At the Back Fence Issue #252

January 22, 2007 

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

The New Romance of Historical Fiction

Like many fans of historical romance, I have become increasingly frustrated at their lack of variety and depth in recent years. The other day I decided to do something about it. No, I didn’t march around publishers’ offices carrying a Bring Back the History sign. Instead, I decided to try historical novels for a change. I started with one Phillipa Gregory book and bought more books from there. But I can quit at any time, honest. Okay…maybe not. I bought a whole passel of them. Only later did I learn several of them were by romance writers, often writing under new names. I had stumbled upon a new trend.

To find out more I asked some romance writers who write both historicals and romance historicals to comment on this.

To find out more I asked some romance writers who write both historicals and romance historicals to comment on this.

Karen Harper is one of those writers who writes both historical and romance. She told me that the market has changed. Historical romance used to sell far better than straight historical fiction. Harper writes romantic suspense and writes historical mysteries with Queen Elizabeth I as the sleuth. Her first novels were published in the 1980s as historical romances, and two of them have recently been reprinted as historical fiction. She has written about Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and the days of courtly love among the Plantagenets. She has seen the market change so that today, historical fiction with strong female characters is riding high.” Why the change?

Harper sees several possibilities. Readers want to be educated as well as entertained. Readers have a sense that history repeats itself. Americans have acquired a better sense of their own history.

Roberta Gellis is well known to fans of historical romances, although for some time she has been writing historical mysteries and historical fantasy. She thinks that romance readers who look for historical fiction “are looking for the description and careful interweaving of political events that bring historical times to life.” The books can be longer and more complex. When Harlequin republished her series the Roselynde Chronicles, she wrote a new romance to go with those books, Desiree, and readers complained it was too short. Gellis admits that she may be prejudiced because her romances were “long, complex, and history-driven.” Although Gellis no longer writes romances, she finds that “Those readers who like my writing seem to follow me. Some like this new genre better than that one, but usually they are willing to try a new genre.”

Kathleen Givens has written historical romances, but in 2006 she published On a Highland Shore, a love story (rather than a genre romance) set in 13th century Scotland. She says that many readers told her they were happy to find a story set in an unusual period that wasn’t predictable. “I don’t know how the marketplace splits these days, but I’ve been told that many who formerly read historical romance are weary of the same time periods and settings and looking for bigger stories.” (An interesting aside is that we reviewed this book as a Medieval romance in Pandora’s Box last year – that’s how it was marketed – though both reviewers commented on the the rich historical setting that went beyond what we generally see in today’s historical romances.)

Jennifer Ashley is known for pirate romances, historical romances such as The Mad, Bad Duke, as well as paranormals and contemporaries. As Allyson James, she wrote an erotic romance (Double Trouble) that melded modern and ancient Greece. Under the name Ashley Gardner she wrote a series of mysteries. And did you know that she wrote A Lady Raised High, an historical novel about Anne Boleyn as one of the authors writing as Laurien Gardner? She sees a split in the historical romance readership and believes some fans have moved to historical fiction because “tastes have split on two extremes. Many readers love deep historical detail, while an equal number of readers find historical detail distracting from the romance”. Ashley has fans in both camps. While some readers tell her that they love the historical details, others write that they are bored by the details and want less emphasis on the history. Because of these diverse reactions, Ashley thinks that “The split is here to stay. We’ll continue to see meaty historical novels with romance as a sidelight, and lighter historical romances with plot as a sidelight.”

I have a foot placed in both camps. Yes, I’m the guilty party who has been buying all those romps. (Okay, not all of them.) But ever since reading Pamela Kaufman’s historical novel Shield of Three Lions (one of the few realistic uses of the “chick in pants” theme) eons ago, I have had room in my heart for historical novels as well. Particularly those with a love story.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Just as a writer of romantic mysteries must balance the love story and the mystery element, and keep the romance from overwhelming the mystery, historical novelists have to balance any love story with the history. Historical romances are love stories with history as a background. Historical novels keep any romance as a subplot. This means historical novelists must walk a delicate tightrope when they include a love story. After all, the historical novelist has to please all fans of historical fiction.

But that doesn’t mean the love stories are swept aside. History is full of great love stories (both tragic and happy). So are historical novels. For example, Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill, by Susan Holloway Scott (aka romance writer Miranda Jarrett) is about the famous love story between the first Churchills – Sarah Jennings and her husband, John Churchill – who married for love and influenced a queen. Harper’s The First Princess of Wales is about Joan of Kent and her epic love story with England’s Black Prince. Diane Haeger’s Courtesan is about the love story between King Henri II of France and his mistress, an older woman, While it is now published as a historical novel, it was originally marketed as a historical romance. (Try finding that plot in a historical romance today!)

