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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Historical Romances Versus Romantic Historicals

Versailles helps to make Louis XIV a 'marquee' name.
By McKenna Darby

If you love writing historical romances but chafe at the conventions of the Romance genre (The hero and heroine must meet by the end of chapter one! The relationship is the plot! They must live happily ever after!), you may just be in the wrong genre.

As I discovered at the Historical Novel Society’s fourth U.S. conference, held June 17-19 in San Diego, Historical readers love romance just as much as Romance readers do. A quick glance at the titles advertised throughout the conference program and in the goodie bags proves it: Romance is the one word that comes up again and again in the descriptions of Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Rosedale in Love, The Gentleman Poet, In the Shadow of the Lamp, A Bride Most Begrudging, Pale Rose of England, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Captain Blackwell’s Prize and dozens of other titles.

What’s more, Diana Gabaldon, whom Romance readers think of as one of their own, was a presenter. Philippa Boyens’ name was everywhere. Sourcebooks and Avon, which RWA members know primarily as leading Romance publishers, were major conference sponsors. And many of the book covers are as sexy and provocative as anything you’ll find in the Romance section of your local bookstore.

So what sets romantic Historical novels apart from historical Romance novels?
From all I heard at the conference, two basic points: Historical novels impose none of the Romance genre's conventions on story structure and plot, and their readers demand historical accuracy rendered in lavish detail. If you’re going to write historical novels, therefore, you’ll have free rein with your story, but you had better be accurate on period details down to the last frill on a French courtesan’s dress. Even what you don't mention can matter; as English historian and freelance editor Jay Dixon noted, if you're writing a novel set in England a few years after Waterloo and none of your characters mention it, readers will know you only dabble in the period.

The historical novel market has its own conventions, of course. With all the turmoil in the industry, publishers are giving priority to stories with “marquee” historical names – think the Tudors, the Borgias, Marie Antoinette, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Editors and agents who spoke at the conference agreed that stories about such historical heavyweights are the easiest to sell, especially for newcomers, and that even stories starring purely fictional characters should have some well-known historical names in bit parts.

In the historical market, as in Romance, novels with European settings are easier to sell than those with American ones. And YA is hot; teens who wouldn’t be caught dead with a history textbook are snapping up historical novels, with more than a little encouragement from their teachers and librarians. YA also appears to be the most wide-open market; since teens often don’t know the “marquee” names, they don’t demand them in their novels. What they do demand is a teen protagonist and a gripping, quick-moving story, generally with 85,000 words or less.

If writing romantic historical novels interests you, the Historical Novel Society’s web page at www.historicalnovelsociety.org is a good place to start. There you can read a sample issue of the organization’s outstanding magazine Solander, as well as online reviews of recently published historical novels. Annual membership costs $50 and includes two issues of Solander plus four issues of The Historical Novels Review. Conferences are held annually, but alternate between the US and England. The next conference will be in London in 2012, followed by a US-based conference in 2013.

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McKenna Darby's manuscript Traitor to Love recently placed third in the unpublished historical category of the Daphne du Maurier Awards of Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. Learn more about McKenna at http://mckennadarby.com or visit her blog at http://mckennadarby.blogspot.com

20 comments:

Abigail Sharpe said...

Great post, Darby. I don't know the historical details but I do enjoy reading historical, romance or no. Well, mostly romance.

But you had me at Diana Gabaldon. ;)

Jaye Garland said...

McKenna! Thank you so much for defining the two genres. Each has a distinct share in the market place, but the differences are subtle. You've also shown how authors bridge the gap between the two by using a couple of my favorite authors, Deanne Gist's , A BRIDE MOST BEGRUDGING. That's a great story and fits neatly into both genres. And Diana Gabaldon? Love her OUTLANDER series and it works perfectly in both genres, as well. Great examples, thanks!

Ann Chaney said...

McKenna, Thank you for such an informative article. I like the thought of a second genre that satisfies my need to write historically correct manuscripts. Again, thanks.

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

Thanks for this post. I have a MS that kind of straddles the line between historical and historical romance. I even subbed it as romance to one pub who R-ed it and told me it was literary, which says to me, it's too historical to be romance. Unfortunately, I don't have marquis names in it, it's set in America and it's definitely not YA. Guess I'll be rewriting eventually, either way.

Angelyn said...

I have the same issue Ashley mentioned. One of my ms is set in America. Reading your post tells me it is more romantic historical than the other way around. Thanks for defining that more clearly.

McKenna Darby said...

