At the Back Fence Issue #231

July 10, 2006

From the Desk of Anne Marble

Where Have All the Historicals Gone?

Many readers are upset about the dearth of historical romances. AAR’s Coming Attractions page shows that fewer and fewer historicals are being published. In August, for example, readers noticed about 93 contemp titles versus a mere 23 historical titles! When romance fans complain about the dearth of the historical, they aren’t kidding.

Over the past couple of nights, I went to the local bookstores to find some historical romances. In both cases, after scouring the shelves for what seemed like ages, my findings were sparse. As a Regency miss might say, that was the outside of enough! After all that hard work, I was determined to find more historicals. There were other good ones there, I knew it. I just had to tease them out. So I gave some books another look, and while I was at it, I checked the “rejects” again. I must have been quite a sight as I walked down the aisles, holding armloads of books while I looked for a place to sit and look over what I had founds. In one store, I had managed to gather about 17 historicals. (In the other, I had a mere thirteen.)

I rejected some books quickly because of the “gimmick.” They seemed to be trying to capture what Julia Quinn has done, but they missed the point about what makes her books work. The Quinn books are about people..not about a gimmick. Speaking of gimmicks, there was no shortage of historicals with flamboyant plots. When I watch a corny movie with my father, he often calls out, “Oh come on now!” When I read an opening chapter, I shouldn’t imagine my father saying, “Oh come on now!” Until the Knight Comes, the new Sue-Ellen Welfonder, starts with the heroine walking in on her lover while he is with a notorious whore. On top of that, he has a heart attack. But wait, there’s more! After he dies, the whore confronts the heroine, attacks her, and makes it look like she killed the guy. All that in a few pages. It was too much for me (and a good decision, apparently, because Laurie hated this book!). Or as Dad would say, “Come on now!” On the other hand, I nearly bought Master of Desire, a new Kensington by Jessica Trapp because it was so flamboyant. The book started with the line “The hard, long bulge tenting the priest’s scarlet robe caught Lady Ariana’s attention.” Mine, too! Maybe I’ll get it next time. At least I know it won’t be about a Regency spy or a heroine who becomes the hero’s mistress to save her sister’s home for unwed cats.

Like Master of Desire, many of the promising reads were published by Kensington, including several Zebra Debuts. I like the idea of bringing out new authors in special editions with lower prices, but even with the lower prices, I was wary of buying something from a new author without knowing more about the book. I did buy Kristina Cook’s Undressed, which was one of the books I came looking for, but if it hadn’t been for the AAR review, I would have left that one on the shelf because I thought it was Chick Lit! Other covers fared even worse. Her One and Only by Alice Valdal was promising because it was actually set in the Old West, but the cover looked like a cover for a gay cowboy porn novel. Besides, while the beginning was promising, the back cover promised more mystery and intrigue. Why can’t publishers let authors write about everyday aspects of the frontier, such as cattle drives and survival? Hey, it worked for Larry McMurtry. Another recent Zebra Debut title, Gretchen Craig’s Always and Forever, has something I haven’t seen for an epoch, a plantation setting. Neat! It seemed more like a story about a friendship between two sisters (one an heiress and one the daughter of a slave) than a typical historical romance, so I’m keeping it in mind for another time, even as I wonder – based on reviews – about its romantic aspect. (Luckily this one doesn’t whitewash history as romances sometimes do by turning slaves in “servants.”) Yet even Zebra has its Regency/Victorian books. For example, there’s The Seduction of Sarah by Cynthia Clement, which starts out when the hero comes across the heroine while she’s swimming naked and thus first mistakes her for a harlot. Can’t get much more traditional than that, which is why I decided not to buy it. I kept an eye out for Leisure titles as well because I know they publish a lot of historicals, often in unusual settings. However, most of what I found were books by Connie Mason and Cassie Edwards, authors I’ve never enjoyed. One Leisure book that did look promising; Jennifer Ashley’s Penelope & Prince Charming turned out to be about a hero who was a prince of a fictional kingdom, but I’ve made a “no royals” pledge and put it back. The one Leisure book I did buy was the Viking romance Maidensong by Diana Groe, which I was looking for because someone had mentioned it on the Reader to Reader board. Maidensong also has a decent cover, rather than falling back on a clinch. Whatever I think of Zebra’s hunk covers, at least they aren’t Leisure clinch covers.

