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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

16 June 2007

Historical Fiction vs. Historical Romance


There were several discussions during the Historical Novel Society convention held in Albany from June 8-10 (at which I arrived on my husband's motorcycle) on the distinctions between historical romance and historical fiction. The more I listened to authors and editors mention the differences between the two, the more I came to accept that I'm writing historical fiction. It’s one reason the romance conventions aren’t the perfect fit for me, because readers who attend them are expecting, well, a romance, to be the core of the novel, and that’s not always what I’m writing. More often than not, I’m writing a woman’s journey, through the high times and the lows of her life. Her story could include courtship, marriage, and even some dangerous liaisons, and I can even go as far to say that my books tell the story of one woman’s quest to love and be loved (hey, aren’t we all looking for that?!) but I haven’t been writing historical romances.

In historical romance, the relationship between hero and heroine is the key thread and through-line and the paramount element of the story. There must be a romance there, obviously, and even if there's a love story in the book, if the main element of the narrative is not the lovers' journey, then it's not historical romance. And in historical romance there is the expectation of, if not marriage, a happily-ever-after for the hero and heroine.

Historical fiction can have a love story in it, a romance in the sense of the noun being a synonym for the words "love story," but not a "romance" in the genre-sense of the word. In fact, if you’re telling the life story of a famous beauty, she might have been involved with many men, even a king, but there might not even be a character in it who one could qualify as the “hero.” And in historical fiction, the characters can take any journey at all and there are no “rules” (other than the expectation of solid and well crafted world-building and good research). Historical fiction doesn’t necessarily have to end happily (though editors think readers prefer it, so they often do).

There seems to be another difference between historical romance and historical fiction in terms of reader and editor expectations, which really translates into which stories are published. In historical fiction, since books like THE RED TENT (about the Biblical Dinah) and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL hit the bestseller lists, the focus has been on fictionalizing the lives of actual historical personages. There have been a raft of historical fiction novels on everyone from Helen of Troy to Anne Boleyn (who, according to agent Irene Goodman, is an evergreen topic; no matter how many other novels about AB seem to be on the market, the desire to read about her is so strong that there’s always room for one more well-written story about her). These novels can be told in either first or third-person POV. Three of my own historical fiction novels—THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY; TOO GREAT A LADY: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton; and my 2008 release from NAL, ALL FOR LOVE: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson—are all told in the first person.

When it comes to historical fiction, there still seems to be a great emphasis on real-life persons being at the center of the story. Many editors remain convinced that this type of story will sell better than a book with an historical setting about fictional people. And of course, sex sells. Always has; always will. Scandalous and notorious women often led wildly fascinating lives, so novels about famous mistresses and adulterous queens jostle for position on the bookshelves.

Then there are the works of historical fiction that feature fictional characters in the principal roles and actual historical figures in the supporting roles. And some have indeed become bestsellers. Tracy Chevalier’s GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING is a prime example. Griet, the heroine, is a fictional maidservant in the house of the real-life Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. And there are Sarah Dunant’s brilliant novels of the Italian Renaissance where actual figures are reduced to smaller roles, like the renegade poet Pietro Aretino in her IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN, and even the role of the arch-villain (the fiery cleric Savaronola in THE BIRTH OF VENUS).

The exceptions to the rule about the editors’ desire for historical fiction to focus on actual figures are those novels which clearly cross over into a recognizable genre, such as the thriller or mystery. These novels have become successful because thrillers and mysteries, no matter the setting, are very popular, and it’s a genre that a bookseller can handily shelve, and which, therefore, readers can easily locate. MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH is an example of an historically-set thriller.

In historical romance, there doesn’t seem to be the need to have the central characters, or even any of the characters be drawn from actual historical persons. There is the expectation from a historical romance that the reader will be given a love story in an historical setting. It would appear that the readers care more about whether the novel is successful as a romance—in the telling of a page-turning love story—than whether the characters actually ever lived or not.

