came into being in 1842, don’t worry if your book was set a few years earlier. It doesn’t have to be that exact.

5. Dialogue

Make certain the dialogue evokes the historical period. For example, my Regency characters might say, “That is the outside of enough” rather than “Enough, already.”

Go sparing on dialect. My editors allow me to get away with very little dialect; you’d be surprised. One or two “thees” and “thous” are permissible, but very very few.

Contractions are permissible. Jane Austen used contractions, after all. On the other hand, if you like how your dialogue sounds without contractions, that is perfectly okay.

6. Don’t ignore history

Don’t set your story in England in June of 1815 and not have your characters thinking about an impending battle with Napoleon (Waterloo- June 18, 1815). You don’t have to get crazy about this. You don’t need to know everything that occurred in 1410 to set a story in that year. You just have to make certain nothing big happened in 1410 that would change your story.

It is my personal bias that characters should be true to the time period in their thoughts, desires, values, but many historical authors do very well with characters who reflect modern thinking.

7. No information dumps

It is important to show history, but not to necessarily show your knowledge of history. I might be able to tell you a lot about the politics of the Corn Laws, but the reader only wants to know enough to make sense of my using them in my story.

Don’t try to sneak in an information dump in dialogue. It is highly unlikely that my hero and heroine would sit around debating the pros and cons of the Corn Laws, and it would be boring for the reader if they did. Brief comments about historical matters do add to that historical “feel,” though.

8. Use your synopsis to explain

If you have historical detail that the judge might misinterpret, explain it in your synopsis. The synopsis is for telling not showing, so use it to tell what you need it to tell. In the synopsis you are explaining the story to the judge or editor or agent, not the reader, so it is perfectly okay to explain some historical detail that might otherwise be misinterpreted.

Have I forgotten anything?

What do you think of the new Historical categories?

What, if anything, is worrying you about entering your historical in the Golden Heart?

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At 8:56 AM, Blogger doglady said...

Wow, Diane, this is like a mini seminar on writing the historical novel. Thank you! The division of the historical category into an individual Regency category actually encourages me as I write strictly Regencies at this point. I think my biggest concern in entering LOST IN LOVE in the GH is that it is at first glance a comedy. It is something of a romp. However, there is one surface conflict that turns into a real tangle and one emotional conflict in our hero that plays into that. So many historicals are so much more full of action and conflict than mine, or at least that is my perception. Is there a place for a historical that does not fit that mold?

At 8:59 AM, Blogger CM said...

Thanks, Diane. This is great advice--and not just for historical entries! I'm glad to see you endorse the "Place, Date" tag.

Here's something dumb that's worrying me: I have a manuscript that's not set in the Regency period per se, but it would be considered Regency under the definition the Beaumonde employs for the Royal Ascot contest (although not otherwise)--it's set in 1836.

Is this what is known as "overthinking"? <g>

At 9:01 AM, Blogger CM said...


I can't speak for anyone else, but I LOVE what little I've seen of your writing. I should hope there's a place for you!

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think there is definitely a place for comedy in historical romance. Look at our own Noodler, Janet Mullaney and her Rules of Gentility. Another author (and pal) who has done very well with quirky romps is Kathryn Caskie. Comedy was such a strong part of Heyer's work and I think there are plenty of Heyer lovers who would enjoy your sort of book. Good luck with it!!!

cm, Accckkk!
There is no easy answer to your question about which category to put your entry set in 1836. I know RWA would say that it is up to you to decide; they are not defining entries by year.
1836 is before Victoria's reign (1837) so there is not that complication. I guess you have to ask yourself what a reader (aka judge) is going to think. Does the story contain typical Regency themes--you know, lords and ladies, Almack's, things like that? Or is it exploring themes about the Industrial age? Would a reader/judge who doesn't study history think it was a Regency or something else?
When you were writing it, what were YOU thinking--that you were writing a Regency? If so, I'd try entering it there.