What historical novelists must do is find the right balance between the romance and the history – or perhaps between the history and the romance. Tracy Grant, author of AAR favorite Daughter of the Game, believes that every author must find that balance for herself or himself. “For me, the balance lies in intertwining the love story (or love stories, Beneath a Silent Moon has several) with the historical background, the court or political intrigue or the suspense plot. Ideally, one reinforces the other. The love story ups the stakes on the suspense or the results of the historical intrigue. The historical context, the mystery plot or court intrigues complicate the love story.”

Grant had to find a balance in the love scenes, and whether or not to include them. Daughter of the Game included an “almost-love scene” in the first chapter. But after that scene, “the pace doesn’t slow to the point where it would make any sense for Charles and Mélanie to make love (besides the issues between them and the fact that they’re looking for their missing son), so writing love scenes wasn’t an issue in that book.” Beneath a Silent Moon was different. In that book, a love scene occurs fairly early in the story. However, when she wrote it, Grant faded it to black because “it just felt right for the story and the characters. Perhaps partly because there’s a certain mystery about Charles and Mélanie’s relationship, and I liked leaving the intimate details of their life a bit mysterious.” AAR fans who were intrigued by Charles and Mélanie’s relationship, will be happy to know that Daughter of the Game will be reprinted in October under the title The Secret History of Mélanie Fraser.

In her historical romances, Gellis wrote stories where historical elements such as wars separated the characters, rather than issues such as jealousy or the big mis. “The love story generally interwove itself into the political problems without any difficulty. It is possible that my romances didn’t emphasize the romance enough, but truthfully I was more interested in the history and how people lived than in interior monologue about s/he loves me s/he loves me not.” She finds that the differences in genres are a matter of degree. While her romances emphasized emotion and relationship, her mysteries used those things as “minor touches to make a reader connect with the characters who are solving the mysteries.” Gellis’s historical fantasies are more likely to focus on adventure, political intrigue, and adversity. But in all of her books, “enough emotion and relationships…bind the reader to the characters and make them living human (or in some cases inhuman) beings with joys and fears, pleasures and pains.” Because her love scenes were never too graphic, she doesn’t think they would have embarrassed readers of other genres. The important thing is the sentiment, although “a little titillation is nice too.”

In her romances, Ashley has written love scenes ranging from hot to burning. Historical fiction, on the other hand, has different demands for love scenes, but that doesn’t mean she closes the bedroom door. She does try to strike a balance. After all, fans of historical fiction generally aren’t looking for graphic love scenes. But that doesn’t mean there are no love scenes. “If a sensual scene is necessary to the story, there is no reason not to include it or hide it behind closed doors. So while I don’t write with extreme heat, I do let my characters have sex if it’s important to the story.” Ashley believes romance readers are satisfied by the less explicit in historical fiction because they connect to the story on an emotional level, not because of the amount of graphic content of love scenes.

Givens can’t imagine a life without love, and she prefers her books (both the ones she reads and the ones she writes) to have a love story, preferably with an HEA ending. The difference between historical romance and historical fiction for her? “In historical fiction the love story is not always the main plotline; in a romance it is – it’s as simple as that.” She also had to give consideration to the love scenes, although she doesn’t write graphic love scenes in any of her books, whether romance or historical fiction. The main difference is that in a romance, love scenes are more integral to the story as well as more detailed. However, she believes that in both types of story, the love scene should have a reason to be included – for example, it should be crucial for the plot or reveal character. However, “in a historical romance the sex may be the plot twist, while in most historicals, but certainly not all, the sex is usually glossed over.”

As Shakespeare reminded us in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Fans of historical fiction know he wasn’t kidding! While the love stories in historical romance tend to follow a simple path, in historical novels, the love story is rarely that simple. Characters are often forced to marry other people before finally finding happiness with their true love. This was the case in Harper’s The Last Boleyn and The First Princess of Wales. “In writing romances, the hero-heroine relationship basically structures the story. In historical novels (even ones with dominating love stories like my The Last Boleyn and The First Princess of Wales), the structure is more guided by the adventures of the heroine through a long period in her life.”