Another distinction between historical romance and historical fiction is this: there are many historical romances set in America, and many that are set in the 19th century (post-Regency) world, whether in Europe or the United States. Time after time, the attendees at the Historical Novel Society convention heard that those settings—19th century, and America, whether it’s one or both of those setting “don’t sell.” There is also the belief held by editors that French settings won’t sell either, because people don’t like the French. They still cite such über-patriotic sentiments as the “freedom fries” issue. Never mind that the French were on our side during the Revolutionary War, and that without their army and their navy, we would still be singing “God Save the [gender of monarch]” as our national anthem. The exception to the anti-France view appears to be anything written about Marie Antoinette—because she’s what is considered by editors to be a “marquee name.” A “marquee name,” defined as being anyone who is so famous that their name has instant recognition, is perceived to sell, no matter the setting. But elements that are perceived as not being commercial in the historical fiction market, seem to sell in the historical romance market.

Again, in Romance, it’s about the romance. French politics and history seem to be a lesser concern to historical romance readers than to historical fiction readers. Or maybe it’s just an across-the-board perception in publishing.


That said, here’s another point of view from someone in the trenches. To that end, I’ll quote agent (and in the interest of full disclosure she's my agent) Irene Goodman about what is seen as commercially viable in historical romance. “Historical romance has become very limited to the Regency. Sexy, witty Regencies are about the only thing we can sell in that genre. It’s a crowded field, and very hard to break in. The only obvious exception is Linda Lael Miller, who writes American western. It’s different for her because A) she’s that good a writer, B) she’s been doing it for so long that none of the readers got the memo about westerns being ‘out’, and C) since she’s the only left in that field, there isn’t any competition. So no, it’s not a good idea to set a historical romance in any place besides England. And not just England—Regency England. You can get away with Georgian, if it feels and sounds like a Regency, but that's about it. Once in a while we see Scotland, but France has always been difficult, the U.S. is totally out of favor, and none of the other countries in Europe work either.”

The bottom line is that the editors are the ones who buy the books, after meeting with their sales and marketing teams. No longer does a single editor fall in love with a novel and—poof—it gets published. Decisions are made by committee these days with the bottom line squarely placed at the top of the chart. For example, if the key Borders or B&N sales reps in the Midwest, think their readers will walk right by a novel about some French people they never heard of, no matter how dynamic or well crafted, the editors will likely pass on the manuscript. In American bookstores, people vote with their purses.

I came away from the Historical Novel Society conference with the distinct impression that the “book of your heart,” whether it’s historical fiction or historical romance, no matter how passionate about it you are, and sometimes no matter how well-written, had better have a marketable setting!

51 Comments:

Anonymous Michelle said...

This was SO helpful. Thanks! I thought that the most popular form of historical fiction was the more "biographical form" as opposed to the kind which centered around "made-up" people, and it's nice to get that confirmed. I've tended to prefer the latter - kind of what Philippa Carr (one of the many names of Victoria Holt) wrote but haven't been able to find any like that in this new "boom" in historical fiction. It's kind of nice to know that it's not out there. At least I know I'm no longer missing it because I haven't looked hard enough.

-Michelle

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful recap--thanks so much! I came to the conclusion years ago, when I was still attempting to write historical romance, that what I was really writing/wanted to write was historical fiction (in fact one of my editors kindly pointed this out to me). I love books with love stories, but when I write I always seem to get pull away from the central love story by historical details, suspsense and intrigue, secondary characters, etc... That was the point at which I decided I should stop trying to write historical romances (much as I enjoyed reading them) and wrote the book which is now "Secrets of a Lady". I prefer historical fiction that centers on fictional characters, i confess, though I do use real characters as secondary characters, and I've started doing more of this.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Gosh, a great blog! My June 22 blog (already written) will deal with the same thing--Irene Goodman and the future of historical fiction/romance. Apologies for overlapping your excellent column!

11:03 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I have tried to write historical fiction rather than historical romance -- but history always seems so tragic and chaotic to me (Joyce's nightmare one can't awaken from). I never can find form or closure in it and so I always find myself reverting to the romance form. I was fascinated, though, by your take on it, Amanda, as the form of the ups and downs of the life of a fascinating and daring lady.

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing is, a lot of historical romance releases from the 80s and early 90s would today be considered a hybrid of historical romance and historical fiction--Mary Jo Putney's Silk trilogy set in Victorian-era Middle East comes to mind. Marsha Canham, Roberta Gellis and Jane Feather also come to mind.

I've struggled with this because I use the breadth and scope of history to shape the plot and setting, but the story arc is the romance between the h/h. For instance, I have plot germs for a romance set in the Peninsular War, a romance set amongst the art world of 1900s Paris, and a romance based in intrigue at the court of Charles II.