If you decide to enter it in the Historical category, I'd suggest you say something in the synopsis that clarifies that this is not the Regency. Something like, "The story takes place in 1836 after the death of George IV, when his brother William briefly sat on the throne. The Regency era was over and times were rapidly changing."

Or if you decide it is Regency, you could put in your synopsis something like, "It was the end of the Regency era, a time before the great Industrial Revolution and the reigning of Queen Victoria."

Does that help?????

At 9:42 AM, Blogger CM said...


Wow. Great suggestions for how to decide where to enter it--your questions made it immediately obvious where I belonged. I LOVE your idea about clarifying the time period in the synopsis.

I'm so relieved! One less thing to stress about.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Glad I could help, cm!

I'll be out most of the afternoon but I promise to answer questions when I get back.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger TiffinaC said...

Thanks for all the great advice!

I do use the date tag....Though it just says 1794 Enland, since I'm geographically challenged and cannot picture a setting unless I've been there... lol! sad but true for this writer.

Glad you defined categories with multiple elements to a book. I'm always unsure where to place my stuff, in any contest. It's historical but it's paranormal. I get a 50/50 split. Historical love/hate me, and paranormal love an hate me, because of the setting thing.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger TiffinaC said...

and I almost forgot to say... I love that online entomology dictionary! It's my best friend sometimes.

But my favourite ent. dictionary is:

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang: A Major New Edition of the Market-Leading Dictionary of Slang (gives you the date the word came into play)

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I'd love to know everyone's thought's on titles.

At 10:34 AM, Blogger Manda said...

Hi Diane! This is so great! It's like a master class on GH historical! I guess the thing I'm most worried about is my use of historical details. I was reading a novel the other day (that won the GH a couple of years ago) and the author used so much more historical detail than I do. It worked in her book, but how can you tell if you've got too little historical detail?

I've got the whole Place,Date tag thing down. And I anchor each chapter with a quote from the period. And I definitely have historical detail--I suppose I'm just wondering how much is too little and how much is too much? Which is really a question you can't answer so I'll go back to my corner of worry now:)

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think 1794 England is enough detail for a general "England" setting.

As for the paranormal historical, it is so hard to say. If the paranormal elements are 50-50, I'd personally be inclined to enter in Paranormal. If they are a more minor element, I'd put them in historical. I think Paranormal readers (or I should say, readers of Paranormal!) can accept the historical setting, but I'm not sure how much paranormal a historical reader would be willing to accept without saying, "This is a Paranormal."
You wouldn't be incorrect either way you went, though.

Thanks for the tip on Cassell's Dictionary of Slang!

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Gillian, I think titles are not much to worry about in the Golden Heart. I wonder if my other Noodlers would agree. If the title relates to the story in any way, it is all right with me. Shame on any judge who marks down because of a title.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Thanks Diane. :)
I went to a workshop at Nationals on titles and premises, and even though the presenters were wonderful and very encouraging, I've been concerned every since.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Manda, don't worry about whether you have too much vs not enough historical detail. The range is so wide on this issue and it so much depends on your story.

If your reader gets the feel of the historical setting, it is enough.

I know I read a Western (an erotic romance)for the RITA one year and, even after finishing the book, I didn't know what time period the book was set in. THAT is insufficient period detail!!

We've all read books that include so much historical detail that we forget the story. That is too much.

It is YOUR story, YOUR voice, and you are entitled to do it your way!

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Manda said...

Thanks Diane--that does make me feel better. I know my reader knows what time period it's set in at least from the Date/Place tsg:)

And you're right--there is such a range of what's acceptable in the publishing world. I guess I just worried because I knew this book had won--but something else I didn't think of--it might have been beefed up before it was pubbed so I wasn't necessarily reading it as it was for the GH anyway!

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Darcy Burke said...

Thanks for the great post Diane. Lots of excellent information for me to stress over, er, work on. I'm really trying to work on getting modernisms out of the narrative - not words per se, but tone and rhythm. All while not editing out my voice. Easy peasy, right?

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Piece of cake, Darcy!

I'm off, but I'll be back later on!


At 12:35 PM, Blogger Santa said...

