I started my career writing historical romances for Berkley and Kensington, under the name Cynthia Sterling. I’m a history buff and I loved researching the backgrounds for my books — figuring out what kind of clothes everyone wore, what they ate and what they did for entertainment. Those kinds of details are why I love reading historical novels as well.
Then I switched to writing contemporary romance. I thought this would require much less research, so I was shocked to find out I was wrong. Yes, I seldom have to look up specific historical detail, but if I send my hero and heroine to a restaurant for a meal, I end up browsing menus of real restaurants for ideas. Many of my books are set in real cities. For example, my current release, A Soldier Comes Home, from Harlequin Superromance, is set in Colorado Springs. Many times while writing that book, I pulled out a map to find the name of a street or location of a landmark so that I could describe it accurately.
While you can get away with fudging minor details in a historical novel, it’s much tougher to fake it in a contemporary book. Too many people will spot your mistake. You have to get name brands right, regional differences correct, and describe automobiles and clothes accurately.
A Soldier Comes Home is about Captain Ray Hughes, who receives a Dear John letter while he’s serving in Iraq. He comes home to an empty house and a three-year old son he scarcely knows and has to pick up the pieces of his life again. He meets Chrissie Evans, the young widow next door whose husband was killed very early in the war. They’re attracted to each other, but each has to get past their own private pain in order to love again.
Researching this book started when I was first forming the idea. The Rocky Mountain News ran a series or articles about our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I clipped those articles and saved them and that became the beginning of my research. One of the articles was about soldiers who received Dear John letters. I thought their stories were heartbreaking and I really wanted to make things better for them. I couldn’t do that in real life, but I could give one soldier — Captain Hughes — a happy ending in the pages of my book. Other articles in the series were added to the file as more research into the lives of soldiers and their families here at home.
The Internet has really revolutionized research. I spent time on blogs written by soldiers and their families. I also emailed former and current military personnel. I visited the Fort Carson website, which had links to all kinds of great resources for soldiers and their families. I pulled up pictures of Colorado Springs to inspire me as I wrote.
I thinking getting these details right adds so much to a story.
My question for you is — do you notice mistakes more in historical or contemporary novels?