Never trust Aaron Burr and other research tips from a historical romance author

Writing a historical romance novel involves a staggering amount of research. How corsets work, where to throw away that apple core, what kind of naughty words people would use to describe what they’ve done with or to their lovers. We all do the work, but few of us do it as thoroughly as Rose Lerner, whose vivid Lively St. Lemeston books center around the people and events of one small English town. The latest novella in the series, A Taste of Honey comes out September 12th. This interview has been lightly edited.

For the new folks, let's start with a brief introduction to your own romances and particular areas of expertise.

My name is Rose Lerner and I write historical romance, typically set during the English Regency (a flexibly defined time period but I stick to the technical 1811 to 1820). For my current small-town series I've researched politics, high and low, and women's participation therein; queer experiences; the Napoleonic wars; Jewish life; servants; and much more. I also caught Hamilton fever for a while there and devoured books about Hamilton and Burr, and I've got a Jewish Revolutionary War romance coming out in October in an anthology with Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.

Do you research before, during, or after you draft?

All of the above. An actor that I love, Nicholas Lea, once said in an interview that he has to make a lot of little decisions in the moment, and research helps him make those decisions. That's how I write. I have a broad idea of the plot when I start a book, but beyond that I pretty much get in character and feel out the story as I go. I research until the POV characters' world feels solid to me. Then I start writing. Sometimes I get stuck and can't continue a scene without information, and then I need to take a research break. Little things, like whether "bear hug" is an anachronism (it is, but I decided to use it anyway) or what the heroine would do with an apple core after she'd eaten the apple (toss it in the fireplace grate, probably), I usually leave a note for myself in the text and research during revisions.

Do you prefer primary or secondary sources, when you have the option?

I read almost entirely secondary sources. Primary sources are great but you have to sift through so much irrelevance! I'd much rather have a trusted middleman pick out the important stuff for me. Of course, how do you know when to trust a middleman? I do like my secondary sources to footnote heavily so I can confirm in the primary source myself if necessary. But can you really even trust a primary source? If it's Aaron Burr, absolutely not. The key, to me, is to read enough that you develop a bullshit meter of your own.

Are there special considerations or pitfalls when you're researching the kind of sex people had in the past?

The pitfall, I guess, is that people talked less openly about the sex they were having in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Which may not even be true! What I can tell you with confidence is that what they DID say was extensively and often irrevocably expurgated, if not by family members immediately after their death then by Victorian descendants. The partial or complete destruction of letters, journals, and memoirs by burning, cutting away, or inking out potentially embarrassing content was common, especially if the writer was queer and/or a woman.

But based on what we do know through erotic novels, pornographic art, and surviving primary sources, it seems like they were having more or less the same kinds of sex we have now: kinky, vanilla, queer, with sex toys, role-playing, using birth control, threesomes, polyamory, whatever. Specificity is important and sexuality is culturally constructed, but at the same time, 98 percent of the time if I hear someone say, “But people didn’t do that back then,” my bullshit meter goes off.

Sure, this masturbation club where new members had to present their dicks on a silver platter does seem a little — quaint. But even there — the details are weird and incomprehensible, but the spirit isn’t that unfamiliar, is it?

How do you approach the language in your sex scenes, considering that historical gap? Writing about queer or kinky sex set before the modern terms were developed, for instance, or the frequent romance-author lament that there are a million period-appropriate terms for the penis and almost none for the clitoris.

Well, I don't see this as much more of a problem for queer or kinky sex than any other kind, because the terminology for ALL sex has shifted enormously. I have finally given up on finding good period terms for oral sex, and if I feel like "pleasuring him with her mouth" is too coy in context, I just use "suck" even though it's first attested in reference to fellatio in 1928.

It’s a delicate balance. A huge part of the appeal of historical romance is a sense of otherness, of distance, of experiencing the world as it might have looked to someone 200 years ago. I try very hard to retain a sense of how my characters THINK, and in particular how they think about sex. I try to think about where they would have gotten their information about sex and what words they would or wouldn’t know or feel comfortable using. I used to hate “pearl” for clitoris and think it was unbearably precious, but I’ve finally given in (although when I’m writing a well-educated hero, I usually just say “clitoris”). Sometimes I’ll even purposely choose an older-sounding or obsolete word when a more modern one is available. For example, “to come” meaning to have an orgasm is attested from 1650, but I frequently opt for “to spend” instead, because I think it gives things a nice period atmosphere.

At the same time, in my opinion TOO much authenticity in a sex scene can be off-putting. I try hard to avoid anachronistic word usage (or at least, distractingly anachronistic word usage, or word usage that represents a shift in conceptualizing something). But about once a book, I give up and use “sex” with its modern meaning of sexual intercourse, simply because in that sentence I tried out “coupling,” “congress,” “bedsport,” “coitus,” etc. and hated the way all of them sounded.

If I wrote “he larked her,” the reader would be confused, and if I wrote “he larked between her breasts,” she’d probably get the point, but she’d laugh. I just don’t see the point of privileging this kind of academic accuracy over storytelling. It’s a sex scene, and it should be sexy.

More about the general vs. specific — how do you balance the broad general statistics ("most people of the time/place would have — ") with the specific examples and the outliers? ("A few exceptional people did — ")?

