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Writing the Romance Novel: Historical Romance vs. Historical Fiction

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A question came up at my local writing group’s monthly meeting Saturday: what’s the difference between Historical Romance and a Historical? (Oh, and BTW, I do use “a” with the word “historical” based on CMS 5.73 which says to use “a” if the “h” sound is pronounced. If I pronounced it ’istorical, I’d use “an.” Just to head that argument off at the pass!)

Though it would seem like there would be an easy answer to this (and there is, to some extent), in the historical category, there’s a little more of a gray area where the lines get blurred.

The easy answer is this: a historical romance is a romance novel that’s set prior to the Vietnam war (or WWII, depending on the publishing house). Remember, the definition of a romance novel is that the storyline focuses on the developing relationship between the hero and heroine—if the romance is taken out, there is no more story. Historical novels are stories that take place in a historical setting which are more about the effect of that setting on the characters—whether it’s a war, the frontier, or the Protestant Revolution. There might be a romance that occurs in the story, but it’s a subplot. For example: Georgette Heyer wrote historical romances (Regencies); Jeff and Michael Shaara wrote/write historical fiction. Gone with the Wind is historical women’s fiction (it’s about Scarlett’s internal journey and how the events of history effected that journey); John Jakes’s North & South trilogy is historical fiction (it’s about the friendship between Orry and George and how they interacted with and were involved in the historical events).

The answer gets harder when we take into account that many historical stories include a grand romance as part of the storyline. It might not be the main focus of the plot, but it is integral to the story—the main plot just wouldn’t be of any interest without it.

Historicals also tend to be trilogies or even longer series, and, even if a romance is integral to the plot of the story, such as in J.M. Hochstetler‘s American Patriot series, the romance may not be resolved for seven or eight volumes (or more—please not more, Joan!). The entire series is a romance, because the overarching thread is the love story between Elizabeth and Carleton, who are torn apart by the eruption of the Revolutionary War. Each individual book can be considered historical fiction, as it doesn’t follow the seven basic beats of the romance novel—and though each has a satisfying ending (that leaves us wanting more!), it isn’t a happily ever after ending. Once the series as a whole is complete, I’m certain that we could apply the seven beats to the entire story and we’ll see the romance “novel.”

See how the definitions get muddied?

Oh, and just to add one more facet to the definition: the works of Jane Austen, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc., are not considered “historical” romance—because they were contemporary romances when they were written—set during the time period in which they were actually written. A true “historical” is written by someone not living in the time period in which the story is set.

For Discussion:
Who here reads historical romances? Who are your favorite authors? Who is writing historicals/historical romances? Can you define from this whether your story is a historical or a historical romance?

  1. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 10:53 am

    My WIP, Kindred, falls in the muddy middle area, the same way Joan’s series does (another plug for Joan’s Patriot Series–she’s my crit partner and I’ve found them very engaging *s*). I plan a series, in which the strong romance thread will eventually end in a happily ever after. But wait, there’s more! I see the series continuing beyond the HEA moment when my two protagonists can finally be together, because their vastly different backgrounds (she is presently a slave of mixed/Cherokee ancestry, and he is a free white man) would project all sorts of tension and issues as they attempt to form a family and a life together, issues that will inform the rest of their lives. I’d like to explore that, how such a married couple and their children would have coped in a racially prejudiced world (late 18th and early 19th C America).

    So, while the romance aspect is stronger than a subplot, there’s an equally important exploration of the impact of time and place and slavery upon each character, and how they cope with it emotionally and spiritually. There’s a strong prodigal son element as well, that will also carry over into the sequel, and perhaps beyond, before that is fully resolved.

    As for historicals I’ve enjoyed, aside from the profanity and graphic sex, I’ve enjoyed Diana Gabaldon’s historical series (the main one, featuring Jamie and Claire).

    Liz Curtis Higg’s Scottish series (the retelling of the Jacob/Leah/Rachel triangle).

    Francine River’s Mark of the Lion trilogy, which also falls into that muddy area of not quite historical romance, yet the romances are integral to the overall story.

    I’m sure there’s many more and I just can’t think of them presently. My favorite type of book to read is a historical with a strong romance thread (not a subplot, but equal in strength to the other story threads). These books are often BFHs (big fat historicals)…. books that are “traditionally built,” as Maa Ramotswe might put it.


  2. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 11:36 am

    Historicals are by and far my favorite romance books when I read romance. I love historicals in other genres too…heck I “sort of” write historicals. I do time travel adventure, because I like to throw modern day protags into the past, but I’ll write a pure historical one of these days I actually have an idea for one. Anything that deals with history and I’m in. One thing I got from my mom and dad was a love of history. My family is big on history.


  3. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 5:31 pm

    I wrote an historical (notice I use an 😉 ) last year…there was a romance or two in there, but the story was more about cultures in conflict and the realization of the harm we can do to each other when we won’t see the other person’s POV.

    I’ve written several historical romances…def. all about boy gets girl.

    I love historical romances, mostly those set in the US, but I love a good British/Scots historical from time to time.