From what I read from your report, as well as reader comments,historical romance readers don't care about the history and only want Regency, and historical fiction readers don't want to read "bodice rippers"--so I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to marketing my work when submitting to an agent.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I'm starting to think I'd be better off just not thinking about the market, ever again. All it ever seems to do is depress me and make me wonder if anything I write will ever see the light of day!

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Tracy,

I read Daughter of the Game (actually bought it in hardcover and never regretted it) and LOVED it. It is my favorite kind of historical fiction. I hope it sells like hotcakes with the reissue under a new name.

Also - so sorry about the 3 posts - I have no idea how that happened.

-Michelle

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Michelle, you totally made my day :-). Thanks so much!

3:33 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I found everything I've learned at the conference and over the years of writing historical fiction and trying to branch out into either historical fiction with non-famous characters, but a famous and exciting life-or-death setting; or stories about non-English famous people to be sort of disheartening, to say the least. I've come up with ideas that my agent loves but doesn't think an editor will buy, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to write the other, less commercial stories I want to tell, while devoting time to researching, writing, and promoting what's under contract.

But, as I blogged, readers vote with their purses. If suddenly there is a huge interest at the cash registers in French-set or American-set historical novels, or a number of historical-set bestsellers that do not feature real-life personages with instant name recognition (and which are written by authors whose names are relatively unknown to readers), then maybe editors will think themselves brilliant for spotting a trend and there will be a huge demand for manuscripts set in the new, "hot" era.

And again, even though an editor may absolutely love one of these commercially risky manuscripts -- love it enough to take a chance on it -- her boss(es), and her sales and marketing force may spook her into rejecting the proposal. I know of an editor who gets spooked because of the pronouncements of the key buyer for Barnes & Noble's historical fiction department. If she says something doesn't sell, the editor will take her word as though it was delivered from Mount Sinai, and shy like a horse at any era, structure, or setting which the B&N buyer has deemed uncommercial.

There are plenty of times where I feel like I'm banging my head against a cinderblock, wishing the editors would just let me push that envelope, but my reality is my own need to make a living at this. It is a business, of course, even though our capital is our imaginations, and if they ain't buying widgets, there's no point in writing them, unless you have a lot of free time and you don't depend on your publishing income to survive.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I realize I forgot to mention something in the original post ... and my brain was jogged into remembering it because I am only five pages into Geraldine Brooks's mesmerizing novel MARCH, and only put it down to (a) tell my husband how brilliant it is ... everything from the premise to the glorious language, which is like poetry, thrilling and moving and terrifying in its power and beauty; and (b) because it broke all the "rules" of historical fiction.

It is set in America. It is set during the 19th c. -- the Civil War, to be precise.

And -- it also utilizes the other taboo I forgot to mention in the original post: it is narrated by a man.

The novel's title carries a double meaning because the narrator is a chaplain on the move with the Union army. He's also Mr. March -- THAT Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN. Brooks imagined a glorious "what if" about the only fictional family member in Alcott's novel who we never get to meet. [God, I hope I'm remembering the plot of the classic correctly.]

So here's the exception to all the caveats about what is and isn't commercial. And perhaps Brooks had a leg up in getting it published because she'd also penned the successful YEAR OF WONDERS (set in England in 1666, the year of the plague). Or because MARCH is about a character we all sort of know from an already famous classic, a premise that certainly created a lot of hoopla when Alice Randall's THE WIND DONE GONE, a "what if" on the GONE WITH THE WIND saga, written from the slave's perspective, made a splash in the early 1990s.

Anyway, I couldn't fall asleep tonight without adding that all the historical fiction pundits say you "can't" write a story:

1. SET IN AMERICA
2. SET IN THE 19TH CENTURY
3. WHERE A REAL-LIFE PERSON ISN'T AT THE CENTER OF THE NARRATIVE
4. WHERE THE CENTRAL CHARACTER/NARRATOR IS A MAN.

By the way, MARCH won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I'm raising a toast to Geraldine Brooks.
So it can be done.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

All I could think of as I read your post was COLD MOUNTAIN. It too broke all the rules (though I can't say I loved it for doing so; but then, sadly, I can't say I loved it at all). My agent has been encouraging me to move into historical fiction; I've yet to hit on the proper figure yet . . . all of my ideas are too obscure or too tragic. Alas.

