Wednesday, October 18, 2006

How Much History In A Historical Romance*?

* I've changed this title since this entry was first posted because I want to make something more clear than in the first version: I'm only talking about historical romances, not historical novels. What's the difference? I think that in a historical romance, history is used to enhance the romance. In a historical novel, romance is, or can be, used to enhance the history. Different genres, different focus, different use of history. And I'm speaking about the North American market as I see it right now.

Now back to the blog:

I've been participating in a very interesting discussion on a writers' loop about the nature of history in a historical romance, as in "how much?"

Here's my take on this subject: I don't think there's any right or wrong when it comes to the amount and/or nature of historical events an author chooses to use. That's a matter of style, similar to the number and nature of love scenes.

I do think there's a distinction between political history (major political events) and social history (how people lived from day to day). As a person and a writer, I'm much more interested in social history than I am political history. To be sure, the big events are going to have an impact on the characters and the story, but not to the same extent as if I'm putting my characters in the equivalent of the Oval Office.

This discussion tends to get heated, I think, because of the implication that writers who prefer social history to political history are lazy. Or less intelligent. Or worst of all, they just don't care. It's not that they have a different preference; they are wrong and lesser writers for it.

To me, that falls into the same category as chastising other writers because they choose to write about sexual intimacy in a way different from you. It's a style choice, and not a question of one way being "right" or "better" than another. It's a writer's personal preference.

I've also heard that some readers miss so-called "meaty" historicals (again, let me emphasize I'm talking about historical romances, not historical novels), with lots and lots of historical facts. Here's why I don't write such books. First, I don't get a thrill out of describing big battles or major political machinations. It just doesn't float my boat, and writing has enough angst inherent in the effort that I don't want to force myself to write something I don't enjoy. Second, the sales simply aren't there. Maybe people have shorter attention spans -- although those George R.R. Martin tomes would seem to contradict that -- or maybe the next big blockbuster historical romance just has yet to be written. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that for now, the big, "meaty" historical is a tough sell. So basically, I'd be doing a lot of work and spending a lot of time (I think at least a year, if not more), on something that I really wouldn't enjoy writing and then might not sell. And in the meantime, my income would take a serious nose-dive. Not exactly an attractive proposition, is it?

Does that mean nobody should try? Oh, heck no! If you're really missing those big meaty historicals, write one. You might be the one to turn the tide. Or at least wow a publisher enough to give it a try. And who knows? The time may be right that the readers will welcome your book with open arms. There's no predicting what will "hit it big" in this business, which is both a good and bad thing about it.

Now pardon me. I must go serously wound both my hero and my villain, who are not fighting a major historical battle. It's personal and one-on-one. 'Cause that's the way I like it.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Pleased to meet you Margaret!
I write Medieval 'meaty' historicals that are bestsellers - in the UK and much of Europe anyway. My main stamping ground is the 12th century. I started off writing more in the romance genre with imaginary protagonists, but have since moved along the line towards mainstream straight historicals with protagonists who actually lived. In part it was what I wanted to do as a career progression, but in part it was also dictated bu UK market forces. My sales have taken off big-time since I made the decision to move into the 'meaty' historical department - although there is still a strong romantic element and I am happy to be an active member of the UK's Romantic Novelists Association.
I agree that whatever works for the author is best. As a reader I have no quibble as to whether detail is social or political, just that it not be anachronistic!
Best of luck with your own writing!

Margaret Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth. Welcome! Glad to hear your medieval historical novels are doing so well!

But I believe I should clarify and will revise my blog accordingly in a moment. I was talking only about historical romances and the NA market, not historical novels and/or overseas markets. I still think a long historical *romance* with a lot of historical events/elements would be a tough sell in NA right now.

All the best for your continued success -- clearly, there's room for much variety in the "historical" ship!

Sinead M said...

I think of the big 'meaty' historical romances, (not historical fiction) as having more than just historical detail, but external plots. There was a lot happening in those books.
The dark queen series by Susan Caroll reminded me of those books, and why I miss them.

I hope they come back.

Margaret Moore said...

Good point, Sinead! I tend to think of the history as also providing the subplots, but ain't necessarily so, is it?