True Grit: Realism in Romance

Photo by winnond

I read and write historicals. Some of my favorite settings take place in the American West, the Victorian period, and the Middle Ages. Knights in shining armr, tough yet honorable cowboys, well-heeled people taking tea in fancy parlors. Who doesn't like at least one of these elements? But beneath the Stetsons, chain mail, or wire bustles is something few romance authors touch upon.

The grittiness of everyday life.

Let's face it. We all know that in a time before electricity and running water, people did not bathe frequently or do the weekly laundry. Most pioneer women had a revolving wardrobe of dresses that could be counted on one hand. Men on a cattle drive had a spare shirt in the saddlebag at best. They purchased a new set of clothes when they made it to town. And don't get me started on haircare or dental hygiene. Yikes!

Life itself was grueling and hard, too, even for the rich. For most of history, the average person lived to be no older than forty. Oh, and ladies, if you lived past the age of twenty-five in the Middle Ages, you were probably somebody's grandmother.

These were the harsh and dirty facts of life. As romance writers, we don't want to touch heavily on them, and arguably so. Who wants to consider that the knight home from the Crusades has fought and sweated in the same grody tunic for three years? Or that the first modern toothbrushes didn't come about until the 1700s? It's just not...romantic!

I've noticed that some historical romance authors incorporate these facts of long-ago life without compromising the story's central love story. In Marylu Tyndall's first novel Redemption, the heroine is shipwrecked on a deserted island before being rescued by a privateer vessel. Tyndall references the heroine's torn clothing and unwashed smell. In Courting Trouble, Deanne Gist features a heroine who must frequently put up with questions as to why she's still unmarried and childless at thirty years of age. It's funny that when she finds a man that catches her interest, one of the first things she notices is his armpit stains! (Go read the book. You'll fall over laughing!)

I also want to strike a balance between true grit and unrealistic sugarcoating. In stories as in life, a beautiful garden is worth getting your hands dirty.

Do you read historicals? If so, do you prefer gritty realism, a touch of it, or would you rather not think about it period?