Great blog, Diane. I am cutting and pasting this one for future reference....

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Jill Monroe said...

Great article, Diane - you know the interesting thing - so much of what you said can be applied to just writing in general and not just the historical. Information dumps seems to be the biggest culprit in any time period!

And I love your discussion on sensory detail. Those suggestions are helpful to anyone writing contemp, paranormal...anything!

At 5:16 PM, Anonymous Rianne said...


How much can fiction fictionalize a historical romance. Eg. doing something that would most likely have a person cut by the ton? As writers don't we create these unbelievably strong-willed heroines (always) when most women were not like back then. Can't we then fictionalize a bit when it comes to what would normally be unforgiven in Society?

At 6:57 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Rianne said: As writers don't we create these unbelievably strong-willed heroines (always) when most women were not like back then. Can't we then fictionalize a bit when it comes to what would normally be unforgiven in Society?

How much you fictionalize your historical is really your choice. You are right. We all create people who may not be entirely historically accurate. How much we stray from the way people would have been is a personal choice.

The question for me is always, will the reader be pulled out of the story or will she suspend her disbelief? For example, I always wonder about Regency misses who have sex with the hero and never once think about pregnancy--or their future marriagablility. But not everyone would worry about that. It isn't a rule; it's merely my preference.

If you motivate your characters well enough, though, you can do anything. I think that's the key.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Gillian, I've been thinking about titles. I suppose you could choose a poor title that might unconsciously prejudice your judge (or an editor) against your story.
If I'd titled The Mysterious Miss M, "A Regency Tumble" or "The Lord and the Prostitute" it might have changed the mindset. My title for the GH entry was "Unmasked" which did relate to the story.

So I guess my "rule" for a title would be do no harm.

The other think is, if you sell they nearly always change the title. (and I still don't have a title for "Pomroy's story"

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Thanks for the nice words, Santa and Jill!

At 8:56 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Thanks, Diane. I feel much better about LOST IN LOVE now. Thanks CM. You're a doll! And I loved everything you wrote for the Avon event! While THE MYSTERIOUS MISS M is the perfect title, I think that particular novel would have been a hit no matter what you called it.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Do No Harm :)

I laughed out loud. And The Regency Tumble made me grin, too.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Doglady, you are almost nice enough to be a catlady! Thank you for saying such a nice thing about Miss M.

And, Gillian, glad I made you laugh!

At 9:54 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Diane, do my three resident cats - Tigger (23 lbs) and Pooh (17 lbs) and Rebecca (8 lbs) count? The dogs are under no illusions. The cats run this house!

At 10:09 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I remember you had cats, doglady, but there still is that name.....Having cats does redeem you, though.

At 11:53 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

doglady, would not fret about comedy in a historical or Regency. Sometimes the funny stuff is harder to sell, but sometimes not. My 2004 GH winner, APHRODITE'S BREW, is coming out in March, and it has a lot of humor in it. HIS MAJESTY, THE PRINCE OF TOADS has lots of funny stuff, and it has sold very well. And my editor is begging for a sequel to AB, so I'm busy writing that now. And I don't thnk most historical romances have a lot of action in them, although they do tend to have more than a traditional Regency. If you have strong characters who are in charge of the action instead of letting it happen to them, you're way ahead of the game.

I'm not afraid of strong women in my historicals. There weren't very many Hester Stanhopes, true, but there were certanly enough remarkable women in all eras that I thnk they're worth writing about. When you think about it, we don't have all that many strong women today. But we want to read about them.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

On another loop I'm on one of the Board members said (If I'm interpreting this correctly) that it is totally up to the writer to decide if their entry is a Regency or a Historical. Sounds like RWA won't disqualify anyone for their choice, but you always have to keep in mind the possible bias of the people who may be judging.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Titles: I love Diane's "do no harm" concept, and agree totally. I honestly think your title is the last thing you need to sweat over.

Comedy in Regencies: Isn't Julia Quinn writing in Regency? I don't think it's going to hurt you AT ALL.


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