If characters in historical novels struggle for years before marrying their true loves, what about the HEA? History often ends sadly. So do some historical novels. Yet that doesn’t mean there is no chance of an HEA. The stories can and do end happily.

Ashley likes the HEA. “So at the end of my historical novels, someone gets to be happy, although the happiness might be bittersweet.” Because she writes in other genres, she is used to writing stories without an HEA and admits that it can be freeing to write stories that don’t require it. “Some characters just aren’t destined for it, and forcing an HEA ending on them can feel contrived.” On the other hand, Harper picks her heroines with an HEA in mind, because both she and her readers prefer the HEA in their historical novels. “I have always looked for a real-life heroine whose life does end up happy in every way.”

Grant loves HEA endings as well, but she likes writing in a genre where there is no guarantee of that HEA. This is because it ups the stakes – there’s no guarantee that the love story will end happily. “I also love the freedom of being able to explore relationships over multiple books – the relationship may not be central to each book, but each book may shed light on different facets of it and you can see how it changes and evolves.”

Givens wants books that end with some sort of resolution. She likes the HEA, both as a reader and a writer. “As a writer, it’s my way of imposing order and justice on a chaotic world. Real life is messy and often unfair, but in fiction, mine at least, the good guys triumph – scarred and wiser, but eventually victorious – and I think most people want that. … I find it freeing to have the choice, but I want my characters to be content with where they are when I write THE END.”

Gellis is even more devoted to the HEA. “I’ve never written a book in any genre that didn’t end happily. Don’t read books that don’t end happily either. I read for relaxation, for entertainment, to make me feel good. I don’t want to be depressed. There’s enough misery in life without getting it out of books that I pay good money for.”

These writers find that being a romance writer has benefited them when writing both historical fiction and historical mysteries. The main benefit of writing romance is that it teaches you to emphasize character. Ashley points out that romance authors must focus on the hero and heroine, so they learn to write about character or risk losing the reader. In historical fiction the plot is important, but “the most popular historical novels today focus on the people rather than the events.” This gives romance novelists an edge in terms of character development. Grant also finds a grasp of characterization is vital. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the mechanics of a complicated suspense plot or the intricacies of court or political or diplomatic intrigue. My grounding in writing historical romances keeps bringing me back to the characters and their emotional development, which is such an important part of any type of fiction.”

Gellis agrees, adding that “Romance writers mostly concentrate on making characters live (at least the ones who really last). Some mystery and fantasy writers are so interested in the plot, solving the mystery or creating a universe, that they present cardboard figures that the reader can’t care about.” While some readers don’t mind (she minds!), many need to connect with the characters.

Harper writes historical fiction with female main characters, but the heroes are important as well. Her experience in writing romance means that she is able to call on “the ability to convey emotions and internal conflicts,” as well as her ability to get inside the heroine’s head. Givens also finds that her experience in romance has given her a focus on character, as well as how to display the sexual tension between characters with gestures and word choices.

Historical novels vary greatly. Some, like Givens’ On a Highland Shore, will delve more into battles, as well as the court of 13th century Scotland. As a writer, she realizes that she must remain true not only to the details but to the mindset of the period. The writer has to work around these facts but can also use them to teach a lesson or illuminate the past. It helps to read novels written during the period you are studying. “Read Sense and Sensibility and you can’t miss that women could not inherit an entailed property and could be put out on the street after the death of a father or husband. Read The Grapes of Wrath and you can smell the dust and despair and know that could have been our family.” While On a Highland Shore highlighted war and court intrigue, Grant finds that her novels can delve into political and diplomatic intrigue, as well as showing the “dark corners” of Regency London, often only glimpsed in historical romances.” At the same time, she admits that in Beneath a Silent Moon, “it was fun to begin Chapter One with two débutantes leaning over the gallery rail at a ball.”

Historical novelists can highlight different sides of the past. They can also delve more deeply into the lives of real people. Sure, historical romances sometimes use real historical personages as minor characters, sometimes as secondary characters. (I credit romances for teaching me about the life of Beau Brummell.) But these roles usually seem like walk-ons. In most historical romances where the heroine meets Prinny, she might be meeting David Beckham. Compare that to a book like Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown, where the heroine becomes the mistress of King Richard III. In many historical novels, such as Rosalind Miles’ I, Elizabeth, the historical personages are the main characters.

Ashley explains that historical fiction tends to focus on “the most interesting people of the time-Elizabeth I, Louis XIV and his mistresses, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr, Mary Queen of Scots, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Victoria. They will be the focus of the book, even if they are not the main characters-they usually play a large role or deeply impact the main characters’ lives.” Because the focus is on the history, the book can focus more on real people.