For something like, "Could my heroine have a front-lacing corset?" this is a pretty simple decision (she could, but probably wouldn't) and in the end, it really doesn't matter either way. I'd probably go with the more likely back-lacing option unless I had a strong story reason to want her corset to unlace in the front (she doesn't have anyone to help her get in or out of it in a particular scene, or I want to realize a specific sexy image).

But this can get pretty political. Whether your character is an outlier or not, you still have to ask yourself, “Why is this the story I am choosing to tell?“ The choice to tell an average story can be just as loaded as the choice to tell an exceptional one, and ”Well, it’s historically accurate“ is never a sufficient justification for anything. I’m sick of hearing, ”They were a product of their time," to justify some atrocious behavior in a historical figure. Literally everyone who has ever lived was or is a product of their time. That’s how time works.

History is not neutral or objective or absolute, any more than memory is. It is the compilation and interpretation of millions of stories. Just because one story has been told more than another, it isn’t necessarily truer. Just because one side of a story has been heard more than the other side, doesn’t make it the “more accurate” side.

An unloaded example: when Aaron Burr, in his old age, tells a friend an anecdote about something that happened between him and Alexander Hamilton fifty years earlier, and then ten years after that the friend writes it down, you shouldn’t take what you’re reading at face value as the truth. (That should be common sense, and yet I see those stories repeated as fact by reputable historians.)

When it comes to history, the same logic applies to basically everything: You have to have common sense. You have to keep an eye out for motivations and agendas, both in yourself and other people, because they’re always there.

You have to be aware of your own agenda. And you have a responsibility to think about whether your agenda hurts people. You have to ask, “Why is this the story that feels true to me?” and then, “Is that a good reason?"

I’ve noticed that my books with queer or Jewish main characters get labeled “anachronistic” in reviews more frequently than my other books, despite my knowing that I put a similar level of care and research into all of them.

Why are so many readers attached to the idea that the average Jewish person in the Regency led a tragic life? And even if you take that as fact (which I don’t), why are they attached to the idea that I should be telling that “average” story when a romance novel is, at heart, a wish-fulfillment fantasy? There were about thirty-one dukes in the UK during the Regency, out of a population of about 15 million (source). Meanwhile, the Jewish population in England in 1800 has been estimated at 15,000. I think my odds of finding real historical examples of young, attractive, happily married Jews are a little better than yours of finding young, attractive, happily married dukes! Yet I’ve never seen a book labeled anachronistic simply because the hero was a duke.

Like a lot of issues in romance, it's an amplification problem. A trope becomes popular and obscures the reality, or mistakes get repeated and then become "common knowledge" in the readership. Historical romance author Miranda Neville recently described the Regency romance as "a long game of telephone starting with [Georgette] Heyer — who is foundational, but also notorious for the classism and anti-Semitism of her books. How do you balance uprooting that negative tradition versus providing something more nourishing to your readers? I guess what I'm asking is how much you see your work opening up a neglected space in the past, versus creating a new tradition for future readers and authors?

I'm not sure I think about it in those terms. Based on my email inbox, I've inspired some other folks to start writing Jewish historical romances, and that makes me happier than just about anything. But I don't write with that in mind. I just write the stories I would want to read.

Genre conventions are there to guide the reader through the story. Following them is part of the bond of trust between writer and reader. I would never write a romance novel without an HEA [Happily Ever After], for example. But when a convention is just plain incorrect (or worse, unjust), then I think I actually owe it my readers NOT to follow it. What matters is not the fact of breaking a genre convention, but whether it’s done in a spirit of love and respect — for the genre, and for the reader.

I’ve read a LOT of Regency romance throughout my life and I have a lot of affection for its conventions, but at this point, if I know Heyer was wrong, I feel very comfortable ignoring her.

This isn’t what you’re asking, but it made me think of it — I once got a rather anti-Semitic review of True Pretenses that suggested, essentially, that in creating a positive portrayal of a Jewish man, I was fighting an uphill battle against the weight of anti-Semitic stereotypes in literature and necessarily closely engaging with those stereotypes as I made character choices. This, to me, is bizarre; it assumes that classic English novels and Georgette Heyer are the only literary traditions there are — and even beyond that, they are the only frame of experience I have to draw on!

In fact, I have not only read and seen many positive portrayals of Jewish men by modern Jewish authors and screenwriters, but I have also KNOWN NICE JEWISH MEN IN MY ACTUAL REAL LIFE. This is also true for plenty of my readers (although not, apparently, that one). While it’s nice to be genre-aware while writing genre fiction, and I absolutely adore playing with tropes like marriages of convenience, fake dating, Cit heiresses, starchy butlers, house parties etc. etc., the Regency romance genre is not the entire context readers are bringing to the table.

If I know something might confuse a reader because it’s not the commonly accepted “truth” of the past, I try to include a little more signposting and explanations. But I’m not going to write beady-eyed moneylenders with greasy sidecurls just because Georgette Heyer did.

If I could summarize all my thoughts about history in one sentence, it’s this: the truth matters.

The truth always matters.

But the past is composed of a million intertwining truths. “People in the Regency could have great sex” and “people in the Regency thought about sex differently than we do” are both true. “Anti-Semitism was rife among Christians in the Regency” and “there was plenty of intermarriage between Jews and Christians in the Regency” are both true. As a author of historical fiction, my job is to decide what the most important truth is at a particular moment.