I had better luck with other publishers. I’m really happy to see that publishers such as Warner, HQN, Signet Eclipse, and Berkley Sensation are publishing historicals with a wide range of settings. For example, Lydia Joyce’s The Music of the Night (2005) was set in Venice, while her new release, Whispers of the Night (both from Signet), features a heroine who takes a trek across Europe and ends up in Romania (shocking!). Sarah McKerrigan’s Lady Danger is a Medieval about a sword-wielding heroine, and the only reason I didn’t buy it on the spot was because I wanted to check reviews first because that’s a difficult plot to carry off correctly. (If only I had remembered that she was an established author, previously writing as Glynnis Campbell!) Jolie Mathis’ The Sea King, a Berkeley Sensation, is a realistic and well-reviewed Viking romance. I was psyched to see a Viking romance that thanked the Icelandic Language Institute for its help and used actual Norse in its text! Jocelyn Kelly’s new Medieval from Signet, A Moonlit Knight, looked intriguing. So intriguing I was sure I had already bought it, so I had to leave it on the shelf. I did buy my first ever Medallion Press book, Vanquished, the new Hope Tarr, for two reasons: I’d heard good things about Hope Tarr in the past, and it was about a suffragette heroine in the 1890s. I did succumb to the new Virginia Henley Medieval, Infamous (although now I wish I’d read the review posted the day after I made my purchase). With more new Medieval (and even Dark Ages) romance, I wonder if publishers are trying to win back readers who dropped off the map because they didn’t like Regency and Victorian settings? Still, for all my complaints about finding too many typical books set in the Regency, I must admit that I bought Cheryl Holt’s Too Hot to Handle (a title put out by St. Martin’s), even though I mentioned that author in my segment on When Good Heroines Have Bad Ideas. But I swear, I felt guilty about buying it.

I also came close to buying one of the Viking England trade paperbacks by Helen Kirkman (either Embers or Destiny, plus the new trade paperback by Cheryl Sawyer (The Code of Love), all published by HQN. In fact, I ended up buying Kirkman’s Fearless on Saturday, after finishing my article. I was astonished when HQN put Destiny out as a trade paperback. Sure, it got a great review at AAR, but here was a midlist historical author in trade format! Many romance fans hate trade paperbacks. Were they crazy? Then again, much as it pains me to say this, the format might be a good choice for longer, riskier historicals that might appeal to fans of historical novels as well. At the very least, this format will give the books more “staying power.” Besides, when I think of the number of “guilty pleasure” books that looked great but ended up in the “trade in” pile halfway through… Hmm. Suddenly, paying $14 for a good story doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all…

Did you notice something? What about the Avon titles? I looked over several, including She’s No Princess by Laura Lee Guhrke. I was tempted but didn’t succumb because I of that “No more royalty” pledge. Another Avon I considered was In the Bed of a Duke by Cathy Maxwell. The beginning of too hard to introduce the intrigue, before we even met the heroine. Also, the hero and heroine had a hot kiss around page 37, which seemed rushed considering she hadn’t been in the first chapter and also because he hated her. I just didn’t buy that kiss, and I didn’t buy the book. After all that work, the only Avon title I bought was the new Eloisa James because the dialogue sparkled, and I was relieved to find a book where the dialogue interested me instead of one where people stood around saying things like “As you know, Lord Thurmont met Velveeta Heroine in the last book…”

While I did find books with something different, they were almost all from other publishers, not Avon. A Viking romance that’s well researched? Cool! A heroine who knows how to use a sword? Nifty! A heroine who’s working toward suffrage? Better yet! Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, but it seemed as if those publishers were picking up the slack where Avon dropped the ball. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.) What happened to the days when Avon used to publish that sort of book on a regular basis? This was the publisher that published Anne Stuart’s To Love a Dark Lord and Shadow Dance! Can you imagine To Love a Dark Lord coming out from Avon today? They’d probably insist that Lady Barbara Fitzhugh be a virgin widow, which would have ruined one of the best secondary characters ever. Of all the most recent Avon historicals (from May to August), a quick look shows that only one was not set in the Regency or Victorian era – the new Templar book by Mary Reed McCall. That’s not to say there aren’t great authors among those titles – after all, there are new titles by Julie Quinn, Lisa Kleypas, and Eloisa James. Yet the historical reader in me cries out “Is that all there is?” Many readers complain about the “Avonization” of historicals – the way some writers’ books become homogenized once they sign a contract with Avon. It’s definitely beginning to look like they have a point. This month is a particularly sparse month for Avon historicals. Mysteriously, this month, Avon historical author Kathryn Smith published Be Mine Tonight, the first in her new vampire series. Is this a sign of things to come? Will more and more Avon authors write paranormals?

