The Trouble with Historical Romance

Image courtesy of Phaitoon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Phaitoon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This was a comment on Dear Author’s latest post about historical romance, which was written to address AAR’s Lynn Spencer’s lament about the decline of historical romance, but I didn’t want to hog the comments section.

But first my comment from last week’s Dear Author:

…I think the only way for the sub-genre to shake itself up is if we have a Fifty Shades of Grey phenom: something that originates outside of the genre and trickles down to us. Contemporary romance, erotic romance, and New Adult exploded over the past year when ex-romance readers, non-romance readers, and even romance haters devoured the trilogy and wanted more. Self-published authors and e-publishers first filled the void, and then publishers sat up to repackage backlists and sell new content from the superstars of these genres (Sylvia Day, Maya Banks, Beth Kery, et al) for these voracious new readers.

Historical romance can’t even ride the wave of popular period dramas like Downton Abbey, Hatfields & McCoy, Vikings, et al, because it’s still surfing the Jane Austen break of the 90s. Which is the sub-genre’s main issue: it has no “gateway drug” to attract new readers who will push for something different. Someone who enjoys suspense/thrillers can easily slide over into romantic suspense; someone who enjoys vampires/werewolves/etc can easily slide over into paranormal romance and urban fantasy; someone who enjoys chick-lit or women’s fiction can pick up Victoria Dahl or Robyn Carr. We aren’t going to see historical fiction readers–or even Downton Abbey fans–traipse over to the romance section and pick up books with half-naked cover models, seemingly dubious historical content, and titles like “Sins of a Wicked Rake at Midnight.”

Another issue–regarding the self-pub market–is that newly self-published authors are selling books NY did not want (not a slur on the quality, but the reality of submitting your work). If an aspiring HR author decides to put up those four books NY rejected, it’s a given that they are Regency Historicals–that’s what’s selling and you write what’s selling (and what you read). Why would an author determined to sell to a traditional publisher write books set in 1840s New York or Dark Age Britain? It’s freaking scary to be an outlier. It also requires a lot of balls to stick out your neck with unusual settings/plots/characters, and more than a little hubris, when your chances of garnering attention, readers, and a steady income is safer if you color inside of the lines.

I love history, period, and–for the sake of the romance genre–believe a deeply romantic, HEA story can happen in any setting or era, and for all types of people. However, perhaps many others don’t–the Regency setting is “safe” from the elements many feel are not conducive to a blithe HEA. Move into the Victorian era and everyone has Dickens, repressed sexuality, and grimy poverty on the brain. Move into the Edwardian era and everyone has the horrors of WWI in mind. And then the Great Depression of the 1930s if you move further into the 20th century. Move backwards in history and everyone thinks about lice, rotting teeth, smallpox, etc. Move over to America and everyone thinks about slavery, Native American oppression, and racism. The Regency setting is not exempt from its own horrors, oppression, and turmoil, but via the works of Austen and Heyer, it has been shaped into a soothing “fairy tale” period of history.

This perception of history is the challenge non-Regency authors must face (or perhaps Regency authors who cull from history rather than rely upon Heyerisms), and is probably why books set in 1840 or 1755 or 1893 still read like “Regencies”. Having just completed a romance set during WWI, I certainly kept this challenge in mind because I don’t want to scare readers away, lol. That said, I did have many moments where I second-guessed myself over whether the book fit inside the boundaries of the historical romance market (Sherry Thomas mentioned this in last Friday’s post). But I had the time to experiment with what to add and what to extract because I am not traditionally published; a published author juggling multiple deadlines does not.

This is not to say romance authors skimp on research, but the parameter for historical fiction is bound by “what happened” (or what is perceived to have happened), whereas speculative fiction (paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, SFF romance) is freed by “what if?”, and contemporaries by “why not?”. “What happened” combined with the expectations of the romance genre means things must be fudged, or at least spiffed up to reassure readers that the HEA means the h/h will live in bliss, in prosperity, and in chrysalis (I was intrigued when Kate Noble’s latest release, Let It Be Me opened with a prologue set in the 1890s where the Regency heroine was now elderly and the hero had been dead for many years–wonder if that upset some readers). This unique desire for historical romance readers could also be why novels inspired by the writer’s ancestors are written as historical fiction–perhaps many are too close to the reality of the past via their grandparents or aunt or great-great uncle to think of the 1940s or 1910s or 1870s as fodder for fun historical romance, whereas the Regency setting is far away enough and quite glamorous.

Overall, I don’t think historicals are going anywhere, but for new and emerging writers, I feel the clue to revitalizing the genre is not to look to what has happened–look at what is to come. Young Adult fiction is shaping how many read and consume fiction, and this audience is going to seek fiction akin to what they grew up on (hence why New Adult/Mature YA is–in my controversial opinion–meeting the needs of YA readers who wouldn’t “get” adult romance [YA romance is plentiful, so why riffle through mom's Harlequins as you grow up? Very unlike how it seems many current romance readers were introduced to the genre]). Readers like Liz, Jessica, and Robin/Janet have mentioned needing to acclimate themselves to the language of the romance genre when they discovered it, and I think this is a vital and important element when musing about the future of the genre. I don’t claim to have fully hashed out my own thoughts or even reconciled my own writing with these ponderings, but I can’t ignore that they exist and will influence whether my writing career will sink or swim.

Thoughts? Rebuttals? Opinions?

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