I'm sure I'll come up with something (someone?) though . . . as I've very exited about the idea of writing straight historical fiction.

Does anyone think it's a cop out to simply end at a good point in their life and not go all the way to their (often) tragic demise? Or is that cheating?

6:50 PM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

I'm fascinated by Rosa Bonheur. One helluva life, and I want to write in it so I can live a bit of it.

Hmmm, Rosa Bonheur...19th century, French, lesbian ... oh, what the heck, toss it on the old "to be written" pile anyway.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I'm one of those terrible people who doesn't like a sweeping historical romance. I like historical fiction (Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Crimson Petal and the White, another rule breaker). But in my romances, I get restless and pissed off if the camera pans away from the main characters too long. I think it has to do with the feelings I'm looking for when I read romance. The rush of infatuation and desire. That old feeling of crushing on someone when you can't stop thinking about him, waiting for a call, wondering what he's thinking. . . If I have to go fifty pages before the h/h interact again, it's like that horrible torture of the phone never ringing! And I am so over that at my age. *g*

But when I'm in the mood for historical fiction, I have different expectations and I'm more patient. I'm able to slow down and enjoy the details, and I'm also prepared that everything might not work out for the best. *cringe* So I think, in that way, it is important to define your books for your readers, because they're willing to follow you as long as they know where you're going.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"Does anyone think it's a cop out to simply end at a good point in their life and not go all the way to their (often) tragic demise? Or is that cheating?"

Kalen, I raised my hand and asked this question (almost word for word, in fact) of Irene Goodman during her seminar on the historical fiction market. I wasn't being a shill; I actually didn't know the answer. I have ended my Emma Hamilton and Mary Robinson novels in the final year of their lives, appending a non-fictional "Author's Note" or Afterword, explaining what happened to them after my fictional narrative ended. My sense from my editors was that they wanted the story to end on a "upbeat note" even though we we all know the character is dying ... and of course when we're dealing with actual historical figures who are all very dead by now, it would take an amazingly, um, clueless, reader not to realize that the central character will eventually die, if not in the final pages, then soon after them.

The consensus is, when you're writing historical fiction, not to violate the genre by inventing an ALTERNATE ending to the character's actual life story for the sake of a "happy ending," but to end it at a spot where the character still feels optimistic about her future, like [SPOILER ALERT] Emma and her daughter Horatia fleeing debtors prison for the continent where they hope to prosper.

Irene PERSONALLY said she didn't mind if authors ended their story with the character's death, because after all, if you're doing someone's life story, that's how it ends, but she did emphasize that the publishing world tends to believe otherwise. Most editors feel that readers want that glimmer of hope at the end of the book, even if they know the character will die, even die gruesomely (e.g. Marie Antoinette) or in squalor and poverty.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Amanda... um, did you happen to attend Bernard Cornwell's "How To Write Historical Fiction" workshop and, if so, would you have notes??

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm one of those terrible people who doesn't like a sweeping historical romance.

I'm referring to the focus not swaying from the h/h, but the history playing a part in the romantic plot. That's what I find missing from historical romance.

Say there was a romance set during the French Revolution. The politics of the time and historical figures should be there to set the setting and show why this is such a scary time for our h/h to fall in love. In the recent romances I've read set in that period, it's just about the aristocratic h/h easily escaping the Revolution for England and the rest of the book takes place amongst the English ton (with nary a psychological reaction on part of someone who has lost everything and everyone).

I'm just shocked time and time again when people who love and have loved historical romance for a long time (some of these readers have been reading for 15-20 years!) use sweeping generalizations about what a historically relevant/accurate romance would contain. It just makes me really disappointed in the genre and its increasingly lowered expectations. Perhaps there could be room for a hybrid genre...

11:57 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lynna, I caught the second half of Cornwell's lecture, and wished I'd been there for the whole thing. Because I thought it was my literary castor oil for the day, I began at the editors' panel on marketplace trends in historical fiction, but it rapidly degenerated into each editor having to spend countless minutes responding to the question of "how I spend my typical day." Unfortunately the title of the workshop and the actual discussion bore little resemblance to each other.

So I missed the first half of Cornwell's talk, but found the second half delightful, especially when he discussed his writer's process, because it's so close to the way I work myself, I went up to him afterwards, introduced myself, and thanked him for justifying my existence.

