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Secrets of Writing an Old-Fashioned Romance Novel
By Jessica James

When I was doing research for my historical fiction novel, Shades of Gray, it didn't take me long to fall in love with the writing style of 19th century novelists. What is it, I wondered, that made my heart race when the hero finally won the heroine's hand? How did authors from the 1800s make the plot so deeply romantic without the use of sex? Why did a mere glance from the hero or a smile from the heroine at the end of the book make a satisfying ending?

As an aside, I began devouring old novels to get a feel for the language and the cadence of sentences - but I learned so much more. Manners, etiquette, lifestyle, dress, were all discovered between the pages of old, dusty novels, and helped immerse me in the Victorian era.

I am glad to have stumbled upon this method of research, because, in addition to all of the topics mentioned above, I learned two other important facets of life in the 1800s: culture and tradition.

Culture and tradition

The morality, the virtues and the sacred principles that our forefathers lived by are vastly different from how we live today. We cannot transcribe 21st century values on our historic characters' motives anymore than we can re-write the historic past from whence they came.

More and more, Americans are longing for those days and looking back to a time when the principles of honor and honesty were sacred, and when both men and women were judged on their moral conduct.

It is sad and disappointing to see authors who take real historic figures and depict them with the lewd and vulgar behavior of this century. It is a complete misinterpretation and misrepresentation of historical fact - and brings me to my next point.

It's called romance for a reason

If you look up the definition of romance - you'll find it means fable, legend, saga, yarn. Indeed, in the middle ages, romances were usually tales of courtly love, chivalry and knighthood - most often involving a knight caught in conflict between love and duty.

The use of sex to express love in a romance novel is a modern-day contrivance and writing crutch that generally takes away from the overall romantic tone of a story. Can you imagine the dissatisfaction had Elizabeth fallen into bed with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice? Most likely, we would never have heard of the novel today, the success of the plot being built upon conflict of emotion - not sex.

Conflict and emotion

These are really the two main ingredients of any novel, but they are crucial to the success of a romance novel. Love at first sight may happen in fairy tales, but the slow, often unintended, progression of a relationship is what engages a reader emotionally in a story. When the two main characters are at odds, when they must overcome obstacles that are often inadvertently caused by their own misunderstandings, the conflict created causes the reader to become engaged.

A plot cannot work without conflict. And conflict cannot work without emotion.

The hero plays a role

If you've got a great plot with a lot of conflict and emotion, then you only need one more vital ingredient for an old-fashioned romance: a great hero.

One thing that sets classic romances apart from modern ones is that the hero - besides being a man's man - is somewhat mysterious. He is masculine, courageous, usually handsome - but there is a somewhat secretive side to him that makes the reader wonder what he is thinking. He is larger than life, but not in a super hero sort of way. Rather, he is strong in principles and conduct, and powerful in will and determination.

If you would like to try some late 1800s to early 1900s fiction, I suggest these authors:

Captain Charles King
Randall Parrish
E.P. Roe
George Cary Eggleston

Jessica James is the award-winning historical fiction author of the best-selling Civil War novel Shades of Gray. This epic love story is the winner of two Best Regional Fiction awards and was named FAVORITE BOOK of 2008 across all genres by two book review sites. The novel is written as a classic tale of love and honor and has risen to #1 on the Amazon best-seller list in the romance/historical/U.S. category, ahead of a book it is often compared to - Gone with the Wind. Jessica James' official website can be found at and her blog at


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