Write Byte

From Regency to Historical

(December 9, 1997)

Regency Romance (with a capital “R”) is a sub-genre that many readers love, but just as many readers just “don’t get”. Many authors began their careers writing Regencies, then switched to historicals (often set in the regency period), including Catherine Coulter, Jo Beverley, Loretta Chase, Mary Jo Putney, and Jane Ashford. Some authors, such as Mary Balogh and Edith Layton, have written both Regencies and historicals concurrently. Still other authors, notably Carla Kelly and Karen Harbaugh, strictly (at least for now), write Regencies only.

Author Kate Moore recently made the transition from Regency author to author of historicals. I asked her to talk about the reason she made the change, what’s involved in writing an historical that’s different than writing a Regency. This is what she had to say:. . . .”

What’s it like to switch genres from writing Regency romances to writing historical romances?

Picture Han Solo trying to nudge his Millenium Falcon into hyper-drive. You know the scene from any of the Star Wars films when Han and Chewie must “punch it” to elude their pursuers. Inevitably, the Millenium Falcon stalls, its engines whining, as swarming attackers zoom in on the ship firing lethal bolts of energy. Then Han must go below to make adjustments with a wrench.

That’s me trying to adjust my writing skills to the demands of the larger book. Why do I sometimes feel stalled at the critical moment in the switch?

The Regency is about that four-letter word for intercourse between a man and a woman – talk. And it’s about that other form of “talk” – scandal, gossip. Society is always a character in a Regency. In some ways a Regency is about things you know if you went to high school – about being In or Out and how you get there. There may be murders and French spies or smugglers, but somehow through the encounter with them the heroine will probably win a fortune or a title. She will take her place in fashionable society, and discover that in spite of how the world rates her, she’s a lady worthy of respect and love.

Historicals are about passion, the sweeping kind, “stunning passion as thrilling as a storm”. They’re about “exciting and perilous missions” that “sweep” the characters across vast landscapes and into the “heat of each other’s arms.” The hearts must be untamed; the passion must rage; the rapture must be blistering. In other words, historicals happen in “hyper-drive,” so the challenge for me is to stop my characters from talking and allow their emotions to drive them into action.

I confess that letting my heroine and hero talk their way into love is a habit that’s hard to break. I prefer characters whose wits and principles are as strong as their passions. Maintaining the heroine’s self-respect seems as important a struggle as any battle or war, and one woman’s declaration of independence as stirring as that of a nation.

So, what do I do with my wrench down in the engine of my story?

Loretta Chase, super-star, told me, “make it big; make him big; make him the heroine’s biggest problem.” What I want to make biggest about my heroes is their honor, their pride, their desire, and their restraint. I love a man like Ruck in Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart, all that wanting and all that abstinence.

To make the stakes big, I must take the characters out of the confining spaces of Regency settings, out of drawing rooms, gardens, coaches, and ballrooms, and send them off to ships and shacks, castles and prisons, rivers and desert islands. (Ironically, in my first “Regency” the heroine travelled to Portugal with spies, escaped down the raging Duoro River, and survived a shoot-out in Vauxhall Gardens.)

The big setting and high-stakes plot conspire to bring the hero and heroine face to face with possibilities of intimacy unthinkable in the social world of London. They must be tempted. Temptation I can do. But, in a historical, they must fall, later or sooner.

So I must write love scenes differently, for a different audience. As one of my Regency fans confessed in a letter, “Sorry to say, I didn’t buy Winterburn’s Rose. I don’t read historicals, too much explicit sex.” Writing these scenes is a particular challenge for anyone who takes her characters seriously and wants readers to care about them. The characters are going to be vulnerable and exposed to each other and to the reader; the writer must go deep into their feelings. Some good guidelines for this task come from The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict. Some of her suggestions:

    Sex is nice but character is destiny
    Only your characters know for sure what to call it
    You don’t have to be explicit, but you must be specific
    Your characters must want and want intensely
    Who your characters are to each other is key

Like the hero and heroine of the historical, the reader of the historical must be driven forward by emotion, by anticipation of pain and joy, discovery and revelation. When the characters want or need most intensely, when the plot puts the biggest obstacle in their path, when they discover that which is bigger than any ambition or danger – love – the reader experiences that sudden jolt to hyper-drive, the rush of the stars streaking by, the feeling of being removed from the ordinary. It is when Han Solo is lowered into carbon freeze that Leia finally realizes she loves him. “I love you,” she says. “I know,” he replies, and is frozen.

In one short exchange, we see love discovered, revealed, released – a power that can transform the universe of the characters; a treasure worth all the struggles of hero and heroine and the reader and writer to reach it. When the moment arrives, the writer knows she can throw down her wrench, hop in the pilot’s seat, and like the reader, hang on for the ride.

Kate Moore

Kate’s backlist:

  • A Prince Among Men, 1997
  • Winterburn’s Rose, 1996
  • An Improper Widow, 1995
  • The Mercenary Major, 1994
  • Sweet Bargain, 1993
  • To Kiss a Thief, 1992

E-mail KateMary Jo Putney’s Quickie on the Regency periodKaren Harbaugh’s Write Byte on the Regency A Reader on Regencies – by Karen Lynn Wheless