Finding a good historical didn’t used to be such a big production. If I wanted to find a historical, I could go into any store and find titles by a wide range of authors. How much have the numbers changed? I recently looked through some Romantic Times back issues from 2000-2001. There are ten pages of historical reviews in the November 2001 issue. The latest issue contains nine pages of historical reviews, but that’s not as many as it seems because three of the reviewed books are historical paranormals and four of them are historical fiction. Even more importantly, the 2001 issues show a fair number of Regency historicals, but that’s not all there is. There are “Top Pick” romances set in places as varied as Wyoming and Texas, Medieval Brittany, and even Turn of the Century Boston. Compare that to the latest issue, where out of seven “Top Pick” selections, five are set in Regency England (including one paranormal), one is a Medieval paranormal, and the only non-Regency non-paranormal story is is Jolie Mathis’ Viking romance The Sea King. Also, in those back issues, there were historicals by authors such as Marsha Canham (now retired), Sharon Abé (now writing paranormal romance), Barbara Samuel (now writing woman’s fiction), and Susan Sizemore (now writing vampire romances). There were even a good number of Avon romances set in the American frontier! The numbers from the Publishers Previews sections are even more shocking. In the November 2001 issue, I spotted over 33 historical releases for the month of December, and the April 2001 issue shows about 38 upcoming historical releases. But October of 2006 brings us only about 25 historical releases! That’s a sharp drop in a few years. Heck, in a field where even Bertrice Small and Mary Jo Putney have put out contemps and fantasy romances, something has definitely changed.

So what happened? Where did all the historicals go? In many cases, the question should be “Where did the authors go?” Many readers have given up on historicals because their favorite authors are no longer writing in the field. Some have turned to contemps or romantic suspense, others are penning paranormal, and still others have stopped writing altogether. Many readers followed their favorite historical authors into paranormals. I’ve done that myself. While I’m not crazy about following historical writers into contemps and romantic suspense, because their writing styles and plots don’t always fit modern settings, many historical writers do seem suited to paranormals, because of the worldbuilding and “fairy tale” aspects of those stories. Heresy of heresies, unlike many others, I’m a fan of paranormals with a historical setting. To me, it’s like a way of “cheating” the publisher. They may be reluctant to serve up Medievals to readers, but they’re eager to publish Medievals with vampire heroes. Now I can get a vampire book and a historical at the same time. (“Hey, you got a vampire in my historical…. Hey, you got a historical in my vampire romance…”).

In the best of paranormals, the authors have created a world as unusual and well drawn as most historical settings. Want to escape into a new world, but not in the mood for yet another Regency historical? Then why not delve into Lynn Viehl’s Darkyn series or J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood? Of course, as with any subgenre, not all books are created the same. Some authors build detailed worlds, but others are the Cassie Edwards of paranormal romance, with settings as believable as Cassie Edwards’ noble savage heroes. I once read a book review in an SF magazine that pointed out that Regency romances were set in a world more alien to us than most SF and fantasy novels. The same can be applied to paranormal romances. Sometimes, if I really want to read about an alien world, then I’d be better off reading a good historical romance, not another novel about a vampire lord. Besides, while there are great paranormal romances, have paranormal romances developed their Judith Ivory, their Mary Balogh, or their Laura Kinsale yet? Even today, I think that some of the best romance authors can only be found in the historicals.

Questions To Consider:

Have you noticed that there are fewer historicals available lately? If so, when you did first make note of it? Why do you think this is happening?

If you’re a fan of historicals, what publishers have you been turning to? Has that changed over the years?

Do you agree with the idea of the “Avonization” of historicals? What do you see as the symptoms of Avonization?

Do you like only historicals, or do you like other subgenres of romance as well, such as paranormals and contemps? If so, why or why not?

What do you think publishers could do to win back readers of historicals?

Many romance readers started out only reading historicals…were you on of them, and if so, did you branch out into other sub-genres? If not, did you specialize into only reading Medievals or Westerns or trad Regencies. If you are/were among this latter group, where have you turned now that fewer romances are being published in those sub-genres (and in the case of trads, not at all)?

Anne Marble

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

Subscribe to AAR’s weekly newsletter Powered by