I did take a few notes, Lynna, but they're from the second half of Cornwell's discussion.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Lynna, I was there throughout Cornwell's workshop. It was really a Q&A session rather than a lecture, and as such didn't have a particular topic or focus. I didn't take many notes, but this is what I have:

- Men express liking/affection through *humor*.
- Don't worry about style in the first draft, just get the story down.
- When writing battles, get the terrain down beforehand by other story-related means, and then keep your characters' perspectives in mind and bring your vision down to very close range.

I also remember him expressing contempt for writer's block except when it's just a newbie writer's lack of confidence and talking about the importance of writing something you're passionate about, the kind of book you want to read.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think alot of historical romance readers also read historical fiction. It's not just the romance we love, but the history as well. And the story of one woman's journey, and her loves would certainly resonate with romance readers. I personally read both. Women's lives through history has always been a personal favorite.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I am one of those historical romance readers who also reads historical fiction. I want different things from each and go in expecting different things.

The best books just tell a great tale, with a story so absorbing I often forget it's a historical even though it's steeped in period detail...I feel like I am right there and "living it."

7:54 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

This was great Amanda. Really helped me understand more about the difference in Historical Fiction and Historical romance. Too those are just the reasons too what I'm looking for in what I want to read when I look for a Historical Fiction to read. I do tend to read more Historical romance but really just started into more Historical Fiction and a few reference books that i've been able to scan from the Library or online. I like both as a reader. I love to rotate what I read.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Say there was a romance set during the French Revolution. The politics of the time and historical figures should be there to set the setting and show why this is such a scary time for our h/h to fall in love.

I agree with you. I am very careful when choosing time periods for my own writing, because I specifically enjoy writing a very internal, tightly focused book. I don't want the external world intruding to that extent. But if you're interested in writing a book set during war or political upheaval, you'd better be interested in writing about the ramifications of the times, IMHO!

And I wasn't being sarcastic about the "terrible person" remark. *g* As a historical writer, I feel guilty when people speak longingly of the times when writers wrote epic romances (and publishers bought them!). I don't long for them, and I feel like I should!

But again, for me it is a matter of expectation. If I know what to expect, I can choose the perfect time to read the book depending on my mood and the demands of my family!

8:09 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Hi Tracy! I remember you! From Beneath A Silent Moon. Thrilled to see you have a book out in August. Will be a joy to read your books again. Congrats.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

. . . So I guess what I should have said was, not only do I not like my romances to be sweeping, I like them to be driven by internal conflict. If a reader craves external conflict, especially the kinds that come with intricate subplots, etc. then she'd probably be searching for books that showed a much wider picture of the world surrounding the characters. Am I making my thoughts less and less clear as I go on? *g*

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Hi Caffey,

Thanks so much! It's so great to know some people who read "Daughter of the Game" will enjoy reading it again as the slightly-expanded "Secrets of a Lady'. I only hope I have a new book for you soon :-).

Hi Victoria,

I think what you said: "I guess what I should have said was, not only do I not like my romances to be sweeping, I like them to be driven by internal conflict. If a reader craves external conflict, especially the kinds that come with intricate subplots, etc. then she'd probably be searching for books that showed a much wider picture of the world surrounding the characters" sums it up brilliantly. This is why I realized that I really wasn't very good at writing romances, much as I might enjoy reading them. That said, I do think it's possible to have a book with a complicated plot, rich history, and also strong internal conflict that plays off the plot and history. Not easy perhaps, but possible :-).

Cheers,
Tracy

9:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If a reader craves external conflict, especially the kinds that come with intricate subplots, etc. then she'd probably be searching for books that showed a much wider picture of the world surrounding the characters.

I'm only disappointed because I rarely find this even in historical fiction and am forced to dip into novels published 10-20 years ago for this sort of read, and my new romance novel consumption has taken a drastic nosedive.

I realize I'm being picky, but it's disheartening to go to the bookstore and not find the type of books I want to read on the shelves .I want the passion, the well-drawn h/h, the romance, the love scenes, the emotions, but I want the history to lend a textured background to this.

11:40 PM  
Anonymous francois said...

Kalen said "Does anyone think it's a cop out to simply end at a good point in their life and not go all the way to their (often) tragic demise? Or is that cheating?"