Don't despair, Ashlyn. There are exceptions to every rule, and people are publishing US-set historical novels that have no marquis names. It's just tougher for an unpublished novelist to break into the market with such a story, so it has to be a gripping, well-written story. The point is that your chances are much better with Historical agents and editors than they are with those focused on pure Romance. At least I hope so -- a Historical editor is evaluating my American-set, no-marquis-names manuscript right now!

Melissa Jarvis said...

I write romantic historical paranormal because I love certain periods in history. With so many books crossing genres today, it's hard to figure out where exactly a book fits. Thank you for defining some of those subtle nuances. There are also historical periods that are in vogue right now that were not just a few years ago, such as the period of Marie Antoinette's reign, and subsequent revolution, or the Renaissance.

Cathie Dunn said...

Great post!

Yes, it's a fine but definite line between the genres. I tend to veer towards romantic historical although I love writing historical romance. Where I often catch myself out is the historical setting which can provide intriguing sub-plots that lead away from the 'romance' bit. That's when the dilemma starts... ;-)

As a reader, I love both!

McKenna Darby said...

Hi, Melissa. I was surprised to learn that, even given the emphasis on historical accuracy, the Historical market does have a place for paranormal elements. Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, in which a British captain fights the Napoleonic wars with help from his faithful dragon (His Majesty's Dragon is the first in the series) was mentioned as a prominent example. Meant to include this point in the blog but forgot, so thanks for raising the issue of paranormals!

McKenna Darby said...

By the way, if you've posted a comment, please come back and post your email addy as an additiional comment. We can't enter you in the monthly drawing for a free HHRW online class if we don't know how to contact you. Thanks!

Fraoch said...

Great post McKenna, I wish we had met during the conference. I also think that one of the big differences is that in historical romance the history is the back drop the setting in which to place your protagonists. It may also ( at least to me) be a large part of the conflict of the protagonists. But in Historical fiction the history of the period ( be it the events or locations) is as much a character as the protagonists are. And if you are using Marquee or real historical personas then you have to stay true to the history of their lives. I think historical romance is much more forgiving when the history is altered to change the story to meet the expectations of the genre with its HEA.

And ASHLYN, remember Diana Gabaldon didn't have marquee protagonists, and she has written much of the OUTLANDER story arch set in Colonial America. Having attended the same conference, one thing that editors said throughout and we have all heard it in romance, IF THE STORY IS COMPELLING IT WILL SELL.

I know my current WIP is a historical as my protagonist didn't get the HEA, but her story is still compelling I think to readers who like to see an underdog rise above crushing odds. This is what romance historicals and historical both share.

There is room for both genres.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I write the romantic historical because I love romance first, history second. About every book I pick up his historical. I live where the 1849 gold rush happened so that is where I put my stories. I am surrounded by the history of it.

Fraoch said...

As to paranormal elements one of the queens of this in historical fiction is Barbara Erskine, a British author who had her fist book in 1989. In most of her books she has two storylines, one fictional in the present and one of a real historical persona in the past. Then she intertwines the two stories to make very compelling reads. She does have romance, sexual tension and most often closed door sex. Her stories are set in the UK mostly and she uses a lot from the Celtic myths and as well as reincarnation and more. If you like paranormal with your historical fiction they she is a must read and she has a big backlist so you would have lots to chose from.

Debby Lee said...

Thanks for sharing McKenna. I love historical romance as well as romantic historicals. Best of luck to you in your writing endeavors.

Barb H said...

Loved the post, Darby. And I like knowing the distinction between the two. I grew up reading historicals before swinging over to HR. I really enjoy Sharon Kay Penman as well as Elizabeth Chadwick, who started in historical romance. Sounds like a good group to belong to. Thanks.

Mary McCall said...

Wonderful post, McKenna. I love to read both and so many people don't understand the difference between the two. You've explained it so well.

Kieran Kramer said...

Fascinating topic, McKenna!!! I love romantic historicals.

Thanks for clearly elucidating the difference between those and historical romance. That can be tricky, I would think, but you pulled it off!! I think it's awesome how popular the Tudors are and all the other "marquee" figures but would love to see romantic historicals on lesser known figures, too.

Jessica Brockmole said...

Great discussion of where the two genres intersect and differ! I love when I find books that can lure my diehard historical novel friends into the world of historical romance, and vice versa. I also liked Fraoch's comment about history being a backdrop in historical romances and another character in historical fiction. I write novels about small people outside of big events (i.e., no marquee names), but the history still elbows its way to the front in the level of detail expected for a historical novel.

Keena Kincaid said...

I love that historical fiction is growing popular again. I like books that straddle between the genres, lots of history, a little romance or suspense or mystery.

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