Gellis says because “there is so little known about most real characters in the 12th and 13th centuries that it is quite safe to put yourself into the character’s mind, so long as that makes the character act in the way history describes him (or her) acting.” However, she only used real people as main characters twice. One was a person only known for a few actions. The other was a biographical novel, and she “will never, never, do it again as I had to account for my character almost hour by hour according to the biographies I had of him; never again).” She prefers to use historical characters as secondary persons, fitting the facts into the story.

Not all writers use famous people as main characters. Grant has included historical figures in some of her books, such as Lord Castlereagh in Beneath a Silent Moon. She uses sources such as letters and diaries to learn more about them, and uses those primary sources to help bring them to life. But even as those people play an important role in the plot, she still keeps them as secondary characters, preferring to tell the story from the POV of fictional characters. Also, just as she has to be true to her fictional characters, she has to be true to what is known about real people. “For instance, Lord Sidmouth is known to have employed agents provocateurs when he was Home Secretary, so I would feel free to use this element in a book. But I wouldn’t devise a plot where the Duke of Wellington committed murder or Lady Caroline Lamb was spying for the French.”

Givens also uses real people as secondary characters. “I think it’s enough for me to suppose what they would do or so, rather than get into their heads. Sometimes it’s fun to explore or explain why an historical figure did a certain thing, and other times the historical figure is just too perfect to ignore.” Givens’s next book, Rivals for the Crown, features several very prominent historical figures from the late 13th century, and she loved the chance to weave her story using the framework of actual events.

Using historical characters has some distinct dramatic advantages. As Harper points out, the Boleyns, the Tudors, and the Plantagenets “are much like a modern dysfunctional family. Those dynasties make the J.R. Ewings or the modern-day royal Windsors look like the Brady Bunch!” A reader who is sick of “historical light” books about cute families might relish reading about someone like King Edward II, who was rumored to have had affairs with his male “favorites,” or of course, someone like Henry VIII, who had more wives than I have skirts.

Besides introducing us to real-life famous people, historical novels can build upon layers of detail to create another world. Shortly into reading A Lady Raised High, I found myself in the world I’d heard about when I took a tour of the Tower of London – a world few historical romances get to illuminate anymore. Early into Queen of Shadows, written by Edith Layton under the Edith Felber name, I lived through a Medieval banquet where a roasted boar was displayed like a piece of art, and intrigues hid in the brightest places. Sadly, the feasts in many Medieval romances I’ve read come across more like a night out at “Medieval Times” than a real Medieval feast.

Besides, where in historical romance today can we read about real kings and queens and their passions and mistakes? When I want to sink my teeth into the lives of real people, I open up a book by any of the others mentioned above, or by Dorothy Dunnett, Sharon Kay Penman, Judith Merkle Riley, Morgan Llywelyn, Bernard Cornwell, Elizabeth Chadwick, Susan Carroll, Edith Pargeter, Phillipa Gregory, Wilbur Smith, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, or so many other writers with a strong sense of history. Because sometimes, I want to dive into the past, warts and banquets and battles and all, rather than just living a costume drama.

Special thanks and many elaborate feasts to Jennifer Ashley, Roberta Gellis, Kathleen Givens, Tracy Grant, and Karen Harper, for agreeing to answer my endless questions.

Questions to Consider:

If you are a fan of “meatier” historical romances, have you tried historical fiction? Did you enjoy the books you came across, and if so, why or why not?

If you read historical novels as well as historical romances, what do you find as the main differences between the genres? What are the similarities? What draws you to each genre?

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, do you mind that the books don’t always have an HEA? Even if the books have an HEA, the road is often bumpy, and important characters can die. Do you find this difference difficult to cope with, or do you make allowances because of the different genre?

Historical fiction with a romantic subplot often breaks the “rules” of romances. Not only is there less emphasis on the romance, but the couple is often apart. On top of that, the characters are often forced to marry other people or even engage in an adulterous affair with their loved one. Do you find this as a drawback, or is it refreshing to find stories that don’t follow the same path as the typical historical romance?

Where do you come in the history camp, for “meatier” books or for wallpaper history? Or both? And why?

Which historical romance authors writing today provide the meatiest reads? Which authors did you turn to in the past for those meatier reads?

Anne Marble

Our December 2000 ATBF (part of the Romance Family Tree series) on Historical Fiction

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