No! I think one purpose of an author is to edit the content to create a good story. The author reads the primary sources so the audience don't have to. I can see it is tempting to regurgitate everything you've found out but please resist! I may as well be reading a history textbook. But if the tragic ending works in the story then throw it in.

As you can probably guess I read Historical Romances and other fiction but not Historicals based on real people. Can't stand anything where you know the precise ending at the start!

5:45 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

I'm only disappointed because I rarely find this even in historical fiction and am forced to dip into novels published 10-20 years ago for this sort of read

I have to lay this at the publishers' feet, I think. If it were up to authors, I'm sure there'd be a nice mix out there, everything from wallpaper historicals to 800 page epics. But pubs really like to keep the page count down. They also seem to think the public's attention span has dwindled, and this is probably true to an extent (and speaking in generalities, of course.)

My own debut book would have been about 350 pages a few years ago, but the text has been shrunk down to fit it into about 300 pages. (I'm fine with this as the book only costs $3.99.) But I'd imagine that even wonderful historical fiction that goes beyond 400 pages is a hard sell, especially if you're not already a bestseller. (And I'm sure you could still do a lot in fewer pages, but it would be quite a challenge.)

7:58 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

And editors often tell us specifically to stay away from things like politics and war.

Oh, you want the main external conflict to center around the king’s deteriorating mental state and in-fighting taking place at court in the ensuing vacuum? No. How about a nice murder?

You want to write about free blacks in France during the revolution? Un, no. How about you write something nice and marketable like a Regency duke? A Regency, SCOTTISH duke, who has always lived in the Highlands and must how make it in the ton. You know, a juicy reverse Pygmalion thing (but don’t make any references to the Greek myth, that’s too obscure for your readers).

A lot of us have ideas for books that I think would make you a very happy camper, anonymous, but finding the right place for them is hard. I think that’s why some of us (so many of us?) are branching out into Historical Fiction.

Amanda, thanks again for posting such a wonderful topic. I think we might have to revisit it . . .

8:31 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Good news! Lynna's blogging about a similar topic in a few days! Yea!

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I'm always amazed by is all it takes is that one author to write something out of the norm, that hits the bestseller list, and then all of a sudden editors jump on the bandwagon. I remember reading a historical romance in the early 80's that would never get published now except as historical fiction, concerning a placee in New Orleans and her white lover. It was written by Barbara Ferry Johnson and it was a 3 book series. And Patricia Gallagher wrote a historical romance where the heroine had an affair with a married man. When did the market become so narrow?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Sadly it isn't only that the writer has to WRITE something out of the norm, but that they have to find a publisher who believes in the project (a much more daunting task, I assure you). Lots of us have written or proposed books with more original flair. Publishers want to make money. What makes money? Right now in historical romance it’s all about Regency England (mostly with lordly heroes), and books set in Scotland (mostly with Highlander laird heroes). While many of us might wish for a wider scope, this is what sells enough copies to be worth the publisher’s investment.

Lots of us would love to be writing stuff that's well and far off the beaten track, but we can't convince our publishers that the book will sell enough copies. *sigh* I’ve got several proposals for things with riskier settings/characters that have been turned down due to “marketability” concerns. And I respect my agent and publisher when they tell me the book won’t sell (or that it won’t sell well enough), because guess who they’d blame if the book tanked? Guess who wouldn’t get a new contract? Oh, that would be me!

12:37 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

When did the market become so narrow?

When the publishers began to be subsumed into enormous conglomerates that are vast empire-umbrellas for many kinds of business. They care about the bottom line and know very little about the profession of book publishing. Editors can't take the chances they would like because some bean counter at the parent company is pressing them to play it safe, or the [unprofitable] book wing of the corporate empire will be sold or shut down and they'll be out of a job. As the tobacco lobbyist in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING defensively smirks, "Everybody's got a mortgage."

The editors pass along their fear to the authors. Victoria and Kalen nailed it in in their most recent posts to this subject. The readers often don't get to read the books the authors propose. We're told to keep the page count to roughly 300 to 400pp for an historical romance (yes, there are exceptions, often written by star moneymakers like Diana Gabaldon, or else they fall into a hybrid of historical and mainstream literary fiction). The first draft of my Emma Hamilton novel, TOO GREAT A LADY, was 715 pages. It was rejected by every house we submitted it to. "Bring it back when it's less than 500 pages, preferably closer to 400pp" was the directive from the editors. Out went some wonderful scenes about Emma's girlhood, and pages and pages of battle scenes and political intrigue. Is the resulting novel a better book? I can't even tell you. But it's a shorter one.

