A lot of craft discussions focus on how to amp up the tension in a novel. What’s the recipe for delicious angst? Ask someone else. I’d like to argue that the appeal of historical romances derives, to a substantial degree, from the release of tension.
When one of Lisa Kleypas’ heroines prefers an ‘uncouth’ self-made industrialist to a pedigreed aristocrat, I don’t have to worry that she’s making a terrible decision. I don’t fear, as the heroine must, that her descendants will regret her fall from grace. On the contrary, I can feel as smug about her choice as Biff from Back to the Future, multiplying her profits over time. Good call, heroine. Good call.
The future is unknown, and terrifying. The past is inert, and soothing. In some sense, the only true HEA is an HEA set in the past. It’s the only way that the author can be sure her protagonists end up exactly where they are most likely to prosper in years to come. (I wonder how many contemporaries during the dot-com boom ended in Silicon Valley?)
Here’s another really satisfying, relaxing thing about history: whatever story you’re looking for, you’ll find it. Like Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement, only with real people and events. For example, have you ever heard of Lady Jane Digby? An aristocratic beauty born in 1807, she married a courtesy baron, later an earl, who divorced her for infidelity in 1830. She bounced back from the public scandal and made her way across Europe, marrying three more times—to a Bavarian baron, a Greek resistance fighter, and finally a much younger sheikh—before finally settling down in Syria.
I’m fascinated by Victorian travelers, and Victorian women travelers especially, but most of their biographies read like tragedies. Not Jane Digby. She’s the needle in the haystack.
And so I like a ‘modern’ heroine in historical romances. An ‘independent’ heroine. Why not? Jane Digby was real. And, of course, it is soothing when fiction reinforces beliefs that I already hold. In this case: even though women can be conditioned, pressured, and bullied into submission—we have always come in all kinds, and there is always evidence.
Do I sound tongue in cheek about this? Because I am, a little. But not entirely. When we write in the present about the not-now (the past or the future), the books are inevitably referendums of the present.
So why choose the past over the future? What’s the difference? The past is known. And that makes it like a petri dish. Set a plot thread down into a dish of agar and develop it. Whatever grows in that neutral, jellied ground will stand out clear as day. It can expand, unimpeded, to fill the whole landscape.
I mean, for example, the way that Jo Beverley questions the idea of the alpha male in An Unwilling Bride, or Sarah Maclean asks why a woman must be embarrassed by spinsterhood in Nine Rules to Break While Romancing A Rake, or Cecilia Grant separates sexual skill from sexual pleasure in A Lady Awakened. Yes, this is possible in any genre or sub-genre. But it’s so crystal clear in a familiar, controlled environment.
Reading over what I just wrote, I’m tempted to keep going until I’ve contradicted every point I made. But I wanted to at least jab at one of the more irritating aspects of the genre, which is the sameness of its environments.
I do wish that historicals weren’t so stuck in the Regency. I do see the genre’s problematic elements—the phrase ‘escape into privilege’ has haunted me since Merrian Weymouth (@MerrianOW) first typed it on Twitter—and I wonder, sometimes, if ‘undermining’ those problematic elements is a symbolic gesture, more insult than evolution.
I’d like to see the genre change. But, to put my argument in another way, here’s why it shouldn’t die: setting a story in the past transforms a game of chicken into a game of chess. We know the board, we know the pieces, and that allows us to concentrate on the play.
Biography: My life is pretty quiet these days. I live on a farm in Kentucky and write books. In the past, I’ve lived in places like New York City, Paris, and Cairo. Much more exciting. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking of all the places I’d like to go and haven’t been yet. I don’t like to stay in one place for very long, but now I have a dog, so that might change. And, anyhow, quiet is pretty interesting for a change of pace. Visit Erin online or follow her on Twitter @ErinSatie.