    Favorite authors: M.L. Tyndall, Mary Connealy, Elizabeth Peters, Anne Perry, Ellis Peters.


  4. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 7:55 pm

    Thanks for putting the rest the “a” vs. “an”–I totally agree with using “a.” Thanks to you and Erica, and a few fantastic historicals (A Mending at the Edge), I am discovering a love of historicals.


  5. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 8:33 pm

    I write both. The Epic is mainly a straight historical but there is a strong romance plot. It’s all about how a family struggles to just stay together in the midst of war and revolution. The first book falls clearly into the historical category, and the second one falls into the muddy waters between the two. Right now I think the third one is mostly straight historical, but has a strong romance subplot.

    But I also have a historical romance on the go that I’m targeting at LIH. It’s set here in my hometown, and the plot circumstances I’ve dreamed up is something that could only happen in Louisiana. The year is 1856. The heroine is of Scottish descent (because I am) and the hero is (to use the historically correct phrase) “the bastard free son of a Creole plantation owner”. Of course I don’t ever use that word in the story, regardless of how correct it is. His father did marry his mother in the Catholic church which did recognize slave unions, but in the eyes of the state they weren’t married. He’s supposed to inherit the whole plantation when he turns 25, but his step-mother stands in the way. There is also a strong non-romance plot between hero and his step-mother, but much of the story falls apart without the romance.

    I’ve got a 1760’s historical romance in my head too, but I’m having major trouble with finding a setting. The setting it came to me in is a little country I made up a few years ago, but only Lori Wick can get away with that right now. If I can find a suitable real setting, I will use it. If not… I guess I’ll just hang onto it until I’m a bestseller and can make up my own countries.

    Favorite authors…. For straight historicals, hands-down Michael Phillips. His books are so accurate you can read them as research! He writes both, but straight historicals are definitely his forte.

    For straddling the line between the two I’m very fond of Gilbert Morris. His research is also impeccable and he’s a Civil War nut like me. And being from the South himself he always writes in the proper mindset of The South Was Right. 😀

    Historical romance… I’m still building that list. Definitely Ruth Axtell Morren is on the list, and Laurie Alice Eakes. Catherine Palmer too.


  6. Wednesday, May 14, 2008 9:27 am


    Thanks for jogging my memory. I’ve also enjoyed Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, and Ellis Peters is my all time favorite author (I didn’t mention her because she mainly wrote historical mysteries, and I was thinking romance). I’ve listened to the Cadfael’s over and over (and over).

    I’m just now discovering Anne Perry’s two Victorian series. I like them both. My husband is very taken with the Monk series.


  7. Wednesday, May 14, 2008 1:46 pm

    Well, at this point I can’t promise that my American Patriot Series won’t run to more than 7 books. lol! Book 3, Wind of the Spirit, only covers roughly a year and a half, and there’s a lot of the war left to go. And a lot of plot twists and turns to weave in. Alas, we are going to have to wait til the very end for the resolution of Elizabeth and Carleton’s relationship. (I do have the ending of the last book already written, though, but I’ll remain mum on that.) Sorry, but I love to torture both my characters and my readers.

    Your analysis of historicals vs historical romances is very perceptive and helpful, Kaye. I’ve basically considered my series to be historical, but the romance thread is definitely integral to the story. The characters are both drawn together and changed by the war, as is their relationship, and that’s the major element that ties the series together. So I guess it really is a historical romance overall. I do like the way you distinguish the individual volumes from the series as a whole. That makes sense.

    I generally prefer historicals to historical romances. I want to see the characters living and moving within a specific historical period and culture, especially one I’m not familiar with so I can learn something. So I look for more authentic cultural, social, religious, and political detail than you generally find in historical romances. If a story concentrates exclusively on the relationship between the hero and heroine, my interest flags. Real people are deeply affected by all of the elements I mentioned. I want to see the fictional characters in the context of a real life, not just lusting after each other and trying to figure out how to get together. I do, however, love to have a hot romance woven into the story. Romance is part of life, after all. It’s just not ALL of life.

    Favorite historicals for me include Rafael Sabatini’s swashbuckling Captain Blood series, The Sea Hawk, and Scaramouche; Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Street; Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; and James Clavell’s novels. I haven’t found a whole lot of historicals by contemporary authors that I really love, though I agree with Lori that Diana Gabaldon’s books are excellent–with the same reservations she has.

    Lori’s huge historical, Kindred, definitely stands out as one that’s already a favorite of mine even though it hasn’t been published yet. (But it will be!) Every time she sends me a new chunk, I can’t wait to get to it…and when I finish I’m hanging, pondering over Ian and Seona’s story and wondering what twists are in store for them, while I wait for the next chunk. Talk about a compelling story! So hurry up, girl, and send me the next piece!

    Kaye, your Ransome’s Quest is also one that kept me going even though it is a historical romance. You’ve woven so much historical detail into it and made the characters so real that I can’t wait to read the series once it’s published. Between your series and Lori’s series, there’s a whole lot of good reading coming up!


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