And it's the rare author who gets to tell his or her story about politics, disease, or death. Believe me, even in historical fiction (as opposed to historical romance), editors want to be sure that there's enough sex in the book so that their copy editors can write a back jacket teaser to attract the reader. Sex sells. And publishers seem to think (so there must be sales figures to back this up) that readers prefer boudoir scenes over battle scenes.

Markets change. A half dozen years ago the historical fiction market barely existed. Now we're having this colorful discussion about what subgenres of historical fiction readers prefer.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I applaud any publisher that is willing to take a risk on publishing books that take place outside the accepted realm of periods. NAL publishes Jeanne Weston's historicals set during the reign of Charles II, and Harlequin has been taking some chances with their historicals. Of course, since they have a subscription base and the editorial staff is in the UK perhaps they don't have as rigid an idea of historical time periods. Who would have thought a year ago that anyone would be publishing a book with a female gladiator as the heroine. I'd be interested to know how well the book did, as well as Claire Thornton's trilogy set during the great fire. Forever Amber has always been one of my favorite books. A good example of sex sells!

12:58 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

These days to get the big story/adventure fix I crave from historical fiction, I mostly read what I think of as "boy books" and the subset of fantasy that reads like historical fiction. So, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, C.C. Humphreys (my newest discovery) on the historical fiction side, and Naomi Novik, Jacqueline Carey, Lois McMaster Bujold, and the like for fantasy.

But the "boy books" sometimes frustrate me because they don't have the kind of intense, one-woman-for-all-time romance arc I crave, and fantasy just isn't quite the same as historical fiction. So again, as always, I'm left frustrated by the market!

1:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I do want to mention that I think my French Revolution romance from Brava, The Bookseller's Daughter, will have longer legs than my other Brava book Almost a Gentleman, though Kensington would never have bought the French book without the English one. But I did have to think hard to figure out a way to get my h&h out of the way of the guillotine (no spoilers, tho).

2:00 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Lots of houses are pushing the envelope, and I'm happy to see it. Several of us here write for Kensington, and we’re all over the place, historically speaking (Medieval, Georgian, Regency and Victorian; but all taking place in England). And I have friends with upcoming books that are early 17th century (Monica McCarty, Highlander Untamed, Ballentine) and mid-17th century (Veronica Wolff, Master of the Highlands, Berkley). But as you can clearly see, both of these authors have the “Scottish” angle going for them.

And I totally agree about Harlequin Historicals putting out some stuff that’s on the “here be dragons” edge of romance right now. But I’ve yet to see any numbers for these books. Did any of them sell well enough to perpetuate that author’s career? I’d be really, really curious to see the numbers for some of the more original settings (like the books set in ancient Rome, or among the Aztecs, both of which I’ve seen out in the last year).

2:20 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Don't forget TJ Bennett's German historical from Medallion!! (that's TJ's, right?) When is that set? 17th century? That's pretty ballsy on Medallion's part. I can't wait!

6:41 PM  
Blogger anne said...

Many thanks for that fascinating report, Amanda. I must say, however, that the agent who noted that a writer can "get away with Georgian, if it feels and sounds like a Regency," may have second thoughts after she noticed that Eloisa James's Desperate Duchesses Georgian is No. 17 on the New York Times's current main list (published online) of bestselling fiction paperbacks. It's not Regency, at least to this reader. Perhaps DD will ignite a new attitude among editors and agents?

6:50 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

My hunch is that Irene Goodman would counter your comment, Anne, by mentioning that that as an author of several historical romances Eloisa James has built up a loyal readership over the years (and over many books) and her reuptation for quality writing is high. So the expectation is that readers will follow her wherever she's going. Clearly the editors were right; Ms. James's bestseller berth on the Times list reflects this.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jo Beverly is another author who has been writing Georgian set romances for years. I think the reason editors are willing now to consider Georgian set romances is that the period is just as witty as the Regency period. And you're starting to see the effects of The Enlightenment. Think of playwrights such as Sheridan and Fanny Burney. And the market hasn't been as saturated with them as they have with Regency-set historicals.

7:11 AM  
Blogger anne said...

How I agree with you about that counter-arg, Amanda! My fear is that houses will limit Georgian to formerly non-Georgian writers who, like Eloisa, can carry the faithful, to the exclusion of new writers who prefer to specialize in that period.

Lynna, I look forward to reading your own blog on Ms. Goodman and the future of historical fiction/romance!

As a former publisher (newspaper), I can only imagine arguments for and against starting a house that specializes in Georgian and that features both new writers and established writers new to the genre. It's a temptation, I admit, LOL! It's too easy to throw caution to the wind, agree, with Kathrynn, that "the best books just tell a great tale," and fearlessly promote the great tale, regardless of the genre label.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I can tell you that my books are Georgian, and I'm certainly hoping to bask in the reflected glory of what ever frenzy for the period Eloisa sets off (how could I not!). But my editor and agent had no idea that Eloisa was coming out with similar set books when they bought mine. So everyone keep their fingers crossed that Georgian is here to stay.

I've always loved Jo Beverley's Georgian books, and I think Julia Ross's two Georgian-set books are simply amazing!!!

8:09 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I don't write historical romance; I write historical fiction, and I have one published Georgian era title TOO GREAT A LADY: The Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton; and another Georgian era novel, ALL FOR LOVE: The Scandalous Life and Times of Royal Mistress Mary Robinson coming out in Feb., 2008, I believe.

Frankly, I prefer the Georgian era. I like the Enlightenment-influenced people and the era when people had a license to be licentious. I love characters who grab life with both hands and plunge in up to their elbows. By the time we get to the Regency, mores are shifting away from the more permissive, bawdier era of the Georgians (though "Regency" is really "Georgian," too, since he was George IV).

But when publishers refer to "Georgian," they really mean the reign of George III (any successful novels set during the reigns of George I or George II?)

1:27 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

See, what I really love about the Victorian era is the dichotomy of the characters' deepest (and most natural) desires in the face of the strict expectations of society. But I think the Victorian mindset adds a lovely dark edge to sex and even innocence, as compared to the Regency.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Lovely for fiction anyway. *g*

3:03 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Right now, I'm quite fascinated by the late 1820s -- what I like to call the Exhausted Overwrought Late Regency.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jo Beverly has written Georgian novels from the 1760's, and I'm sure Bertrice Small has written a few. I think as the market for Regency's becomes more saturated, writers will hopefully look to the Georgian era for their books. My favorite series of Blackadder was always Blackadder III with Hugh Laurie as the Prince of Wales.

5:33 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Jo Beverly and Bertrice Small are bestselling authors, so again, they may get to write their own ticket because their sales numbers are high and they have legions of devoted fans.

I love the Blackadder III series the best, too. It's so marvelously witty. I don't think that the commercial success of Georgian-era novels, whether historical fiction or historical romance, is really the issue here. It's more about whether those alleged "taboo" settings (America, France, anywhere else but England; 19th c. or any other century that editors don't shelve under "Medieval"; novels with more battle or political-social scenes than love scenes; novels narrated by a male character, or where a male is the main character; etc.) can find their market in a bigger way. We can cite Pulitzer winners, or popular historical romance authors, who have smashed this glass ceiling, but I'm hoping that authors who have less name recognition and who write a kick-ass book that falls outside the narrow parameters deemed acceptable by the publishers' sales forces, will force a shift. You can't turn a ship on a dime, though, unfortunately.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do think it is possible for an author to take a period of history that's considered taboo and if the book is good enough, break-out. When Diana Gabaldon was first published, Outlander broke a number of rules, it was a time-travel, her heroine was older than the hero and married back in her present life, the book took place just before the battle of Culloden, the hero was a virgin, and it took place just after WWII. Who knew that book was going to take off and 12 years later, she would be publishing her sixth book in the series? The book straddled the line between being historical fiction and romance. I'm sure that the marketing department at Bantam probably were pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to market it, which is why they just decided it was romance and it was shelved accordingly in the romance section of bookstores despite Diana Gabaldon's wanting it shelved in fiction. Unfortunately, this seems to have once every few years.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

There's obviously a sort of tide in romance marketing that goes in and out, editors looking for the next thing but also clinging to what has worked in the past. Betting on Georgian would seem to be a way to go and also hedge their bets right now.

7:15 AM  

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